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Monthly Archives: July 2016

In 1115 the sculpted relief of the central portal of the largest church in medieval Christendom, Cluny abbey, was completed. The image it depicted was a simple one. Christ in a mandorla supported by a pair of angels.

Angouleme-Ascension-1The Romanesque world viewed reality and art as being imbued with multiple layers of meaning.

The function of the great portal relief sculptures was to combine these layers into a single richly symbolic form which would act as a conduit to guide man to the essential truth.

The first portal reliefs which emerged from the Burgundian sphere of Cluny made use of a motif which originally had its source in Roman funerary art.

This was of the funerary apotheoses carved onto antique sarcophagi, depicting the head of the deceased enclosed in a circular frame held aloft by two winged figures, signifying assumption into a paradisaical afterlife.

Cahors-'15-182The reliefs of the Burgundian monasteries depicted Christ in a mandorla representing the celestial realm, supported by a pair of angels. This was an image of the Ascension.

Early Christian commentators had seen the Ascension as a prefiguration of the Second Coming. This arose from the account in the Acts of the Apostles whereby, two men dressed in white appear to tell the disciples that Christ will return ”in like manner”.


Attributes associated with the Apocalypse were incorporated, in particular with the addition of the Four Living Beasts.

Traditionally, a second register was included showing the Virgin Mary and the Apostles.

These latter additions were necessary to symbolise the human dimension of the theophany by representing the Incarnation and the Bearing of Witness.

The sources for this depiction of the Ascension came from the Byzantine East.


This view of the Ascension had been actively refuted in the Latin West.

According to Gregory the Great, “Our Saviour, as it is written in the scriptures was not taken by a chariot like Eliah or carried by angels. He who created all rose to Heaven by his own force”.

However the Romanesque depiction of the Ascension became the dominant theophanic image during the second half of the eleventh century up until the middle of the twelfth.

It found a multitude of forms and was not intended as a simple literal depiction of the event described in the New Testament.

Cahors-'15-239Its true function was to act as an iteration of the Neoplatonic metaphysics which had reached the West from Byzantium during the course of the ninth century and which had later been taken up by Cluny.

Accordingly, it was proposed that man had acquired the capacity to grasp, at least partially, the Divine Nature in the same way as the angelic orders.

Odilon de Mercoeur, fifth abbot of Cluny had written in the early eleventh century, “the angels of the Ascension appeared in white garments because the human race which had been covered by the dark because of a mortal blindness had merited, by the Grace of God to wear the garment of eternal joy and acquire angelic dignity”.

Source: Yves Christe. Les grands portails romans. Études sur l’iconologie des théophanies romanes, Genève, Librairie Droz, 1969

A transcendental mysticism entered Latin Western Christendom from the East in the ninth century.Moissac-S-Tymp-25

At the centre was the Divine One, immobile and eternal, surrounded by a Celestial Hierarchy and Cosmos that was in a state of continuous movement.

That motion was one of ebb and flow, a progression towards the still centre and a corresponding regression away from it. The Divine was in a constant process of self-revelation.

An emanation of Its essence was in an unfolding dialectic with the rest of the Universe, which was in a corresponding process of contemplation of that essence.


Each being, containing elements of the Divine and the non-Divine, processed through an alternating recognition of their Divinity followed by its negation, ascending through the hierarchy until there was nothing left to negate and union was attained in the Godhead.

Taking the theophanic vision from chapter four to six of the Book of Revelation as a description of the highest level of the celestial hierarchy, the tympanum sculpture of the Cluniac abbey of Saint Pierre at Moissac was essentially a depiction of the Christian Neoplatonic metaphysical system.

This was derived largely from the writings of a Syrian monk of the sixth century who wrote pseudonomously under the name of Dionysius.

Moissac-S-Tymp-12-copyThe contorted figures whose gazes are all directed at the central Divine figure, were intended to represent that process of movement back and forth between the Divine and the non-Divine.

According to the system presented by Pseudo-Dionysius there were three orders of angels each consisting of three ranks. The highest order was made up of the Cherubim, the Seraphim and the Thrones.

The Tetramorph of the Moissac tympanum which surround the central figure consist of the Living Creatures of Ezekiel’s Old Testament vision who reappear at the Apocalypse. These were the Cherubim who, according to Ezekiel were angels each with the head, respectively, of a man, a calf, an eagle and a lion. On each side there is a six winged Seraphim and below are the Thrones, represented by the Twenty-Four Elders.

Moissac-SeraphimAll are joined in contemplation and adoration of the Godhead, united in one continuous song of prayer.

The celestial hierarchy was further extended by three terrestrial orders which formed the basis and rationale for the medieval monastic system. This tripartite division of society was made up of those who labour, those who fight and those who pray.

The monastery of Moissac was the most important establishment in the Cluniac federation, after the mother abbey itself. Through the writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius and his successors, which were held at the library at Cluny, had emerged the idea that humanity partook in that celestial hierarchy and formed a tenth order of angels. Moissac-S-Tymp-18-copy

It was in the light of this transcendentalism that Cluny had refined the Rule of Saint Benedict into a constant round of liturgy.

By prayer and mystical contemplation, monks could access the same theophanic vision, which was the preserve of the angelic orders.

For the remaining two orders, those who fought might find redemption through martyrdom and those who laboured, through pilgrimage and the veneration of relics.

Moissac, on the banks of the broad river Tarn, was an important station on the pilgrim road to Compostela.


The Pilgrims Guide describes a choir of one hundred monks of the Cluniac priory of Saint Jean d’Angély, another station on the road to Compostela, who “worshipped day and night” the relic which they guarded: the head of Saint John the Baptist.

It was a description intended to echo that of the Living Creatures who, in the Book of Revelation, “rest not day and night, saying Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty”.

The Elders of the Apocalypse beckoned pilgrims from the tympanum above the entrance to the abbey church at Moissac with the vessels they held and which contained, according to the Book of Revelation, the accumulated essence of the prayers of the saints.

Biblio: Dale Coulter, Pseudo-Dionysius in the Twelfth Century Latin West, The ORB, 1997. Yves Christe. Les grands portails romans. Études sur l’iconologie des théophanies romanes, Genève, Librairie Droz, 1969. Paul Rorem, Eriugena’s Commentary on the Dionysian Celestial Hierarchy, ‪Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies‬, ‪1 Jan 2005‬