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Monthly Archives: October 2009

Moissac-portal-figureSculpted Atlants, crouched figures placed strategically inside and outside Romanesque churches, supporting parts of the structure of the building, are a common theme of  pilgrimage road sculpture.

They are derived from the classical mythological story of Atlas, son of the titan Lapetus and brother of Prometheus. Atlas was punished by Zeus and made to bear the weight of the heavens. According to Homer, Atlas was “one who knows the depths of the whole sea and keeps the tall pillars which hold heaven”.

In Romanesque art these figures are more often suffering punishment, but they can also be depictions of prefiguration or prophecy as in the case of the side jambs at Moissac.

The Roman historian Vitruvius had noted the use of Atlant figures in the portico at Sparta which had been built to celebrate the victory of the Spartans over the Persians, “In order to support the roof, they have erected statues of prisoners dressed barbarously in order to humiliate and intimidate them”. This added a political dimension to the meaning of Atlants which was used in Romanesque sculpture.

Aulnay-SP-MS-30At Aulnay de Saintonge two sets of Atlant figures are displayed on the undersides of the arches of the southern transept porch. Beneath those bearing the images of the Apostles spreading the Word they crouch with both hands raised supporting the structure above.

The oriental garb they are shown wearing is an indication of their association with the Saracen race and more generally with paganism. At a time of Holy War against Islam, the Saracens represented both political and spiritual enemies.

Their humiliating position serves to render their captive status  and the punishment which is meted out to them for the sin of paganism and thus by extension the triumph of the Christian Church. Aulnay-SP-MS-29

Above them are the twelve Apostles preaching the Word of God to twelve acolytes. The Atlants beneath are numbered twenty-four, the hours of the days, representative of terrestrial values but also prefiguring the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse who appear on the next arch.

The Elders oddly, are numbered thirty-one on the next arch and the corresponding Atlants the same, representing the days of the months. Combined with the Twelve Apostles and the twelve acolytes  below, these number include the hours of the days, the days of the months and the months of the year.

Aulnay-SP-MS-25The register of Apostles preaching  indicates the prerequisite of the  Apocalypse, which is the spreading of the Word to the furthest reaches of the earth.

The next register therefore is the Apocalypse, represented by the Elders.  Beneath, the Atlants are notably different from those supporting the Apostles in that they are on bended knee, having only one hand supporting the structure above. This anomaly may be explained by the fact that they are now within the celestial realm. These Atlants also seem to have a stronger oriental appearance which suggests a possible influence from Hindu and Persian motifs, specifically the lesser divinities of the Ahuras and Devas each of which was associated with opposing elements.

The most striking use of Atlants in Romanesque sculpture is at the cathedral of Oloron-Sainte Marie. Here a pair of giant Saracens prisoners are presented at the base of the trumeau of the western entrance. Their expressive faces and hunched shoulders indicate the agony of their suffering in bearing the weight of the structure, a tympanum depicting the Deposition from the Cross.Oloron-57-copy

These are Atlants supporting the weight of the heavens as punishment for their paganism, their heavy chains indicative of their captive status both spiritually and physcically.

Oloron was the gateway to the Somport Pass over the Pyrenees which was widely used by pilgrims and Crusaders entering Spanish territory. The church was built under  Gaston IV, the Viscount of Béarn in an intense atmosphere of Holy War against the Infidel.  Gaston was a celebrated Crusader and had been a major participant in the successful siege of Jerusalem in 1100. On his return to France, he had joined forces with the Aragonese ruler Alfonso el Batallador and together they had taken Zaragossa in 1118.

Like the Persian Atlants at Sparta, the Saracen Atlants at the cathedral of  Oloron are triumphal expressions of victory.

The tympanum sculpture above the western entrance to the abbey of Conques is one of the most imposing works of RomaConques-Tymp53nesque stone sculpture. It was created in the first half of the twelfth century and its size and quality at this extremely remote site is testament, both to the power of the cult of saint’s relics and the importance of the pilgrimage to Compostela.

Conques had been an impoverished monastery until it acquired the relics of its patron, the virgin martyr Sainte Foy, and with the development of her cult for miracle working, the abbey had grown to become a spiritual centre of the first order. Its status was further enhanced with the rise in popularity of the pilgrimage to Santiago in the late eleventh century and the consequent role as the prime station of the Puy route that Conques came to exercise.

Conques-Tymp8Sculpture of this magnitude and scale was clearly reserved for sites held in exceptional regard and Conques had evidently become one of these when the work was commissioned some time in the 1120’s.

Like all Romanesque west porch sculptures, the subject is the Apocalypse and more specifically the Last Judgment as described in the vision of the Saint Matthew’s Gospel. One of its remarkable features is that it includes Sainte Foy and Conques itself in the eschatological scheme. The central image is of Christ in Majesty returning at the End of Time. Below the dead awaken from their sarcophagi to receive Judgment.

Conques-Tymp11On the right side of the viewer is Hell where Satan reigns and the Damned have the punishments fit for their crimes inflicted on them.

On the other side is the Bosom of Abraham with the Elect awaiting their admission to Paradise and above the Procession of the Saints, already in the Celestial Realm.

This would seem to be an image of the future were it not for the other elements of the tympanum which imply a process of redemption which is taking place in the here and now, at Conques itself.

Conques-Tymp-70Directly below Christ is the Weighing of Souls. The Archangel Michael and a demon are at opposing sides of the scales of Divine Justice, a concept drawn from Egyptian mythology.

Below, an everyman figure is drawn away from the waiting Leviathan by an angel and directed towards the doorway to the Elect.

Above is a prostrate young girl. She is in an attitude of prayer before the giant Hand of God. This design is emphasizing the her proximity to God and hence  important status in the celestial hierarchy.

Conques-Tymp16Behind this praying figure is a sculpted image of the church of Conques itself, which leaves no doubt that this  figure is Sainte Foy.

An empty throne stands by the pillars of a church from whose arches hang manacles donated as ex-votos by grateful pilgrims. On the right an altar with eucharistic chalice.

This is the church of Conques. The manacles actually had been attached to the arches of the church before being melted down and wrought as a screen to guard the reliquary of the saint. Conques-Tymp-60The golden statue of Sainte Foy was seated on a golden throne, which here she has risen from to prostrate herself in intercessory prayer on behalf of the man directly below, whose fate is being decided in that very moment.

There is no more graphic depiction of the medieval doctrine of the intercession of the saints. Clearly, great claims are being made here for the role of Sainte Foy’s powers of intercessory prayer and for Conques as a place of pilgrimage. It is presented as a High Place of Christendom and its saint has the power to redeem man.

The northern cleric, Bernard of Angers who had visited Conques in the early eleventh century had declared that Sainte Foy had the power to “lead souls out of the underworld” after witnessing the saint’s miraculous gifts at first hand. The medieval church held that the souls of men could be rescued from Hell by the power of prayer and the Conques tympanum seems to contain a dual conception of Judgment, both as a future event occurring at the End of Time and an ongoing process which is happening in the present also.