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Monthly Archives: July 2009

The story of the Sacrifice of Isaac appears frequently in Romanesque art. Examples can be seen on interior capitals at Autun, Conques and St Sernin de Toulouse and at the cloister of Moissac. It is also featured on the trumeau at Souillac.

This theme held a particular significance for the Christians of northern Spain during the time of the Reconquista. One of the earliest representations is at the Mozarabic church of San Pedro de la Nave. During the Romanesque period it was used most notably at Jaca and is the subject of the hemicycle above the Puerta del Corderon at León, a unique use of an Old Testament subject for a tympanum.

Jaca-SP--Isaac-15At the cathedral of San Pedro at Jaca the capital on the right side of the entrance to the south transept entrance is of Isaac and Abraham. Here it stands opposite the capital on the left side of the entrance of Balaam and the Ass.

Isaac was considered a precursor of Christ, not least because his birth was announced to his parents Sara and Abraham by an angel and the celebrated story of the Sacrifice of Isaac which is told in Genesis 22. Abraham  has two sons. Ishmael whom he had with his servant Hagar, believing his wife Sara to be barren and then Isaac when he is told by an angel that he can have a child with Sara.

Jaca-SP--Isaac-17In order to test Abraham’s faith God commands him to sacrifice his son and directs him to the land of Moriah. Along the journey, Isaac innocent of the intention of his father asks where the sacrificial lamb will be found. At the last moment, when Abraham has proved his willingness to carry out God’s demand he is granted a reprieve and a ram appears tangled in a thicket to be sacrificed in Isaac’s place.

The full significance of this theme for the Christians of northern Spain is borne out in the tympanum of the Door of the LambLeon-Corderon-9 at the palatine basilica of San Isidoro de León. Here the central image is Abraham grasping Isaac by the hair poised with a blade over his son.

Below to the right is Sara at the door of her tent and Ishmael on his way to Moriah. This is opposed on the left side by Hagar and Ishmael. Ishmael is represented as a mounted archer clearly intended to be identified as a Saracen cavalry fighter.

God’s Covenant with Abraham was cemented by this episode and as Genesis tells us that his “seed shall possess the gates of his enemies”. Leon-Corderon-30This was understood to mean the line of Isaac who as a prefiguration of Christ identified the Christians as God’s Chosen and the descendants of Ishmael were the Saracens who contemporary chronicles referred to as Ishmaelites. At the time the sculpture was created at León, in the early twelfth century the northern Christians of Spain had been suffering serious setbacks in their Crusade against the Moors. The story of the Sacrifice of Isaac was seen as a prophecy of Christian victory.

The depiction of the elect residing in the bosom of Abraham is an essential theme in Romanesque sculpture and occurs as part ofVez-Caps30 the large scale representations of Judgment at Moissac,  Conques and Arles.

The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke’s Gospel Chapter 16 is the only Biblical source for this vital component of the medieval conception of the eschatological scheme.

One of the capitals in the nave of the church of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine at Vézelay is of the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

It is represented in its most detailed version on the left hand side of the porch of the Cluniac abbey of Saint-Pierre-de-Moissac.Moissac.psd13 The parable recounts the tale of a rich man who refused the crumbs of his table to a leprous beggar named Lazarus who is reduced to having his sores licked by a dog. Lazarus dies and is carried by angels into the bosom of Abraham.

When the rich man dies he is buried and is sent to hell where he can see Lazarus far above. He calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus to him to assuage the pain of his torments. Abraham responds that the gulf between them is too wide and cannot be crossed. The rich man then beseeches Abraham to send Lazarus to plead on behalf of his brother so that they might be spared the pain of hell, but again Abraham refuses.

There was a long exegetical tradition on the subject of the parable and each second Sunday after Pentecost it was selected as the Gospel passage when it was noted that Lazarus has been given a name because he appears in the Book of Life whereas the unnamed Rich Man does not. Furthermore, the dog who licks Lazarus’ leprous wounds is symbolic of the priestly caste.

Arles-FacadeIn Matthew’s Gospel 8, 11, Jesus proclaims that the elect would sit next to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is presented on the lintel beneath the Apocalyptic tympanum of the western facade of the cathedral of Saint Trophime at Arles.

At the Benedictine abbey of Conques there is a large detailed porch sculpture of the Last Judgment. It could be said to represent the whole of the twelfth century Benedictine view of the Afterlife. The sculpture is characterised by geometric lines which describe a hierarchical structure and bear inscriptions describing the scenes contained within.

