Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Heraldic sirens on a capital
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    Though these creatures might be confused with harpies, scholar Elizabeth Valdez del Álamo identifies them as heraldic sirens in her book Palace of the Mind: the Cloister of Silos and Spanish Sculpture of the Twelfth Century. These figures are located in the west gallery of the lower cloister. There are two sirens on each side of the capital of the pillar. Sirens were known from classical mythology as life-threatening temptresses. In medieval art they are always female hybrid creatures but can be half fish, serpent, or bird. In each guise the siren embodies both seduction and a fierce rapaciousness.

    On this capital in Silos they have diamond shaped feathers, the sharp lines creating geometric patterns on their chests and wings. Drilling was used to accentuate facial features which are well defined. Their hair is long and flowing and there is vine and acanthus plant foliage above them. The sirens in the series become increasingly demonic, the first has a beautiful smile while the last on this pillar is fierce-looking. The style of the sculptures is inspired by Romanesque art.

    The work is considered high quality and can be associated with other capitals in terms of techniques and, possibly, meaning. The sirens’ faces are more human than others in the west gallery and elsewhere in the cloister. Their wings and lips are also thicker, more three dimensional than the other sirens at Silos. This suggests the sculpture may have had a different meaning. The artist who constructed the nearby Annunciation relief may have sculpted these sirens due to their similar styles. The proximity to the Annunciation and the similarity between the faces on these two works suggest a reference to the battle between good and evil and to God’s long ago destruction of such dangerous creatures as sirens. The artist of the Annunciation panel is thought to be the same sculptor whose work appears in the Abbey of St. Pierre de Moissac in France.

    The monastery of Silos was founded by Benedictine monks during the seventh century in the Tabladillo valley near Segovia. A donation from Fernan Gonzalez in 919 may have prompted construction of the first church at Silos. In 1041 the strong-willed reformer Dominic arrived at the king’s behest to serve as abbot and make Silos a model for monastic virtue, devotional practice, economic success, and political prestige. A monk named Grimaldus later wrote a Life of Dominic as part of the successful effort to canonize him.

    While many of the monastic buildings from Dominic’s abbacy and those of his close successors do not survive, the cloister bears witness to the intellectual ferment of that era. The first cloister campaign, dating from the end of the eleventh century to the beginning of the twelfth century, is seen in the lower cloister in the east and north galleries. A second campaign created important new images and enlarged the cloister, adding the south and west galleries (a partial gallery may have existed previously) as well as an upper level for the four-sided cloister. Work began under Abbot Johannes (around 1120) and was finished around 1186. Valdez del Álamo in her magisterial book on Silos argues that the second campaign developed a sculptural style and iconography which had an important influence on subsequent programs in France as well as Spain.

    In the east gallery, there are winged creatures on eleven of the fifteen capitals. The lower cloister is decorated with mythical creatures including dragons, centaurs and mermaids. The use of fantastic creatures is criticized in a quote from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, leader of a reformist monastic order, “...in the cloisters, before the eyes of the brothers while they read-- what is that ridiculous monstrosity doing, an amazing kind of deformed beauty and yet a beautiful deformity? What are the filthy apes doing there? The fierce lions? The monstrous centaurs? The creatures, part man and part beast? The striped tigers?...In short, everywhere so plentiful and astonishing a variety of contradictory forms is seen that one would rather read in the marble than in books, and spend the whole day wondering at every single one of them than in meditating on the law of God.” Apologia ad Guillelmum Sancti-Theoderici Abbatem The fantastic images, then, according to Bernard, were distractions to the monks’ studies, causing them to stray away from pious devotion.

    Silos in the present day is famous around the world for the Gregorian chanting of its monks. It is on the route of the popular pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northeast Spain.

  • Source: hiverminer.com
  • Rights: Labeled for non-commercial reuse in a Google search.
  • Subject (See Also): Animal- Human Hybrids Iconography Mythology Sirens
  • Geographic Area: Iberia
  • Century: 12
  • Date: circa 1150
  • Related Work: Siren capital at Silos, vines encircle the sirens’ necks, West gallery, lower cloister:
    Siren capital at Silos, birds hold the sirens’ mouths shut possibly signifying protection, North gallery, lower cloister:
    Annunciation panel at Silos:
    Photo gallery of the Monastery of Silos:
    Panoramic views of Silos. Click on Galeria del Claustro for a view of the cloister:
  • Current Location: Cloister of the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, Spain
  • Original Location: Cloister of the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, Spain
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Sculptures
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Stone
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  • Height/Width/Length(cm): //
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  • Related Resources: Dale, Thomas E. A. “Monsters, Corporeal Deformities, and Phantasms in the Cloister of St-Michel-de-Cuxa.” Art Bulletin 83, 3 (2001): 402-436;
    Rodriguez Peinado, Laura. “Las sirenas.” Revista Digital de Iconografía Medieval 1, 1 (2009): 51-63: Available open access: https://www.ucm.es/data/cont/docs/621-2013-11-13-LasSirenas.pdf;
    Valdez del Álamo, Elizabeth. Palace of the Mind: The Cloister of Silos and Spanish Sculpture of the Twelfth Century. Brepols, 2012;
    Weir, Anthony, and James Jerman. Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches. R. T. Batsford, 1986. Pages 48-57;
    Whitehill, Walter Muir. “The Destroyed Romanesque Church of Santo Domingo de Silos.” Art Bulletin 14, 4 (1932): 316–343.