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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, beside the rising shafts—& exquisiteness in plateresque & flamboyant works which I dislike—

There were two peasants wandering (in such buildings one can wander, remain in one room, & yet change walls at every step) in the aisles, peeping hurriedly into chapels, & whispering. Their simplicity is different from that of the cathedral, tho built by men of their faith & with tools like their own. I rarely think of the builders except as technicians & designers—but to day, the interior appeared so fantastic & foreign to any mind I know in our world—I was brought to think of persons, & to the character which made these things. Perhaps as in the animal kingdom where forms utterly strange to us receive common mechanical explanations—no peculiarity of mind need be invoked to explain these buildings—but technical problems & liturgical needs, alone—

But then the question is shifted. For conditions which produced such works, surely affected the men who built them & lived in them: & the style, mechanical in origin, was acquiesced in & became conscious—yet the growth was continuous—there is no interval for a quiescence—no conscious repetition without an actual change in the style.—We must conceive, then, both work & man as changing together—which is too difficult. Or we may abstract from all the works—qualities, habits of mind & hand, ideas & call them, the mind of the culture—give it thought processes, feelings, animate it completely on the pattern of a single man: remembering always that this huge mind which contains & does all things, is not the model of the little ones & may be strange to most of them.

There was a happy collusion of my mood (reduced to innocence by fatigue & the thoughts of the past few days) with the objects about me. I was practically alone with them. The statues & pictures & capitals & windows were in an immense space, limited & undefinable—all mine, in shadow & light—Then I returned to wish, that which had annoyed me & made these things a little distasteful—I thought that nothing could be happier than to give onesself completely to these objects, to study them minutely, know every detail—living whole years with them—There would be no method—no school of thought—no simple approach which criticized the others—

Besides the perfection of craftsmanship & thought, the peculiarities of individual minds—the possible moods in which a man 300 years ago made the Virgin look proudly at the angel Gabriel—as an amply gowned Roman matron; & another 400 years earlier, attenuated all figures & gave them sorrowful staccato gestures—& another, a little before, carved Adam, Eve, Christ, Lazarus, Moses, angels, devils, as fat goitrous smiling people—these moods too must be recreated, to prolong the day dream that accompanies love of the work. I was entirely submissive—repeating romantic heresies of another age, & ideas I usually laugh at in others—we have all the vices & sentiments in us. This I will forget soon.

I wished also to carve & paint—and in thinking of future summers, I have omitted travel—& gone to the country to make statues & pictures. This—several times in the last few weeks—I think often of your tools, which were the joy of a summer & then abandoned—perhaps rusty & dull by this time. I will carve much more freely & boldly: I began too soon, & therefore ended too soon. Now it is more difficult to work, since it is to resume something left behind—And I wish also a hundred thousand other things—all because of this voyage. I know I shall soon be with you, darling—

Meyer.

Burgos, 20 August 1927

I have just returned from Santo Domingo de Silos, a Benedictine monastery where I spent four days—What four days! I have not been so happy this whole voyage—The life is so good, I can well join my homely upright friends & remain forever in this cloister—It is surely healthful & sane—It is also beautiful: & beside the world around it[,] it is free from superstition, religion, strife, stupidity, wastefulness, disease, & bad manners—The religion is a reverent habit which gives a great dignity to everything done. There is no excess—no sermonizing—inquisitiveness, or self-torture—I have not eaten better in Spain, than in S.D.S. The food is grown within the monastery—There is beautiful fruit, delicious honey, & wine, & Benedictine liqueur beyond words—One is rich here—The library is very rich too, and the cloister sculptures—of the 11th c. are the finest works of Spanish Romanesque art, without any parallel, & strangely isolated in history—There is also a treasure of mediaeval metal-work and Mss. [manuscripts], noble monks, generous life—fine talk & companionship & apparently the perfection of freedoms—one sings the Gregorian chants—& the mass is very simple & beautiful—I should write much more of S.D.S.—but I will tell you instead, dear—

your Meyer.

