Cushion capitals (also called cubic capitals) are normally described as capitals formed by the intersection of a cube and a sphere. They have a flat semicircular face, or ‘shield’, at the top of each side, and the curved triangular lower angles of the bell are all that remain of the spherical form. This kind of description is fine as far as it goes, but of course medieval capitals were never produced by combining geometrical forms, and in practice there is a continuum of forms between the Platonic ideal described above and a block-like form that has been rounded off at the corners and lower edges, and they are all called cushion capitals. In some cases the shields don’t really appear at all, and capitals like this are often called ‘tectonic’.
As well as variations in the way the block is shaped, special treatment may be applied to the angles, which might be keeled or tucked (removing the spherical element from the equation).
It is normally assumed that Romanesque sculpture was painted, and cushion capitals have the advantage of a relatively large flat area, the shield, for the application of colour. Paint does not often survive, but a rare survival is at Copford (Essex), and although the polychromy has undoubtedly been refreshed many times it seems safe to assume that the decorative schemes we see today reflect the originals. Copford uses both of the common early post-Conquest capital forms, the cushion and the volute, and the palette employed contains a rich mixture of reds, blues and earth colours.
A few of the Copford capitals are carved on their shields as well as painted, adding to the illusion.
Cushion capitals appeared in England around the middle of the 11th century, but there are no examples that are demonstrably pre-Conquest. The earliest appeared in southern England at Archbishop Lanfranc’s Canterbury Cathedral and in the crypts of Winchester and Worcester, and in the north at Jarrow in the later 1070s. They were common in various parts of Europe before the Norman Conquest, but Normandy was not one of them. As we shall see, capitals in Norman France were usually of the volute type, whereas cushion capitals were common in Northern Italy, the Low Countries and Germany; a reminder that mid-11th century England had links with other parts of Europe than Normandy.
Photograph kindly supplied by Ralf Houven, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52773141
Scallop capitals are a development of the cushion in which the number of shields is increased to two (double scallop), three (triple scallop) or more (multi-scallop). Another way of looking at it, found in some authors, is to consider the cushion capital as a form of scallop capital (single scallop) but this term is usually used to distinguish cushion capitals with angle tucks from other varieties. It is worth noting that the varied group of ambulatory capitals at St John’s Chapel in William the Conqueror’s Tower of London (c.1080) includes both a cushion capital and a double scallop, suggesting that the development from the former to the latter was an early one.
In the second part of this post I will look at the rich variations in decorative forms found in cushion and scallop capitals, and especially the playful treatment of standard elements as a form of Romanesque Mannerism.