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Sheltered from the elements, in the cloisters of an ancient abbey or set within an elaborate arched doorway of a church, this rare capital is a beautifully preserved example of Romanesque art. The sheep, with their bizarre legs and highly expressive faces, come alive and change with every fall of light. The capital was designed to be seen from below, from which angle the mournful expressions of the beasts become more grotesque, like the fantastical creatures that embellish the borders of illuminated manuscripts. The claw feet are derived from Medieval depictions of lions on similar capitals that can be seen in the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse and also in the Basilique de St Sernin in Toulouse.
The design of this Romanesque impost capital derives ultimately from the antique Corinthian form. While vestiges of the volutes and rosette on the abacus still remain (the latter in the form of a cube), the folded acanthus leaves of the Corinthian capital are replaced by two mirrored beasts flanking the corner.(1) The simple and direct design of this capital finds close parallels in the region of the Pyrenees. Stylistically similar examples are found in the famous Benedictine abbeys and cloisters of Saint-Martin-du-Canigou, Saint-Michel de Cuxa and the Prieuré de Serrabonne. However, these monasteries are all situated in the eastern Pyrenees where the local stone is densely compressed limestone, known as marble. Rosy sandstone can be found further to the west, both in France and Spain - in the Basque region and also in Navarra. There were medieval rosy sandstone quarries in both the western mountains and on the Atlantic plain, for instance at Ascain, twenty kilometres from Biarritz. A pointer toward the Basque region may also be found in the subject, as sheep have long been the indigenous livestock of the region. The Pyrenean and coastal towns were on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella and iconography tended to spread as master craftsmen travelled along the well-trodden pilgrimage routes.
(1) We are grateful to Nancy Netzer, Director of the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, for this explanation.
Private Collection, Catalonia; sold to:
Barbie, Barcelona; to 2001