Pray, Pay or Go to Hell: A Cloister Capital from St-Michel-de-Cuxa

By Janis Petzinger

Mephistophelian monsters and demonic dancers come together in a clamorous, visceral celebration of hell in the cloister capital at St-Michel-de-Cuxa pictured above, and can show us important things about medieval society. For one thing, the formal elements of the cloister create a visual recital that shows the antithesis of monk life. The figures also serve as a reminder of Evil’s potential, revealing the significance of corporeal representation in medieval imagery as a devotional tool. Finally, the ostentatious personality of this capital illustrates the Cluniac’s way of building an over-the-top empire.

Each figure holds a purposeful place in the capital’s space. To maximize the surface area, the artist situated the monsters on corners, enabling them to play a role in two faces of the capital at once and sharply stare at the viewer from all directions. The dancers dance a gig in the air, allowing their bent legs to agree with the area between the legs of the monsters on either side. The curls at the top corners add a gusty commotion, filling the space between the dancers’ heads and horns. If any figure were to be added or subtracted, the capital’s faces would no longer balance, which would break the cloister’s physical integrity and visual harmony.

Cloister capital from St-Michel-de-Cuxa. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Cloisters Collection

Cloister capital from St-Michel-de-Cuxa. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Cloisters Collection

These leveled elements do not merge into a biblical story, like two other capitals at Cuxa that depict saintly figures; rather, it is one of the many that show a vivid snapshot of hell’s confident and carnal commotion. The long hair shows the venality of the undisciplined figures. With pointed, menacing brows, the monsters rapaciously slurp their fleshy prizes. The round bellies and puffed chests show the jongleurs’ purposeful blowing of the horns, playing the music of the devil. There is also an element of gravity to the figures; the squatting legs are moments from breaking under the weight of the monster’s jaws, and the jumping dancers look as if they’ll bounce harshly to the ground again. As they are carved in high, harsh relief, the evil figures wear and tear the world around them. This heaviness to their presence illustrates the burdensome tug of hell.

Since the figures are energetic and active, they call out to the monks who would see them throughout the day. The figures’ deeds are antithetical to the duties of the monks’ lives. For one thing, monks would have their hair in due manner, as unruly hair was related to vice. Additionally, the implied music of the figures directly contrasts the sacred music that monks would practise ordinarily.

This element of role-reversal forces the pious viewers to question their own religious identity. The physical experience of monsters and lewd dancers, which would normally just exist in the imagination of the monks, strikingly overlooks the monks’ expression within the mortal world. This illustrates that the relationship between the physical body and the soul was crucial to religious contemplation.

Cloister capital from St-Michel-de-Cuxa. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Cloisters Collection

Cloister capital from St-Michel-de-Cuxa. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Cloisters Collection

Thomas A. Dale hypothesizes that corporeal deformities in these cloisters could be related to an internal struggle to fight away evil imagery in bad dreams. These cloisters were a way for the monks to reconcile the darkest parts of themselves. The capitals would inspire the monks to ask themselves, “Is this who I am?” The beasts would prompt this thought especially, as we cannot say if they are swallowing unwilling sinners to hell or if the squatting legs are simply a part of the jaw’s evil character. The contemplative monk would make that decision for himself and since the cloisters were presented in no particular order, it was an additional process of learning, which could make the characters change significance over time. Therefore, we can interpret these figures as devotional aids, reminding the monks whom they were fighting against: the demons of hell and the demons within.

Finally, the ostentatious and obtrusive vigor of the capitals exemplify the lavishness of Cluniac monasteries. Elements of design were often showy and resounding to spark their various visitors, including pilgrims, into donating. Bernard of Clairvaux’s Apology condemns this as tasteless, gaudy, and a vain trick to get attention and followers—very different to his Cistercian order of humble, private devotion. Therefore, we can interpret the roaring presence of this cloister as an expression of the institutional ambitions of Cluniac monasteries, ultimately reminding us of the controversial history surrounding visual imagery’s impact on people and society.

A formal analysis of this art work shows how the figures’ compositional and narrative elements come together to represent hell. Clearly, this would have been a challenging topic for the monks, as the visceral representations of the figures’ bodies contrast with the abbey’s way of life. This points to the power of twisted corporeal imagery, and how it was used as a tool for monks to confront their respective dark thoughts. Finally, the extravagance of the capital shows the Clunaic monk’s desire to bring about an electrifying experience within the church, inspiring donations from the masses. After all, once you had looked at this cloister, you would be left with three choices: pray, pay, or go to hell.


Bernard of Clairvaux, “Apologia”. Translated by David Burr. Fordam University, 1991.

Dale, Thomas. “Monsters, Corporeal Monsters, Corporeal Deformities, and Phantasms in the Cloister of St-Michel-de-Cuxa”. College Art Association, The Art Bulletin, 2001.

Rudolf, Conrad. "Bernard of Clairvaux's Apologia as a Description of Cluny, and the Controversy over Monastic Art," Gesta 27, no. 1/2 (1988): 125-132.