Toulouse, 25 August 1927

My Dearest Lillian:

…I wrote you of how beautiful was the monastery at Silos. I saw little of its exterior or the surrounding country—The course of life is so pleasant and orderly within: & the work suggested by the buildings, the manuscripts, and the carvings, so absorbing, I had no wish to leave or to explore beyond. The monks were, every one, gracious and quiet; there was no touch of morbidity or suffering or extreme asceticism in them. I was embarrassed by their prayers which were brief and simple, but in which I could not join—I was embarrassed by my own lack of faith: for it seemed, in my non-participation—a criticism of these men, an estrangement, that was really only formal. The short chanting before and after meals was beautiful, a reverent thanks and acceptance—which surely I owed more than the others—In the mass, all was subdued: no shrill and over-resonant music (& no jingling of coins) as in the cities, but simple chants of the middle ages. The mass was a meeting of pious musicians—The church itself, an 18th c. baroque building, is an unfortunate hall for these services—The cloister outside is miraculous, with more in common with the chanting and the Benedictine life.

Thruout the meals, which are excellent & served in a fine refectory, there is silence, except for a man who sits in a pulpit & reads chapters of church history. After lunch, after a brief prayer in the Chapel of Santo Domingo, the silence is relaxed—but in amusing gradation, lest a sharp transition indicate a suppressed desire, and a criticism of the restraint imposed. As we descend the steps of the chapel, we offer by signs the precedence to each other, gesture and smile, like dumb men; prolonging this talk till we are in the cloister where the first words are uttered. Then for a half hour we sit in the garden or a small chamber, and drink coffee and a delicious cordial, prepared by the monks.

I return to the cloister to continue work which was never finished. Several of the monks have studied the same questions: They are very fond of American students, because it was an American who first demonstrated that these sculptures are not tributary to French art, but are of the 11th century, preceding French work by 40 or more years, & testifying to the great culture of the abbey in this barbaric period. The abbot is chauvinist in his attachment. He denounced the French with ferocity and seemed ready to devour Mâle and Deschamps. But Porter is the hero of the cloister1—not only for his science, but his generosity: He has enriched the library with his 10 vol. work on Romanesque art, and has given the monks photos of over 100 marvelous miniatures of a Beatus Commentary on the Apocalypse, written at Silos in 1100, and now in the British Museum—Their gratitude overflows, and refreshes Americans who follow Porter.

At night I was awake till very late—in the company of a Harvard instructor, who had been in Silos a whole month, studying architecture and Mozarab liturgy—He spoke mainly of Porter, his special love. Between admirations, he killed the flies which swarmed in his room, but never infested mine—He knew Rand,2 and confirmed all I like in him. After the first night there was no discussion of architecture, for he was mainly occupied with liturgy; & none of liturgy, for he knew so many people.

A Padre Justo was ready to examine every point with me. He was very agile for a monk, leaped & climbed on vaults like a schoolboy. He is homely and honest and tender and disinterested beyond all students I have met. In the monastery he has access to few foreign books of the last 20 years—& to practically no good journals—The library is very rich, but in theology & church history. Comparative studies are impossible. Tho he knows Silos itself better than any more learned man he is very humble and defers to others, submitting all his observations to them.

Outside Silos the whole world changed, as if I had lost an important object. On the way to Silos, the chauffeur sang endlessly, in a beautiful sorrowing voice, and addressed whoever he passed on the road, hailed peasants and children, & blew kisses to the girls. But returning four days later, he limped, & seemed woebegone. In the Burgos cathedral I was refused admission to the cloister: in the provincial library, the attendant said the Ms. I wished to see did not exist; & finally drew it forth with much grumbling—He refused to give me another. I missed a train, remained the afternoon in Burgos, walked to the convent of Las Huelgas nearby, where I could not see the best things, since in a nunnery no man may enter. (But you, dear, can see Silos)…. After 15 hours of riding—Toulouse—I had Giraudoux’s “Eglantine” to read—a story of a girl who loved an old Jew and an old French noble—an ingeniously poetic novel—

I embrace you in thought, dear Lillian, & hope to be with you, very soon—

Meyer.

  1. 1

    Émile Mâle (1862–1954), French medievalist and historian of Gothic art; Paul Deschamps (1888–1974), French historian of Romanesque sculpture; Arthur Kingsley Porter (1883–1933), professor at Harvard University whose richly illustrated Romanesque Sculpture of the Pilgrimage Roads (1923) was very important for Schapiro. By 1927 Schapiro was corresponding with Porter.

  2. 2

    Edward Rand (1871–1945), American classicist and Latin paleographer.

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