The art in the Cloisters Museum dates roughly from 1000 to 1500 A.D., the late Middle Ages. Monastic culture dates back much further (the word "monk" is derived from the Greek 'monos', one), to the time of the fall of the Roman Empire when groups of hermits began to live together in communities. However, in the 6th to the 10th centuries various social upheavals (e.g. widespread barbarian invasions) prevented the formation of large monastic communities, and little art has been preserved from this period.
In the eleventh century there was a flowering of monasteries, and they became both larger and wealthier, and very powerful economically. Along with this growth came a debate over the appropriateness of wealth for monastics, who after all had taken a vow of poverty. Apologists for rich monasteries argued that the poverty vow applied to the individual monks, not to the institution. Precious materials were seen as a way to give glory to God.
The two sides of the debate over monastic reform are epitomized by two famous 12th-century writers : St. Bernard of Clairveau and the Abbot Suger (pron. Soo-jay) of St. Denis Monastery. We are fortunate that the writings of both have been preserved.
Abbot Suger, writing in the 1140's, made the following arguments:
1. The use of rare materials gives glory to God.
2. Light is a symbol of knowledge of divine truth. The multifaceted beauty of God's truth is expressed by stained glass windows as well as by gold and silver, which reflect light.
3. Gold and silver were used in Old Testament times to collect the blood of sacrificial animals. How much more should precious materials be used to hold the inestimably precious Body and Blood of our Lord?
Abbot Suger's approach is seen in the silver gilt Benedictine chalice from Germany in the Cloisters collection. The panels on the bowl depict the Apostles (monks saw themselves as living apostolic lives). Note accompanying patten and straw: the celebrant drank through a straw so as not to spill the Blood.
Bernard of Clairveau, founder of the Cistercians (a reformed Benedictine order), disagreed with Suger. Regarding objects like the chalice described above, he asked, "What is gold doing in such a holy place?" He did believe that churches should be beautiful and that art should be used to glorify God, but he rejected the lavish use of gold and precious stones. He wished to return to a simpler life more in keeping with the original rule of St. Benedict, and he used art to implement his reforms. He was very much interested in space and in "divine proportions". Bernard was also reacting to the rowdy and unseemly behavior of many monks, which Suger also opposed.
St. Benedict had written that a monk who had artistic skill should be allowed to employ it, provided that he had the permission of his superior. However, if the monk were to become overly proud of his talent, permission to exercise it should be denied, at least until he had recovered his humility. (Monastic art was produced by both monks and lay craftsmen.)
The 12th century chapter house from Ponteau, France, at the Cloisters, next to the Cuxa garden, represents a transition between the two approaches. The monastery was originally Benedictine, and became Cistercian in 1151. The architecture is part-Romanesque, part-Gothic. The carvings on the pillars are mostly simple, botanical in inspiration, with no narrative depictions or human figures. This is in keeping with St. Bernard's style, but a few of the capitals exhibit a more elaborate ornamentation than he would have approved of.
The adjoining Cuxa cloister is closer to the style preferred by Suger. Many of the capitals on the pillars are ornate, carved with animal and human figures. Bernard called such sculptures "deformed beauty" and "beautiful deformity". He objected to the monstrous appearance of the carved figures and suggested that they would be so distracting as to interfere with the monks' reading and meditation (the cloister was used for classes and private reading, as well as for everyday chores such as laundry, bathing and shaving). He considered such elaborate carvings an "absurdity". Yet, some of the capitals are very simply carved, such that Bernard would have approved of them. Cuxa, though not a Cistercian monastery, seems to have been undecided as to which side of the debate to choose. For a good example of the spare, botanical style of the Cistercians, visit the herb garden at the Cloisters.
The use of animals had symbolic meaning. The eagle represented God's majesty, the lion His glory. Apes represent lust and mischief, and it is difficult to account for their presence in the capital carvings at the Cuxa cloister. It has been suggested that they represent warnings to the monks, for the ape figures are apparently being restrained by humans. Regarding the symbolism of animals, both Suger and Bernard would have been familiar with the medieval bestiary. Bernard disapproved of the use of animials. Suger did not address this subject directly, though he is known to have loved birds.
It is to be noted that Bernard's arguments applied to monasteries, not to cathedrals and churches. He recognized that the function of the bishop's house was different and allowed for greater richness of material and ornamentation. Also, biblical narratives and scenes from the life of Christ were more likely to be found in the cathedrals, as they were intended to teach an illiterate populace. Monks, who could read, had no need for this type of instruction. It was monks, who were sworn to an apostolic lifestyle, whom Bernard exhorted to live in austere simplicity. The debate continued to rage throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, and both sides were influential.
Notes by Sara Frear