A Rare Medieval Caryatid

A Rare Medieval Caryatid

This very special sculpture belongs to a kind of sculpture identified since classical antiquity with the term of Caryatid: a female figure serving as a support of an architectural element, holding the weight of it on her head.
In this particular example, the Caryatid is represented by a bare-chested figure of an old woman, kneeling and emerging among acanthus leaves. Her head, wrapped in a turban, sinks between the shoulders due to the weight of the shelf she’s holding.

a-rare-medieval-cariatyd-sideThe effort is furthermore dramatized by the fatigue grimace of the old woman, with her mouth tightened all over the left.
The sculpture features a solid rendering of the body, which is an obvious legacy of the Romanesque telamons. However, numerous naturalistic details suggest a slightly more advanced chronology: the pleated turban surrounding the woman’s head, the flaccid breasts, the round belly and the beautifully carved acanthus leaves, where the drill goes deep.

medieval-cariatyd-leftIn the transition from Romanesque to Gothic sculpture, many monstrous representations appear in almost all Northern European architectural sites (Reims, Mainz and Bamberg, etc.) as well as in Southern Italy (e.g. in Castel del Monte, Bari). This is due to the migration of sculptors among Cistercian sites. These figures often have a symbolic meaning, as our Caryatid also shows, documenting a particularly rare allegorical representation.

Medieval theories included several types of nudity: the nuditas naturalis of Adam and Eve; the temporalis for lack of material goods; nuditas virtualis, that is, the nudity of truth, and then the nuditas criminalis or the lack of virtue. The latter type, often represented in a similar way to Lust, seems to be the most appropriate for our sculpture, as far as it constitutes an extremely rare typology.


Window from the facade of Altamura Cathedral

This charming Caryatid, which originally must have been placed outside an architecture, under a cornice or near a loggia, depicts a very peculiar representation; therefore, the identification of comparable examples is really difficult.
In conclusion, figures with similar grotesque poses and faces can be found mainly in Central Italy, and more exactly between Lucca and Florence. However, considering the fine crystalline grain of the marble used – which is another qualitative element of the work – we cannot exclude that the author of this unusual Caryatid was a sculptor active in Southern Italy.


Carved marble
Central/Southern Italy
Circa 1250-60
Marble, cm 29 × 15 × 29

Study by Dr. Luca Mor
Left arm restored

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