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Monthly Archives: September 2016

After the triumphal arches of Late Roman Antiquity, large scale monumental sculpture was absent from Europe for more than six hundred years before being Beaulieu-Tymp-3dramatically revived in the final decade of the eleventh century, when the great Romanesque church portal reliefs were begun.

The representation of theophanic visions, traditionally frescoes or mosaics situated within the church, were now located outside above the main entrance and carved in stone.

In a conscious desire to recall Roman triumphalism, an arched space or tympanum placed on a lintel over the doorway, became the site for these massive relief sculptures.

Moissac-S-Tymp-21The iconography of these portal sculptures was, by and large, sourced from just three New Testament theophanic visions which were combined into a single image.

These were; the Gospel of Matthew’s description of the Second Coming, the Ascension from the Acts of the Apostles and the Apocalypse of the Book of Revelation.

A fear of idolatry, which had persisted since the end of the Roman Empire, was now banished.

For the Christian church, the Old Testament injunction against graven images had long been of serious concern, reaching a peak during the Iconoclast Controversy in the Eastern church during the eighth and ninth centuries.

In the West, in early sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great had debated the issue with Serenus, an iconoclast bishop of Marseilles.

Cahors-'15-240Gregory reasoned that images need not be idolatrous and were important because they enabled an illiterate public to learn what they would otherwise know only from books.

“For to adore a picture is one thing,” wrote Gregory, ”but to learn through the story of a picture, what is to be adored is another”.

However a persistent desire to avoid idolatry meant that images were by and large restricted to the small scale manuscript illuminations and liturgical materials.

Gregory the Great’s view continued through into the eleventh century and was expounded anew at the Council of Arras in 1025, which proclaimed, “The illiterate people who cannot understand writing, can contemplate images”.

Complex arguments were brought to bear by both the iconoclasts who sought to prohibit religious images and the iconodules who believed them to be important tools to bring man closer to God.

Arles-Facade-Initially, the West had rejected the ideas of the Byzantine iconodules.

Misunderstanding their reasoning, which came out of the tradition of Greek philosophy which was now lost to the Latin Church, the intellectuals of Charlemagne’s court rejected the propositions of the 787 Council of Nicaea which had restored the veneration of icons.

Writing to Pope Adrian in 790 they declared, “the Greeks place almost all the hope of their credulity in images but it remains firm that we venerate the saints in their bodies or better in their relics”.

In the East, the subtlety of the Byzantine debate over icons had superceded the more simplistic considerations of the Latin West.

Conques-Christ-1The Eastern defenders of religious images considered that because of the Incarnation, the representation of God’s image in art was not merely sanctioned but positively essential.

One of the most eminent apologists for the use of religious imagery was Theodore the Studite who in the early ninth century reasoned, “When the Word of God, was made flesh, the invisible became visible and that which remains without form took on a corporeal form. That is why the Christ can be represented”.

Slowly, the ideas of the iconodules began to permeate through to the Latin West, in particular via the abbey of Cluny in the eleventh century.

moissac-christ-tetramorphThe abbey’s library contained copies of their manuscripts and their ideas were explicitly taken up by Cluny’s fifth abbot, Odilon de Mercoeur, in his Sermon on the Nativity.

For Odilon, the Fall had caused man to be blinded from the true vision of the Divine.

“And it became the condition of human nature, by the persuasion of the apostate angel, that our first father lost sight of the invisible light and so blinded by internal speculation, it was scattered and deformed without.”

Carennac-87It was possible, now, continued Odilon, to find a way towards the spirit by means of physical images .

These considerations suggest that the purpose behind the iconographic programme of the great portal sculptures was not Gregory the Great’s didactic and pedagogic intention for the edification of the illiterate.

For Odilon and the Carolingian philosopher John Scotus Eriugena the purpose of art was as an aid to contemplation of the Divine.

One of the results of this new thinking concerning sacred images was to reinforce the notion of the symbolic aspect of the image and this resulted in an artistic development away from naturalism towards the greater stylisation and abstraction, which defined Romanesque sculpture.

Sources and Biblio: Christe, Yves Le portail de Beaulieu, étude iconographique et stylistique, In Bulletin archéologique du Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques 1970.

Dale Coulter, Pseudo-Dionysius in the Twelfth Century Latin West, The ORB, 1997.

