Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

The Joy of Automata and Cistercian Monasteries: From Boxley in Kent to San Galgano in Tuscany

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

The Joy of Automata and Cistercian Monasteries: From Boxley in Kent to San Galgano in Tuscany

Article excerpt

Eyes are fixed on relics covered with gold and purses are opened. The thoroughly beautiful image of some male or female saint is exhibited and that saint is believed to be the more holy the more highly coloured the image is. People rush to kiss it, they are invited to donate, and they admire the beautiful more than they venerate the sacred...1

At first sight, nothing appears to present such an obstacle for the argument presented here about Cistercian enthusiasm for action figures and other animated sculptural objects than Bernard of Clairvaux's condemnation of ecclesiastical luxury in the Apologia ad Gullelmum abbatem of 1125. Indeed, Bernard's frequently cited objection to the abundance of sculpture in churches, as well as the excessive relief work decorating the column capitals of contemporary cloisters, would seem to stand in complete contradiction to such a claim.2 However, the traditional assertion that the Order preferred simplicity can be largely set aside in light of Anneget Laabs' fundamental work (2000) on the decor of late medieval Cistercian churches, the critical survey of the current state of research on what might be termed Cistercian iconophilia assembled by Christine Kratzke in 2007, and the recent contributions by Diane J. Riley (2011 and 2012).3

The Dialogus miraculorum of the Cistercian prior Caesarius of Heisterbach, written between 1214 and 1224, is full of incidents in which crucifixes and Madonna figures seem to spring to life.4 Caesarius's descriptions are so colourful that it takes only a small step to connect them to articulated sculptural objects that could be manipulated in various ways. Since the following material concerns the presence of movable statues of Christ and Mary in Cistercian churches, or in churches of orders influenced by the Cistercian movement, it is worth quoting from the Dialogus miraculorum immediately and from several other sources inspired by its example because they seem to describe so well the objects to be discussed.

First of all, in the story, Item de sanctimoniali, quam per alapham sanavit, cum in amore cuiusdam clerici esset accensa ('How Mary healed a nun with a slap in the face when she was inflamed with love for a priest') (VII, 33), the erotic words of a cleric so inflame a nun's desire that she agrees to a tryst with him after compline. As she tries to sneak away through the monastery church, a crucifix blocks every door through which she tries to escape. Finally, trembling with fear, she prostrates herself penitently in front of a Marian statue and asks for forgiveness. But the image turns its face away, prompting the nun to beseech the figure and to plead with it all the more insistently.

Suddenly the Madonna slaps her, saying, 'Where are you going, madwoman? Go back to your dormitory.' As a result of the blow, the nun falls to the ground, where her fellow nuns find her in the morning, lying in a faint before the Virgin's altar.5

Such animated Marian sculptures as found in the Dialogus reappear in and influence later collections of sermons. For example, the Florentine Dominican Jacopo Passavanti (c.1300-57), prior of Santa Maria Novella, tells the following tale drawn from Caesarius of Heisterbach, in which a knight makes a pact with the devil in order to regain some lost possessions, as the central focus of his sermon. The price for this pact is the denial of Christ. When the devil also calls for the denial of the Madonna, the knight refuses and flees into a church. He kneels in front of a carved wooden Marian image to which he confesses everything and asks for forgiveness. The image comes alive, and Mary asks, per la bocca della imagine (through the mouth of the image), her child, Jesus, to forgive the knight. Jesus pretends to be deaf; thereupon Mary rises, places the child on the altar, kneels before him and asks again. This time Christ relents and forgives the knight.6

Book VII of the Speculum Historiale by the Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvais (d. …

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