Waterleaf and Flat Leaf capitals

Waterleaf and flat leaf capitals are closely related forms that enjoyed a brief heyday in the last quarter of the 12th century in England. The simpler flat leaf capital has a concave bell bearing a broad flat leaf at each angle. The leaves have pointed tips above broad shoulders and taper down to a shared collar. Between each pair the gap has a rounded lower termination. The leaves themselves are usually keeled.  Waterleaf is similar except that the tips of the leaves are turned inwards. The rim of the bell of the capital is sometimes visible between the tips of the leaves.  While I am happy with this description I am also aware that pictures do the job much better:


A flat leaf capital at St Nicholas, Kennett (Cambridgeshire)


A waterleaf capital at St John the Baptist, Healaugh, West Riding. Copyright Rita Wood and the CRSBI.

Typically for transitional capitals there is a smooth transition from the slender shafts to the bell of the capital, interrupted by the necking.

The waterleaf design can be multiplied on wide arcade capitals


Repeated waterleaf designs on a nave arcade capital at All Saints, Ravenstone (Buckinghamshire)

The two forms can even form overlapping registers, as on the S doorway at Kenton (Suffolk).


S doorway capital at All Saint, Kenton (Suffolk)

The church of St Thomas at Ramsey (Huntingdonshire) is convincingly dated to the 1180s, and offers an insight into the possibilities of waterleaf and flat leaf designs. It will also be noted that keeled shafts and waterleaf often go together.


Variations of waterleaf in the Ramsey nave arcades

Before its appearance in England, waterleaf (feuille d’eau) was commonly found in mid-12th century French Cistercian abbeys such as Senanque (Vaucluse, founded 1148) and Silvacane (Bouches du Rhone, founded 1144), and from this context it reached Cistercian houses in England, notably Fountains Abbey (North Yorkshire) whence it was rapidly dispersed throughout the north of England.


Waterleaf cloister capitals at Senanque (Vaucluse). Creative Commons ‘Chapiteau en feuille d’eau. Auteur: Greudin’

At the same time, but probably independently, it appeared, not on capitals but on the bases of William of Sens’s work at Canterbury after the fire of 1174,. From here it spread to Kent, on similar bases at the ruined abbey of Lesnes, founded by Richard de Lucy in 1178, and Sussex, e.g. at New Shoreham in the late-12th century chancel arcading.  In fact it became so widespread in this country that there is probably no English county without waterleaf capitals. The map below shows the distribution of waterleaf capitals in England taken from the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture website. Gaps in the distribution of waterleaf capitals are likely to represent areas not yet recorded.


Distribution of waterleaf capitals in England according to the CRSBI website

A close reading of the Pevsner architectural guides suggests that the great man may have had had an alternative derivation for the motif in mind, based on a variation of the Romanesque volute capital in which the volutes spiral inwards instead of out as at St Michael’s in Toseland, but visually this seems a world away from the true waterleaf (as well as being at least 70 years earlier), and there is no evidence I can find of such a development playing out.


A volute capital on the chancel arch at Toseland (Huntingdonshire) said by Pevsner to foreshadow the waterleaf capital

Fonts and pillar piscinas

Capital forms are often used for Romanesque pillar piscina bowls (which are, after all, no more than hollowed-out capitals mounted on shafts), so it is not surprising to find waterleaf and flat leaf capitals used in this way, as at Lambourn (Berkshire). Fonts conceived as oversized capitals are rarer, and the short lifespan of this ornament makes waterleaf font bowls extremely unusual. I have only come across one in my own fieldwork: the rather heavily carved font at Great Wilbraham.


The waterleaf font at St Nicholas, Great Wilbraham (Cambridgeshire)

By 1200 the waterleaf had more or less died out, to be replaced by crocket and stiff-leaf forms, hence its presence suggests a date of c.1175-1200, and it is a useful diagnostic indicator for dating.

Waterleaf capitals have a simple elegance that marks a break from the rich complexity of forms that had gone before.  The idea that the motif is derived from the lotus seems unlikely since that plant is native to southern Asia and was introduced to Europe in 1787 as a stove house water lily by Joseph Banks. It would be surprising if it was intended to represent a specific plant at this date: naturalistic foliage did not begin to appear in Europe until the well into the 13th century at Reims and Naumburg. The term itself was first recorded in a will of 1444, referring to cushions decorated with ‘waterlefe’, although there is no way to know what kind of ornament was being described.  It was used by builders and architects by the later 18th century. The Builders Price Book of 1776 offers a ‘Gothic cornice, 2 members enriched with Water Leaf in Cove and Ovolo’, and from this time onwards it can be traced in an unbroken tradition from the works of architectural writers like Ruskin and Sir George Gilbert Scott.