Paul Rorem, Eriugena’s Commentary on the Dionysian Celestial Hierarchy, ‪Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies‬, ‪1 Jan 2005‬.

The city of Cahors is located on the river Lot as it makes a dramatic loop, creating a site of important strategic value which had been exploited as an urban centre since pre-Roman times.

cahors-15-235-copyIt was the major station between Conques and Moissac on the Puy route to Compostela, notably benefitting from relics of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

The subject of the tympanum relief of the great north portal is the Ascension.

This was the favoured theme of the first portal sculptures which emerged from the sphere of influence emanating from the Burgundian abbey of Cluny at the end of the eleventh century.

In 1085 bishop Gerard II of Cahors had appealed to abbot of Hugh of Cluny to submit the cathedral chapter of canons to the Cluniac reform.

Cahors-'15-240The design of these Ascension portal reliefs was derived from Byzantine models which appeared in the sixth century and featured Christ standing upright within a mandorla being borne aloft by four angels.

Both arms are raised, in the left hand is the Book of Life and the right is raised in benediction.

The Eastern Ascensions had evolved to acquire a secondary tier which featured the Apostles and the Virgin in a register below, representing the terrestrial Church.

There are three accounts of the Ascension in the New Testament: as the culmination of the Gospels of Mark and Luke and at the opening of the Acts of the Apostles.

Jesus is described rising up to Heaven and disappearing from the view of the Apostles. “A cloud received him out of their sight”, according to Acts.

Cahors-'15-263At the top of the Cahors tympanum, four angels are descending from the clouds ready to assume Christ into heaven, to be veiled henceforth from the view of man, as represented by the Apostles below, until the day of his return.

The disturbed Apostles are interrupted by two angels who declare, “This same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven”.

Cahors-'15-182Accordingly, the Ascension, which was the theophanic vision adopted by Cluny as the chosen image for portal reliefs, was considered a prefiguration of the Second Coming.

At Cahors this is strikingly rendered by the prominent and dramatic poses of the two angels of Acts poised in both reverence and celebration.

Significantly, the Gospel of Saint Mark does not limit its account to Jesus passing from view but states, “He was received up into heaven and sat on the right hand of God”.

cahors-15-201-copyIn addition to the principal theme, on each side of the Ascension there are episodic representations of the life and death of Saint Stephen.

A series of scenes depict, first Stephen’s profession of faith before the angry Sanhedrin priests, then his expulsion from the city.

This association of the Ascension with the martyrdom of Stephen was not simply a way of commemorating the cathedral’s patron.

It was a juxtaposition intentionally derived from a longstanding exegetical tradition emanating from the writings of Gregory the Great in the sixth century and further expanded upon by Rabanus Maurus in the ninth.

cahors-15-16-copyThey drew an important link between the martyrdom of Stephen and the principal subject of the tympanum relief, the Ascension.

The very literal treatment of the episodes of the martyrdom arises directly from this exegetical tradition.

In the lapidation scene, Stephen’s gaze is fixed directly above. This is his vision prior to the moment of martyrdom. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen was possessed by the Holy Ghost and, “Said, behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God”.

cahors-15-135-copyThe account of the protomartyr’s vision of Jesus in heaven, together with Saint Mark’s narrative of the Ascension, were taken as the only texts which corroborated the appearance of the Son at the right hand of the Father after the Ascension.

The image which is depicted above the lapidation is of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost is represented by the hand which reaches down towards Stephen.

The Father is shown seated and the Son standing, both wear the cruciform halo. The iconological inference of the composition is drawn from the exegesis of Gregory and Rabanus Maurus.

cahors-15-113-bBoth writers had pondered the question posed by the differing accounts in Mark and the Acts of the Apostles. Whereas the Gospel of Saint Mark states that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, Stephen’s vision is of Christ standing.

As Rabanus asks, “How is it that Mark says seated and Stephen testifieth to seeing standing?” For Gregory the Great and Rabanus Maur, this apparent contradition is evidence of the duality of God’s nature, both Judge and Redeemer.

It serves to explain why for Stephen, who is redeemed by both his ministry and martyrdom, the vision he sees is of Christ standing in his role as Redeemer.

The attributes of Judgment and Redemption are present with both the Father and Son holding the Book of Life and right hand held up in benediction.

