Among Noble Monks

In July 1926, Meyer Schapiro (1904–1996), who would later become one of the great art historians of his time, began a fifteen-month journey, funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, to Europe and the Near East to research his doctoral thesis on the Romanesque sculpture of the abbey of Moissac in southwest France. He was not yet twenty-two. Lillian Milgram, whom he would marry in June 1928 after his return from Europe the previous October, was in her last year at New York University’s medical school. The most complete records of this formative journey are the letters Schapiro wrote to her and the travel notebooks he filled with drawings of the buildings and the objects he studied.

Following are excerpts from three of his letters from Spain and France, the first written after he visited the Romanesque churches in León, in Spain, and the second and third from Burgos and Toulouse after he had spent four days at the Benedictine monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain.

Daniel Esterman

León, 14 August 1927

Dearest Lillian:

….I came to León very buoyant & full of plans, but I was only to stay one day—The ride from Santiago occupied a whole day—from 6 in the morning until 10 at night: This was very pleasant—with Santiago behind, I was relieved of a burden, since I had been careless & incomplete there, & had come to no clear idea of the building [the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela]. It may be likewise in León. My ideas were so upset by what I saw the first day, I had to remain a second to reorder them: & the second day leaves me more puzzled than before. A Canon who has studied San Isidoro [in León] for many years contradicted my notions flatly & with great conviction—He thought I would agree with him—for others had been converted—Ideas, if professionalized, become precious personal property—: a decline in value produces serious emotions: I could think of nothing else for several hours. Today I worked till my eyes were weary—without solution. I did not see that the day was beautiful, that it was Sunday, & the people better dressed & gayer until I had left the building—

I was addressed by a Spaniard named Bravo—a friend of Gómez-Moreno—who is also interested in these problems—He too has ideas contradicting mine; but his reasons are all bad, tho the conclusions possible—I will see him again—to-night, & we will fight it out on the diagrams—

I walked late this afternoon to the cathedral, which is beautiful, & took me from this vexatious business—I think the earlier preoccupations were good, since they left me in a mood in which the architecture was wonderfully relaxing or quieting—There was no desire to know—or to study; & every detail had some charm for me: & I noticed what usually escapes me. The air of the interior, the quality of the space, the darkness & half-shadow, the scale of the few others in the building,…

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