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Beakhead and beast head ornament in England

Beakhead is the name usually given to a rich and varied collection of carved grotesque bird, animal and even human heads found in the architectural sculpture of the 12th century. The commonest form is the head of a bird with a long, curved beak that seems to grip a roll moulding in the order of an arch, but there are almost limitless variations on the type. At New Bradwell the birds’ heads alternate with cat-like heads with protruding tongues.


The reset doorway at New Bradwell (Bucks). In the inner order bird beakheads alternate with cat beakheads

On the arches of the west front of Lincoln cathedral, beastly human heads take the place of the birds, and highly decorated beards or protruding tongues lie across the angle rolls instead of beaks


Inventive beakheads at Lincoln Cathedral

There is another variety of this ornament, less common but generally found in combination with normal beakhead. In this type the head of a beast is on the inner curve of the arch, facing outwards, and pairs of leaves issue from its mouth, giving the appearance of a shuttlecock.


A beast head voussoir from the cloister of Reading Abbey

Further decoration is often carved between the leaves: a pine-cone, or sometimes a second head. In the surviving sculpture from Reading Abbey cloister, these beast heads alternate in the arches with the commoner bird beakhead type.


This Reading Abbey double springer supported arches to the left and right, with bird beakheads and beast heads alternating in each arch

At Tortington, West Sussex a similar arrangement can be seen on the chancel arch.


Alternating bird beakheads and beast heads on the chancel arch at Tortington (Sussex)

Beakheads appear in Romanesque sculpture in the British Isles, as well as in Anjou, Normandy and northern Spain. In Ireland there are examples of Romanesque arches decorated with heads, but not all are beakheads. Some of the finest Irish beakhead is found on the west doorway of the Nuns’ church at Clonmacnoise (Offaly), and it is unusual in that the roll clasped by the beasts’ heads is free-standing and gripped between their upper and lower jaws. This treatment of the ornament has parallels with continental beakhead like that at Saint-Fort-sur-Gironde (Charente-Maritime) rather than with English examples, which led George Zarnecki to suggest that the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella may have been an important factor in the introduction of the motif to Ireland.
On mainland Britain, beakhead is overwhelmingly English; there are no Welsh examples, and only one in Scotland – close to the English border at Kelso. Within England the distribution is extremely uneven. Beakhead is unknown or very scarce in Kent, Hertfordshire, Dorset, Lancashire, Bedfordshire, Northumberland, Shropshire, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Somerset and even Herefordshire, but in Yorkshire there are more than 50 sites with beakhead, and there are a further 40 in the area between the Chilterns and the Cotswolds, covering the counties of Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Buckinghamshire. This suggests that just a few workshops of sculptors were responsible for the introduction of beakhead into England, and the evidence strongly suggests a connection with royal works carried out under King Henry I (1100-35).

Henry’s lands in Normandy were concentrated in the southern part of the Duchy, and in this region we find a kind of arch decoration that is closely related to beakhead. At Tavant (Indre et Loire) is a doorway whose arch is decorated with fluted leaves enclosing pine cones, similar to those seen among the fragments of Reading Abbey and on the doorway of the related church of Great Durnford (Wiltshire).


The pine-cone motif at Tavant (Indre-et-Loire)


The north doorway of Great Durnford, showing the “shuttlecock” motif

The spread of beakhead from Reading may also be linked to patronage around the court of Henry I. Roger of Salisbury was one of Henry’s principal courtiers: Bishop of Salisbury from 1102 and Justiciar of England during most of Henry’s reign. In his buildings at Old Sarum cathedral and the castles of Sarum, Sherborne, Devizes and Malmesbury he followed his king’s example in producing magnificent architecture, lavishly decorated. Very little of it survives, but it is not surprising to find that further examples of early beakhead, dating from the 1130s, come from Roger’s buildings at Old Sarum and Sherborne. A bird beakhead from Old Sarum belonged to the arch of a doorway, while the Sherborne beakheads, carved with birds’ heads on either side of a roll, originally decorated the vault of a hall or chapel. Roger’s nephew Alexander was to become Bishop of Lincoln, and it was his remodelling of the west front of Lincoln cathedral that included the beakhead ornament mentioned in my opening paragraphs. As well as this kind of courtly and dynastic transmission of the ornament, the beakhead used at major sites like Reading and Old Sarum was copied locally in parish churches, especially on doorways, but occasionally too on chancel arches and vault ribs, like those in the church of SS Mark & Luke at Avington, only some 20 miles from Reading.


