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Cloister from Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert

late 12th century
30 ft. 3 in. x 23 ft. 10 in. (922 x 726 cm)
Credit Line:
The Cloisters Collection, 1925
Accession Number:
  • Description

    Situated in a valley near Montpellier in southern France, the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert was founded in 804 by Guilhem (Guillaume) au Court-Nez, duke of Aquitaine and a member of Charlemagne's court. By the twelfth century, the abbey had been named in honor of its founder and had become an important site on one of the pilgrimage roads that ran through France to the holy shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. With the steady visits of travelers en route to the shrine and the gifts they brought with them, a period of prosperity came to the monastery. By 1206 a new, two-story cloister had been built at Saint-Guilhem, incorporating the columns and pilasters from the upper gallery seen here. Most of these columns are medieval versions of the classical Corinthian column, based on the spiny leaf of the acanthus. This floral ornamentation is treated in a variety of ways. Naturalistic acanthus, with clustered blossoms and precise detailing, is juxtaposed with decoration in low, flat relief, swirling vine forms, and even the conventionalized bark of palm trees. Among the most beautiful capitals are those embellished by drill holes, sometimes in an intricate honeycomb pattern. Like the adaptation of the acanthus-leaf decoration, this prolific use of the drill must have been inspired by the remains of Roman sculpture readily available in southern France at the time. The drilled dark areas contrast with the cream-colored limestone and give the foliage a crisp lacy look that is elegant and sophisticated.

    Like other French monasteries, Saint-Guilhem suffered greatly in the religious wars following the Reformation and during the French Revolution, when it was sold to a stonemason. The damages were so severe that there is now no way of determining the original dimensions of the cloister or the number and sequence of its columns. Those collected here served in the nineteenth century as grape-arbor supports and ornaments in the garden of a justice of the peace in nearby Aniane. They were purchased by the American sculptor George Grey Barnard before the First World War and brought to this country. A portion of the original cloister remains at Saint-Guilhem.

  • Provenance

    From the abbey church of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, near Montpellier, France; Pierre-Yvon Verniere , Aniane, France ; Charles Verniere , Aniane, France ; Antoine Labrigot , Carcasonne, France ; [ L. Cornillon , Paris] ; George Grey Barnard American, Bellefonte, Pennsylvania 1863–1938 New York , New York (until 1925)

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History