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Tag Archives: Aulnay-de-Saintonge


The church of Saint-Pierre-de-la-Tour at Aulnay de Saintonge lies along the Tours route to Santiago de Compostela. The capital reliefs both on the exterior and the interior of the church feature a series of disembodied heads or masks.

Their meaning is obscure but similar heads can be found at other churches in the area. These images are particular to the region of the southern Poitou and Saintonge and one can therefore suppose that there was some intention behind their presence at strategic points in the church structure which was once intelligible to the inhabitants of this part of western France.

On the exterior of the north side of the building there is perhaps some clue to their significance. There one can see a head which appears to be that of some devouring, possibly androphagous or man-eating semi human creature. It notably lacks a lower jaw.

Aulnay-Masks-8Olivier Beigbeder has drawn attention to a possible connection between this image and that of an ancient Chinese motif commonly found on bronze vessels which were used for ritual purposes going back to the Neolithic period.

Having a head but no body it was said that the creature ate people but could not swallow them. It is notable that this image is presented on the north side of the church, the shadow side.

A connection can be drawn with the Leviathan as described in the Book of Job and which is featured on the porch sculptures at Conques and Espalion devouring the Damned. In Job the question is put, who can “draw out Leviathan with an hook” and  medieval exegetical writings interpreted the answer to this riddle  to be Christ. As Honorius of Autun declared, Christ’s hook destroys Leviathan’s jaw.

Within the church, three other capitals featuring dismebodied heads begin to assume progressively more human features, although stylistically ressembling that on the exterior of the north side. Aulnay-Masks-2There is evidence to suggest that the four heads allude to the four elements. The first on the outside signifying the earth and more particularly the subterranean.

Inside, on the columns which line the south side of the nave is another with sightless eyes and pointed ears.  The twelve partitions of the hair suggest the phases of the moon  and the lack of a beard implies the feminine which corresponds also with the lunar aspect. The tidal currents determined by the moon, connoting water.

Further along towards the eastern end of the church is another capital with two heads.Aulnay-Masks-7 This time the faces are strikingly bearded and the eyes with clearly defined pupils created the impression of a strong gaze.

Just above the decoration of the laurel leaves containing rosettes convey the impression of mandorlas and the promise of election to Paradise.

These masculine faces, eyes wide open and contemplating the choices to be made indicate the indeterminate element of air.

Aulnay-Masks-1On the north side of the nave is to be found a fourth mask whose features no longer have the zoomorphic qualities of the others.

Another striking  face this time with a piercing direct gaze. The beard is seperated into six strands, the number associated with power.

The flame like hair gives the impression of a solar deity and the element of fire.

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.

Depictions of the Twenty-Four Elders are a recurrent feature of Romanesque sculpture of the twelfth century. Enthroned and crowned they variously bear musical instruments and bowls, goblets or phials. Numerous examples are to be found along the pilgrimage roads, most notably at Aulnay de Saintonge, Oloron-Sainte-Marie, Saintes, Compostela itself  and most striking of all at Moissac.

The Biblical reference is from the Book of Revelation 4.4 And around the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold. Along with the Four Beasts they surround in attitudes of worship and reverence an anonymous enthroned figure.

In Chapter 5.8 the Elders are described as: having every one of them harps and golden vials full of odours which are the prayers of the saints.

This is the scene which is represented at Aulnay de Saintonge and Oloron-Sainte-Marie.

At Oloron the tympanum of the western porch features the Descent from the Cross surrounded on the outer arch by the assembly of the Elders, twelve on each side of an apex featuring the Lamb bearing the Cross.

The south porch at Aulnay has four registers of voussoirs. An outer one of a phantasmagorical bestiary, a second of prophets and saints and a third of enthroned and crowned figures with their appropriate attributes of vials and musical instruments identifying them clearly as the Elders, their penetrating gaze fastened on the Apocalyptic scene before them. Curiously they number thirty-one whereas the number of saints and prophets is twenty-four and several of the saints and prophets of the inner register bear also vials very similar to those held by the Elders. At the crown of the inner register is the Lamb.

The emblems which these figures share are the vials, instruments, crowns and perhaps significantly that they are all enthroned. In Revelation 4.10 the Elders fall down and cast off their crowns before the One.

That the most common Romanesque sculptural depictions of the Elders  show them as enthroned when the text mentions also that they fall down in attitude of reverence, may be due to their conflation, by several medieval writers, with the thrones of Chapter 20.4: And I saw thrones and they sat upon them and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls  of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the Word of God and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.

This passage follows on from the angel binding and casting down Satan into the abyss for a thousand years and thereby associates the enthroned figures with the martyred saints and their millennial rule as judges.

This seems to explain the sculptural programme of the western porch at the Abbaye-aux-Dames at Saintes.

On the outer arch the voussoirs present the Elders and the inner arch the Massacre of the Innocents, identifiable by the Egyptian garb of the executioners.

The emphasis on decapitation and the adult proportions of the victims suggests that the Massacre of the Innocents is here seen as a prefiguration of the martyrdom of the saints. The association of the two iconographic elements would imply a reference to Revelation 20.4 and evidence of the identification of the Elders with the anonymous Thrones.

This is given further weight by the inclusion, as in other programmes which refer to the Elders,  of the Apocalyptic Lamb at the crown of the penultimate arch.

The Augustinian eschatological position was that the millennium signified the period from the Incarnation to the Final Judgment and that the millennial reign of Christ and the Saints on earth actually represented the present time of the Church. Thus the anonymous enthroned figures of Revelation 20.4 were a combination of Elders, Saints, Prophets and prelates of the church: the celestial and terrestrial churches combined.

Out of these elements of ambiguity the question arises of whether depictions of the Twenty-Four Elders refer to the Apocalypse or the Last Judgment or perhaps a combined image of both.

The ninth century Frankish Benedictine Rabanus Maurus included the Four Beasts and the Twenty-Four Elders in his text on the vision of the Second Coming of Matthew’s Gospel

At Moissac’s southern porch, one of the most perfect of Romanesque sculptural ensembles, the tympanum presents the Twenty-Four Elders and the Tetramorph of the Four Beasts or Living Creatures as described in Revelation 4.4 but seated on the central throne in the place of the anonymous One, usually represented by the Lamb, is Christ in Majesty.

The Elders all have their heads turned towards the theophanic vision. Their postures are relaxed in the cross legged positions commonly reserved for regal subjects such as King David: a reference to their complementary roles as judges.

The surprising prominence given to Twenty-Four Elders in Romanesque sculpture along the pilgrimage roads is, in view of their relatively insignificant textual  presence, perhaps explained by their most important attribute: the vials containing the prayers of the saints.

In that era when the cult of saintly relics was at its height, the Elders represented the culmination of the intercessory structure underpinning the Christian world.

At the crucial moment of Apocalypse and Judgment, those prayers made by the faithful to the saints via the mediation of the guardians of the relics, monks and clerics, were present.

The ultimate expression of this is at Compostela. The trumeau of the Portico de la Gloria bearing the relief image of  the Apostle James rises up to support the Apocalyptic image of the tympanum where Christ in Majesty is surrounded by the Twenty-Four Elders. The Apostle is presented as a conduit between Earth and Heaven, prayers and pilgrimage at his shrine will be transmitted through his intercessory aspect and held in the vials of the Elders.