Christ in Majesty is surrounded by Heaven and Hell. The Dead arise from their tombs and the Souls of the Dead are Weighed. The Saint of Conques, Sainte Foy is in an attitude of intercessory prayer while one manConques-Tymp21 is delivered into the Jaws of Hell and another is saved by the saint’s intercessory prayer. Paradise is divided in two. The higher register includes the Virgin Mary and Saint Peter as well as a number of saints and below is the Bosom of Abraham.

The Conques tympanum seems to present a telescoping of eschatological time so that the present and the future appear in the same image. Conques-Tymp54The Bosom of Abraham is an ante chamber to Paradise, where only the Saints are admitted before the End of Time. The inscription, “The chaste, the peacemakers, the meek, the friends of piety, thus they stand rejoicing, secure with no fear”.

This implies that their ultimate place in Paradise is assured.

Silos-Thomas-2The Apparition of Christ to Saint Thomas is rarely depicted in Romanesque sculpture. A short distance south of pilgrimage road near Burgos in Castile, the cloister piers of the Benedictine Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos all feature large scale images of the Resurrected Christ.

On the north eastern corner the Journey to Emmaus is twinned with the Apparition of Christ to the Apostle Thomas. This story is told in only one of the gospel texts, the Gospel according to St John in Chapter 20, 24-9.

Silos-Thomas-4After the Crucifixion, and the subsequent Discovery of the Empty Tomb, the risen Christ appears to Mary Magdalene and then on the same day to an assembly of the disciples inside a house where they have collected for fear of persecution.

Only Thomas is absent and when told of the Resurrection he declares that only by placing his own hand inside the wound in Christ’s side will he be convinced of the Resurrection.Silos-Thomas-3

It is eight days later that Christ appears again before the assembled disciples and offers his wound to Thomas.

Christ then says to him that he can believe now he has seen for himself but that, “blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed”.

This episode is extolling the virtues of faith. At Santo Domingo de Silos the image, taken from a Byzantine original source, depicts the scene taking place before the other Apostles.

Autun-03-3Beneath the massive tympanum sculpture of the Last Judgment at the cathedral of Saint Lazare at Autun in Burgundy is a capital representing the Old Testament account of the prophet Balaam.

The episode of Balaam and the Ass is told in the book of Numbers in chapters 22-4. Moses is leading the Chosen People out of Egypt and has reached the lands of the Moabites and Midianites whose king Balak is anxious at seeing the Israelites enter his lands.

Autun-03-Balaam-AngelIn order to prevent them he calls for Balaam, an Aramite soothsayer with the intention of placing a curse on the Israelites. The elders of the Moabites and Midianites are despatched with “rewards of divination”, to persuade Balaam to come. During the night, Balaam receives a visitation from God who forbids him to curse his Chosen Race. The elders return to Balak with the word of Balaam’s refusal. Once more Balak sends his elders to persuade the soothsayer with the promise of even greater rewards. On this occasion, Balaam ignores God’s order and sets out for the land of Moab on an ass.

Jaca-SP-Bal-10This story can also be seen on several Spanish churches, notably on the left side of the south transept entrance to the cathedral of Santa Eulalia at Jaca, where it faces a capital depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac on the opposite side.

Along the journey, Balaam is unable to see when an angel appears with a sword barring the way. The ass, however can and to Balaam frustration, refuses to go forward.

This occurs three times after which the ass, given the power of speech, proclaims that there is reason in his refusal to carry his master on. Balaam’s eyes are now opened for him to see the angel barring the way and he kneels, face to the ground.Jaca-SP-Bal-8

The angel advises Balaam to continue on his way but to do his bidding only. When Balaam arrives at Moab, the king takes him to a high place overlooking the Israelites. Balaam tells Balak to build seven altars and on each to make a burnt offering of a bullock and a ram. However, when the time is come for Balaam to perform his curse he is obliged to speak the word of God and cannot pronounce the hoped for malediction.

Jaca-SP-Bal-2This is repeated three times and on each occasion, Balaam gives Balak a prophetic parable which proclaims Israel as God’s Chosen Race and their future triumph.

The final prophecy declares that a Star would come from the hand of Jacob and a Sceptre rise out of Israel. The Sceptre would destroy Israel’s enemies and the Star would be one “that shall have dominion”.

The juxtaposition of the capitals of Balaam and the Sacrifice of Isaac on the south porch at Jaca is worthy of note. Both of these Old Testament stories contain narratives seen to link prophecies of the future coming of Christ with the historical progress of God’s Chosen People. The Hebrews of the Old Testament were now become the Christians of medieval Europe.

