Monsters in the Fenway (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I took the weekend off to celebrate her birthday in Boston. We stayed at our favorite hotel, the Lenox in the Back Bay, had a wonderful dinner at Troquet and generally spoiled ourselves. We also made a trip to our favorite museum there, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston’s Fenway.

Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) was a passionate collector of art in the 19th and early 20th centuries and compiled an extraordinary private collection of master and decorative arts. She was advised by the great authority on Renaissance art, Bernard Berenson, and Okakura Kakuzō. She built her Fenway home, modeled after a 15th century Venetian palazzo, as a museum and residence, which, after her death, was endowed as a home for her collection.

Courtyard, La Réole Portal, from The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A Companion Guide and History By Hilliard T. Goldfarb

Courtyard, La Réole Portal, from The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A Companion Guide and History
By Hilliard T. Goldfarb

We have always admired the eclectic and personalized taste that Gardner demonstrated in the selection and display of her collection of medieval art. PJ and I have spent many happy hours admiring the works over the years. This time, however, we were in for a shock. One enters the original section of the museum (a recent expansion in modern style is attached to the rear of the building) through the east cloister. Just next to this is the Spanish cloister which contains many Gothic and Romanesque sculptural works.

Crucified Christ, source:  Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 23.  www.gardnermuseum.org

Crucified Christ, source: Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 23. http://www.gardnermuseum.org

I was in the Spanish cloister looking at an equine figure when PJ called excitedly to me. I joined her at a Romanesque portal. The capitals on the columns on either side of the doorway took me by complete surprise – column swallowers!!!

As readers of Via Lucis might know, we are fascinated by these monsters which appear in France, Spain and England and have written a previous article about them. In this photo from “The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A Companion Guide and History” by Hilliard T. Goldfarb we can see the portal with the column swallowers

La Réole Portal, from The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A Companion Guide and History  By Hilliard T. Goldfarb

La Réole Portal, from The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A Companion Guide and History
By Hilliard T. Goldfarb

Photography is not permitted inside the Gardner, so I can’t post any detailed images, but the pair of column swallowers were authentic and just as compelling as they would be in situ in France.

Detail, La Réole Portal, from The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A Companion Guide and History By Hilliard T. Goldfarb

Detail, La Réole Portal, from The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A Companion Guide and History
By Hilliard T. Goldfarb

Apparently the portal was from a private residence in La Réole near Bordeaux, but almost certainly it was originally part of a Romanesque church, possibly from the lost Prieuré de Saint-Pierre de La Réole given by Charlemagne to the Abbey of Fleury in Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire (although this information comes from the abbey records and may be falsified). The column swallowers are quite common in the Aquitaine region and we have photographed many of them there.

"Column Swallower" at Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray (Vienne)

“Column Swallower” at Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray (Vienne)

We are used to flying and driving long distances to find our beloved column swallowers, so imagine our complete delight to find a pair just 75 miles from us in Cape Cod. The most famous monster in Boston certainly must be the Green Monster at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. But to us, the twin monsters at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum will be our favorites.

20 responses to “Monsters in the Fenway (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I have visited the Gardner several times and never noticed those!! I’ll definitely look the next time I am there. But, Dennis, I’d like to hear what you and PJ thought about the new part of the Gardner and the new entrance. I always found it very dramatic to go through the dark narrow corridors of the original entrance, and then step into the space and light of the palazzo courtyard – and the new entrance through the new wing just doesn’t have the same effect, in my opinion.

    • Fiona, we have been to the Gardner many times and spent many hours in that cloister and never saw them. There is a sense of overload there sometimes, but I cannot for the life of me think of how we missed them! Possibly because one walks through the portal and away, but that’s not much of an excuse for us.

      As far as the new Gardner, it certainly isn’t as dramatic, at first, but walking through the glass walkway directly into the cloister is. It didn’t bother me really. The new section makes it possible for many other activities (PJ and I took part in an impromptu “hands on” Arabesque Design workshop with guest artist Mitch Ryerson) and there is a nice restaurant. So overall, I’d say it is a successful addition.

    • Michael, you would love the Gardner then – that courtyard is full of exotic plants and statuary lit from the skylight four stories above. There is a cloister around three sides (actually a triple cloister on the East).

  2. I have never been to Boston but what an intriguing place to visit if I ever get back to that part of the world. Thanks for sharing the’ monsters’.

    • The Gardner is a grand museum – the vision of one woman who was clearly the master of her own artistic life. It is worth going to Boston just to visit here. Also, there was a notorious art theft at the Gardner on Saint Patrick’s day in 1990. The spaces for the three stolen works from the Dutch Gallery are still empty to this day.

    • Gordon, there is no definitive explanation. Some French observers believe that the figures represent the dangers that threaten the building, which reflect the dangers that threaten the Church itself. Some observers also believe that the creatures are not swallowing, but spewing, the columns and they may be known as column-spewers. But they are a wonderful motif that is fairly rare except in the Aquitaine and in England (both under the same rule during this period of history). They do not, to my understanding, appear in any art other than the Romanesque sculpture.

  3. I have been there twice, tipped off the first time by a cab driver to go to his favorite place in Boston. I love visiting her fabulous home and I agree that the sheer volume of art and architecture is overwhelming for a day trip. I would LOVE to photograph in there. I can imagine the courtyard lighted in the early evening or morning and to capture it from every floor and various angles. Or the hallways or many of the rooms. I also like the experience of seeing art in this type of setting as opposed to the more institutional feeling of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts or similar establishments. My favorites are John Singer Sargent’s portrait of her that was commissioned but publicly criticized and “El Jaleo” down by the gift shop. I also was so moved by her color themed rooms that I vowed I too would have rooms named by color one day! A very influential visit for me and I am delighted to see you write about it.

    • Lisa, how lucky you were to have that cab driver – what an interesting way to learn about the Gardner! We go to the Gardner as often as we can and continually see new things (witness the column swallowers!). I love the El Jaleo – the portal that we discussed is the one you go through on your way down into the Spanish cloister where you turn right to El Jaleo. The gift shop has now moved into the modern section that abuts the original, but other than that, little has changed in the Gardner.

  4. Keen eye as usual for detail. The Gardner ranks as one of my favorite museums anywhere, and as an undergrad at Brandeis I went several times with professors on field trips. I think my favorite one was for a class I took on the High Italian Renaissance, where we looked at the self-portrait by Bandinelli and the nearby portrait bust carved by his archrival Cellini. No one every pointed out the column swallowers before!

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