I think gargoyles and secret portraits left by anonymous stonemasons are the best parts of church architecture. In a world where an artist was more likely to die than see the completion of the cathedral, where church rules and legends dictated the stories the glass blowers and apse carvers must cleave to, the carver of gargoyles could get away with murder. His work, he knew, would be invisible to all viewers until someone invented the telescope or the zoom lens. Even so, by the time such lenses were indeed invented, no one would be able to identify the carver or that mean-spirited, cruel slave driver of a foreman whose face now grins out three hundred feet above Chartres or Paris from the body of an ape or a rhinoceros or a hydrocephalic dog.
We all know that this sort of sacrilege adorned the upper reaches of Gothic cathedral walls and steeples. Then the Baroque came along and produced an era of dandified, chubby cherubs whose pink cheeks and flabby arms betoken a great decline in religious imagination. Call it a pastel counter-reformation.
But in between the public expressions of Gothic and Baroque, there’s a form of particularly elegant, private, peaceful, charming, altogether fetching architecture: the monastery cloister. The open garden surrounded by a rectangular arcade of columns and arches, the central fountains to provide both music and a remedy for thirst, the open sky for sun, the inner walkway for protection from the rain. And, as the greatest bonus of the monastic life, the stonemason’s art is not elevated three hundred feet above your ability to see. The columns support arches no more than 15 or 20 feet high, and the walls between the columns serve as benches where you can sit and enjoy the carved capitals of the columns. For some reason, the stonemason’s imagination is unfettered here. There’s no need to fear the foreman or disguise the portraits. The capitals, then, are sometimes earnest, sometimes comic, very occasionally tragic. They honor the family dog, a revered nun, a friendly baker. They are humanistic rather than religious, more tongue in cheek than eyes on the prize. We can add, then, a new name to the orders of capital architecture: The Doric, the Ionic, the Corinthian, and the Ironic.
The Ironic Capital. And that leads us to the creative writing exercise. Below, you’ll find a gallery of portraits from the cloister of the Franciscan Monastery in Dubrovnik. Your job is to choose a portrait and write the life story of the poser. Or choose two and invent the relationship between them. If nothing comes easily, start with the poor scholar, if that’s what he is, who has a dog teething on each of his legs.