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Historiated capitals, Church of Sant Miquel, Camarasa (Noguera)

Historiated capitals from the crossing of the Church of Sant Miquel of the castle of Camarasa (Noguera), early 13th century, stone, 77 x 1.65 x 77.5 cm (Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Palau Nacional, Barcelona). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: Let's take a look at this capital. It's what would be referred to as a historiated capital, which is to say that it's a capital that actually has a narrative carved into it. The most obvious and recognizable and decorative element, and not-narrative element, are the representation of acanthus leaves, which come out of Greek and then Roman architecture. But this is later, this is medieval, this is 13th century. SPEAKER 2: And one of things one notices about them immediately is how deeply carved they are. So you have these lovely dark shadows forming the edges of the leaves. SPEAKER 1: One of the first elements that you see is the story of the original sin, the story of Adam and Eve. SPEAKER 2: Both of whom look really terrified. SPEAKER 1: They do look terrified, and they're both covering themselves. That tells us what specific moment in the story it is. They know their nakedness. And God is probably at this moment confronting them and asking them why they hide from him. SPEAKER 2: I love the way that their eyes are drilled with these deep holes. And then you have these large oval shapes around them, so they just look like their eyes are bulging out of their heads from the terrible recognition of what they've done and how they've betrayed God. SPEAKER 1: They've actually seemed to have plucked one of the leaves of acanthus from the capital next to them in order to cover themselves. And that's what they hold between their hands. SPEAKER 2: Eve especially as she grips the top of that leaf to her chest and her hair fans out like a flame, which is just a really powerful image of the knowledge of what they've done. And the consequences of what their actions are going to be are already present here. SPEAKER 1: It's wildly emotional in that sense. And I think in the 21st century we would even say psychological now. There's another Old Testament scene that's represented on this capital. If we move to the right, you actually have a pretty complicated image of a large arching figure. An angel, you can see the angel's wings. SPEAKER 2: She's got her arms around two figures. SPEAKER 1: And it's Abraham and Isaac. SPEAKER 2: And of course both of these figures are stumpy and not in correct proportion. That way that we kind of think of as medieval in their draperies indicated by lines. SPEAKER 1: Right, as opposed to form. SPEAKER 2: So this is Abraham obviously about to kill Isaac, his son, and the angel who stops him from doing this terrible thing. And you know this story is a prefiguration of the story of the crucifixion of Christ. SPEAKER 1: But it's also a critically important story in terms of the necessity of one's absolute obedience to God. SPEAKER 2: The protectiveness of the angel, of her arms, her wings covering the figures. And the way that her head forms the corner of that capital I think is very powerful. SPEAKER 1: But what's interesting is that the angel's face is not looking down to Abraham and Isaac, but in some more direct way looking out to us. In fact, they all seem to be looking out to us. In a sense, beseeching us to follow this example. SPEAKER 2: The portals of many Romanesque churches were decorated with scenes of the last judgment. And the idea was as you walked in you were reminded of the price of sin. The price of sin was eternity in hell. These are the choices that we face as humans about what we can do with our lives. SPEAKER 1: Nobody is going to accuse Romanesque sculptors of being subtle. SPEAKER 2: And they're very powerful and very emotional. And they may have taken us a few moments to decode, and visitors to the museum may have to look at a label. But there was no doubt that anyone entering the church in the 12th or 13th century would have been able to read these stories very easily. SPEAKER 1: Yes, these would have been very direct messages and constant reminders. [MUSIC PLAYING]