The presence also of the sun and moon confirm an Apocalyptic context. Stephen’s vision is of the moment after the Ascension, in other words, the celestial reality now veiled from man but available to Stephen in the moment of martyrdom and a reminder of the words of the angels of the Acts of the Apostles, that the Ascension was a prefiguration of the Apocalypse.

Sources and Biblio. La Cathédrale de Saint-Etienne de Cahors, Architecture et Sculpture, Marcel Durliat. Bulletin Monumental, 137 1979.

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

Quercy Roman. M. Vidal, J. Maury, J. Porcher. La Nuit des Temps, ed Zodiaque, 1959



One of the principal monasteries of the Cluniac Order, the abbey of Beaulieu was situated on the banks of the Dordogne river. Strategically positioned on the Compostela road, it was a key point of passage between the two regions of the Limousin and the Quercy.

beaulieu-71The southern porch features a tympanum relief sculpture whose style emanates from the same Languedocian tradition as the great sculptures at Moissac and Cahors.

Its dating is still disputed, however it can be fairly ascribed to the first half of the twelfth century.

The subject is the Second Coming of Matthew’s Gospel and the iconography is firmly influenced by the Late Antique Roman triumphal arches. These monuments were celebrations of imperial military victories.

beaulieu-184They depicted the victorious leader surrounded by his retinue of dignitaries being offered the trophies of the vanquished enemy who lay prostrate at his feet.

At Beaulieu, an enthroned Christ returns at the End of Time in the manner of an imperial victor. Surrounded by his Apostles, his trophies are borne aloft by an assembly of angels.

One bears the Instruments of The Passion symbolised by the nails of the Crucifixion.

Another bears the Crown of Heaven. Two more angels carry the bejewelled Cross, Matthews’ sign of the Son of Man.

Like the Roman emperor, Christ stands over the vanquished enemy, Death, represented on the lintel by the devouring beasts.

beaulieu-167A manuscript of the first decade of the twelfth century makes explicit the connection between the iconography of Imperial Rome and the Apocalyptic theophany.

“In what form shall Christ appear on the Day of Judgment?”, asked Honorius of Autun, rhetorically answering, ”In the manner of an emperor who enters a city, his crown and other insignia carried before him so that his advent might be recognised, the angels carrying his crown will lead the way”.

beaulieu-108“On his arrival they will resuscitate the Dead by their voices and their trumpets”. The Beaulieu theophany is an image of the Redeemer.

In the exegetical works of Cluny’s tenth century abbot, Odon, the four arms of the Cross symbolised the diffusion of Redemption to the four corners of the Earth. Similarly, the outstretched arms of the Beaulieu Christ reach out to encompass the whole world.

Immediately beneath the register of Christ and his Apostles are smaller figures who are pointing towards the theophanic spectacle to which they are witness.

beaulieu-145The seven figures are Jews, holding up their tunics to expose their circumcision and pagans wearing tricorn hats.

They represent those peoples of the earth who will, at the last day, be converted and redeemed along with the rest of humanity.

This notion derives from Gregory the Great’s treatment on the Book of Job, the Moralia, a work widely circulated in Cluniac libraries. Two copies of abbot Odon’s commentary were kept at the great abbey of Saint Martial of Limoges.

In this work, Gregory argued that the Jews would be the last to convert and that their initial opposition had been part of the divine plan, having obliged the Gospel to be spread abroad.

beaulieu-156Above the Jews and Pagans is the seated figure of Paul, notable for his own late conversion after initially persecuting the early Christians.

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans specifically had addressed the question of the redemption of the Jews.

The very presence of the unconverted on the tympanum of Beaulieu signifies that the Apocalyptic moment has arrived.

The Word has now come to the furthest reaches of the world and the Mission of the Apostles has been fulfilled.

Sources and Biblio: Art et réforme clunisienne : le porche sculpté de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, Barbara Franzé. Bulletin du centre d’études médiévales. Auxerre 18.2. 2014

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

Programmes Eschatologiques: Fonction et Réception Historiques des Portails du XIIe: Moissac – Beaulieu – Saint Denis, P Klein Cahiers de Civilisation Medieval 33 317-49

Limousin Roman J. Maury, M-M Gauthier, J. Porcher, La Nuit des Temps. Ed. Zodiaque 1960