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Fighting Knights and Sirens: The Cloister, Monreale

Lorna Walker discusses the iconography of images decorating the Cloister in Monreale and the debate about social order that it contains.

The cloister at Monreale is dated to c. 1175-89. Grandiose in design and execution, it is aptly described as the richest, largest in scale, and most complete of its kind. If the immediate impact upon the tourist of the late twentieth century is one of size and splendour, how would the Monreale cloister have been viewed by contemporaries?

Few pieces of art criticism have been more often quoted than the words of the great Cistercian, St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153):

How, in the cloister where the monks do their reading, can that ridiculous monstrosity be justified, an amazing kind of deformed beauty and yet a beautiful deformity? What place have obscene monkeys, savage lions, unnatural centaurs, creatures part man and part beast, striped tigers, fighting knights, or hunters sounding their horns ...? With such an abundant and bewildering array of contradictory forms on show, one would rather read in the sculptured stones than in the books, and spend the whole day wondering at them than meditating on the law of God. Good Lord] if we are not ashamed by the folly of it all, surely the expense must stick in our throats?

 St Bernard here identifies such fantasies with the sculptured capitals and columns of a cloister. However, his words are often quoted out of context and it is clear that he is thinking not just of the cloister building but of monastic art in general. His concern in this diatribe is with deeper issues. To St Bernard the physical cloister is a symbol of the monastic ideal: he equates the cloister with paradise. Anything which distracts the monk from his primary purpose -- the ascent to union with God through prayer and meditation -- is to be condemned. Sculptured imagery of the kind just described is a spiritual distraction. It titillates the curiosity of the monk, sending him upon adventures of the mind which lead him away from the true path.

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