Beakheads on the chancel arch at Avington (Berks)

The search for the origins of beakhead has led scholars like George Zarnecki in the direction of Anglo-Saxon manuscript illumination, but there are obvious difficulties in accounting for the transmission of late 10th-century manuscript motifs into stone carving more than a century later, and without anything in the way of convincing intermediaries. A more fruitful line of enquiry for beakheads in general might again be via the patronage of Henry I, and the crucial monument may be the keep of Norwich Castle, started by William II, but probably substantially built by Henry I before the foundation of Reading Abbey. The main doorway was decorated with a simplified proto-beakhead design, ingeniously christened “beaker clasp” by Heslop, both in the archivolt and on the jambs, a type of ornament that was to gain some popularity in its own right. It consists of a series of tapered and chamfered stone bridges like drinking-beakers resting on the angle roll.


Beaker clasp on the 2nd order of Norwich Castle keep doorway

The south doorway of Avington church has a simple form of the beaker ornament, carved on the jambs, and in the south doorway of Quenington church (Gloucs), beaker-clasps alternate with bird beakheads in the arch.


Beaker clasp and bird beakhead alternate in the arch of the south doorway at Quenington Gloucestershire)

The designs used at both Avington and Quenington were almost certainly  copied from Reading by local sculptors. The beaker ornament was widely used at Norwich Castle for decorating window arches and blind arcading on all four main facades. The motif produces alternations of light and shadow across the arches which are effective in conveying a feeling of richness and solidity, and which echo similar effects produced by the corbel tables and battlements. In this view of the development of beakhead ornament, the figural carving of the beakheads is an embellishment of a motif whose original purpose was to provide texture through the alternation of light and shadow, in much the same way as the chevron ornament with which it is often combined.

Even if the original purpose of beaker clasp was the creation of light effects, there is no doubt that the beakhead that developed from it became an important way of introducing grotesque and monstrous images into the decoration of arches. Just why twelfth-century sculptors and their patrons considered this appropriate for sacred buildings is a question that has exercised commentators since Bernard of Clairvaux, questioned its purpose in cloister decoration in the 1120s. The Abbé Auber, writing in the nineteenth century, considered that gargoyle waterspouts were devils conquered by the church and set to perform menial tasks, and later in that century and in the early part of the next it was fashionable to look for moral messages by identifying monstrous creatures with the animals described in Bestiaries, which had Christian ethical messages attached to them in the text. A more convincing explanation, developed in the work of Michael Camille, is that these terrifying creatures represent the sin and vice that fills the world, which must be rejected by the man of God. The predatory birds and fierce beasts of Reading cloister; the grotesque and obscene corbels that surround so many churches, and the foul creatures that cluster around their doorways are there to remind us that the world is really like that, however beautiful and serene it may appear, and that the only refuge is to be found in the Church.

Further reading

R. Baxter, ‘Beakhead ornament and the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture’, Historic Churches, 11, 2004, 8-10.

R. Baxter and S. Harrison, “The Decoration of the Cloister at Reading Abbey”,  L.Keen & E.Scarff (eds.), Windsor: Medieval Archaeology, Art and Architecture of the Thames Valley (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XXV, 2002), 302-12.

M. Camille, Image on the Edge, London 1992.

T. A. Heslop, Norwich Castle Keep, Romanesque Architecture and Social Context.  Norwich  1994.

J. Salmon, “Beakhead ornament in Norman Architecture,” Yorkshire Archaeological Journal XXXVI (1946), 349-57.

G. Zarnecki, Romanesque Lincoln. The Sculpture of the Cathedral, Lincoln 1988.

G. Zarnecki & F. Henry, “Romanesque Arches decorated with Human and Animal Heads”, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, XX-XXI (1957-58), 1-35.

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Prior & Gardner – sculpture as evolution

In 1912 Edward Prior and Arthur Gardner published An Account of Medieval Figure Sculpture in England: a 734-page leviathan of a book, illustrated with over 800 photographs that marked a new level of scholarship and analysis in a previously unfashionable area of study, and still certainly the most important and influential work in its field.

