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.
The 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.
They 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.
A 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”.
“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.
The 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.
Above 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