In the case of the story of Balaam the future appearance of Christ is represented by the star issuing from the hand of Jacob, the father of David whose descendant was Christ. The Sceptre promised in Balaam’s final prophecy was symbolic of God’s undertaking to accord victory to his Chosen People and conflict between the Hebrews and Moabites was superimposed onto the Christian conflict with the Moors. Balaam’s failure to fulfil king Balak’s wish to curse the Hebrews a sign of God’s continuing promise to protect his Chosen.

Samson was a Nazirite, a Hebrew who took special vows. These were to abstain from wine and the proximity to dead corpses and the cutting of one’s hair. The preponderance of images of Samson in Romanesque sculpture may be connected with the similarity between the two words Nazirite and Nazarene, the word often used to describe Jesus. The connection extends also to the circumstances of their birth. There are several Old Testament figures who were considered precursors of Christ, notably David and Isaac. Samson was among them.

The story of Samson is told in the Old Testament book Judges, Chapters 13-16. He was the hero of the Hebrews against the Philistines and was endowed with supernatural strength. His birth was announced by the appearance of an angel to his barren mother. The angel declared that the boy would be “a Nazarite unto God from the womb”. It was this quality of the Nazirite which bestowed on Samson his celebrated superhuman strength.

At the time of his birth, the Hebrews had been conquered by the Philistines and lived in subjugation. Samson would be their redeemer, it was foretold.

The two principal episodes of Samson’s life which are represented in medieval sculpture are the stories of Samson and the Lion and the treacherous deception by Delilah.Aulnay-int-3-copy In the episode of Delilah’s treachery we are dealing with the source of Samson’s special connection with God which is his Nazirite vow predicted by the angel at his birth that “no razor shall come on his head”.

This episode is depicted on a capital in the transept of the church of Saint-Pierre-de-la-Tour at Aulnay de Saintonge. The Philistines have engaged Delilah to persuade Samson to divulge the secret of his strength which lies in his hair. When he is asleep, Delilah cuts the seven locks of Samson.

It is the story of Samson and the Lion however, which seems to have caught the medieval imagination especially, as indicated by the frequency with which it is represented.Moissac-Narthex-8 At the Cluniac abbey of Saint-Pierre de Moissac by the banks of the Tarn river it is shown on a capital in the narthex. The story is represented by the image of a man grabbing the jaws of a beast and prising them apart.

Samson is on his way to meet his future bride, a Philistine. He comes across a lion when, “the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him” and barehanded, Samson tears it apart. He tells noone of this and when he returns he finds that a swarm of bees have nested inside the lion’s dead carcass and produced honey. Taking the honey he eats some and carries the remainder and offers it to his father and mother.

In medieval exegetical writings the episode with the lion was a foreshadowing of Christ’s victory over the forces of evil. Lions were associated with death and from classical times associated with funeral rites. The andraphagous or man devouring quality of the lion was associated with the sarcophagous or flesh devouring aspect of the tomb. The honey that Samson finds when he returns to the dead lion that arises from this condition is representing life after death and bees were associated with parthogenesis, that is asexual procreation  symbolising the Virgin Birth. Samson’s episode with the lion becomes a precursor of the Resurrection.

One aspect of the iconography of Samson and the Lion that should be mentioned is the connection with representations of the Roman God Mithras, whose origins are believed to arise from Persia. The most common representation of Mithras is the ritual slaying of a bull and it is notable that the posture of Mithras wrestling the bull to the ground by holding one hand over its mouth and the other driving a sword into its side, is so similar to that of twelfth century depictions of Samson and the Lion as to exceed the possibility of mere coincidence.

The Poitevin church at Saint-Pierre de Parthenay-le-Vieux was a Benedictine priory of the abbey of La Chaise-Dieu. Parthenay-40

On the façade there are two arcades on either side of the entrance. To the right is a large sculpture of Samson and the Lion.

The left arcade features the archetypal imperial horseman variously identified as Constantine and Charlemagne vanquishing the forces of paganism as he tramples them underfoot. The juxtaposition of the two images implies the interlinked function of the Church and State. Twin functions of the Church: Redeemer and Militant.

As a hero of the Hebrews against the Philistines, Samson was a defender of the Chosen People and byParthenay-64 the Romanesque period the Christians were engaged in their Holy War with the forces of Islam and therefore the choice of Samson and the Lion at Parthenay in order to complement the Emperor as Defender of the Faith is worthy of consideration.

The Hebrew Philistine opposition was now replaced by the contemporaneous one between the Christianity and Islam of the Crusading era.