The authors were, in a sense, starting from scratch.  While English medieval architecture had been classified in a series of histories from Rickman (1817) and Parker (1849) onwards, the sculpture of the period had not been subjected to anything like the same kind of scrutiny.  In Book 2 of Medieval Figure Sculpture .., by far the longest section, the authors attempted a chronological survey of medieval sculpture in twelve chapters, outlining a great overarching plan that they had identified, evolving from the savagery of the early Saxon work through a process of refinement to a Golden Age in the years between 1250 and 1300, culminating in a period of visual depravity in the later 14th century.


The apogee of medieval sculpture in England – Synagoga from the Lincoln Judgement Portal

In their scheme, then, Romanesque sculpture was a short step on an inevitable journey. The difficulty with subjecting eleventh- and twelfth-century sculpture to a chronological taxonomy is that most of it has no date attached, so the chronology is style dated; a term of great and double-edged beauty reflecting as it does both the style prevailing when the object was produced and the fashion in dating when the date was given to it.  Because Prior and Gardner’s chronological model was an evolutionary one there was a tendency to identify extreme stylisation (or crudity or savagery) with a date early in a sequence that would subsequently move towards naturalism, sophistication and ultimately redundancy. Hence many carvings now generally accepted as twelfth-century work, such as the tympana at Southwell Minster (Notts), St Nicholas Ipswich (Suffolk) and Leckhampstead (Bucks) were dated by our authors to the years around 1000 AD. For their canon of dated works, see here.


St Michael and the Dragon at St Nicholas, Ipswich. 1000 AD or 12th century?

Focussing on Romanesque sculpture, Prior and Gardner divided the period between 1066 and 1200 into two, with a break around 1140.  Before that date sculptors were grappling with the possibilities of the medium, and attempting to use visual languages familiar from other media, three in particular: the Danish, Painting and Metalwork Styles.  In this model, the Danish Style began as simple biplanar carving – drawing with the background hollowed out and surface effects chiselled into the outstanding main motifs.


Danish style – monsters at Dinton (Bucks)

Because of its Viking origins subject matter concentrated on dragons and scenes of combat, and it is commonly found on fonts and tympana.


Painting style on a capital in the S transept at Ely Cathedral

Alternatively the carvers could copy motifs they had seen in paint, as at Ely in the earliest work dated c.1090-1100; or they could imitate the filigree-like work they had seen in metalwork, as at St Peter’s Northampton.


Metalwork style – filigree carving at St Peter’s Northampton

After the middle of the century Romanesque sculpture lost its identity as it found ways of becoming inferior and under-evolved Gothic. Symbolism gave way to natural expression; figures became bigger, and heads and draperies less formulaic and less schematic.  Of course there are ways in which all of these changes are unwelcome, frivolous, and irreverent, but not if you are aiming for the Judgement Portal at Lincoln or the transept angels at Westminster. The authors also identified a change in the sources of inspiration; sculptors were no longer taking their ideas and techniques from wall painters, metalworkers and Vikings, but rather from Aquitaine and Spain.

It would be easy to identify all sorts of problems with this approach (as I shall doubtless be doing on future posts), but this kind of criticism of the contribution of Prior and Gardner to the study of Romanesque sculpture, which by any standards was spectacularly impressive, is neither appropriate nor relevant. Their work offered a framework for the development of Romanesque figure sculpture, which had previously been considered only in terms of its subject matter, or in local studies and monographs, or studies of specific types of object like fonts and tombs.

The picture they presented combined an element of tradition from pre-Conquest Viking art with much that was new; the earliest Romanesque sculptors appropriating figure styles from other media, notably wall- and manuscript painting and metalwork.  After the middle of the twelfth century English sculpture really did receive inspiration from stone sculpture in continental Europe, especially western France and Spain, leading to the replacement of the old Viking symbolism of dragons and warfare with complex and sophisticated Christian schemes, the replacement of formulaic representational schemes from other media with naturalistic carving in the round, and an increase in the scale of figures.


The font at Eardisley, Herefordshire

So much is explicit in their work, but it also provides, as it were incidentally, a canon of just fifty dated works that have set the agenda for the study of Romanesque sculpture ever since.  The same examples appear over and over again in the literature: Moreton Valence, Harpole, Kilpeck, St Peter’s Northampton, the Canterbury crypt capitals. These are the landmarks by which other works are located, and their significance to the discourse can be judged by the fact that much of the subsequent writing in the field has been concerned with them, and especially with their dating. Since 1912 the canon has increased in number, almost doubled in fact, and I propose to use a future post to examine this expansion, but for now a study of what Prior and Gardner thought was important and typical has produced a view of this period in our artistic history as one dominated by grotesque heads, dragons, composite monsters and souls trapped in enchanted forests.

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