The Romanesque Tympanum (Dennis Aubrey)

This post will feature five of the great sculptural tympana in French Romanesque architecture, those in Arles, Conques, Autun, Vezelay, and Saint Gilles. The tympanum is the sculpted semi-circular surface above a portal and achieved ethereal artistry during this era.

The western portal of the Cathédrale Saint-Trophime in Arles is the centerpiece of a magnificent sculpted facade ensemble. Known as the Tympanum of the Last Judgment, the composition features Christ in a mandorla surrounded by four winged creatures representing the Four Evangelists. Matthew, author of the first gospel, is represented by an angel. Mark the Evangelist, author of the second gospel, is symbolized by a winged lion. Luke the Evangelist, author of the third gospel, is symbolized by the winged ox. John the Evangelist, author of the fourth gospel, is represented by an eagle. Below the main composition we can see the row of seated apostles holding books.

Cathédrale Saint-Trophime, Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The tympanum of Conques is a much more complex work. The subject is also the Last Judgment, but the imagery is much more direct. The the right of the Christ are the saved while to his left are the damned. The images of the saved are comforting and reassuring, but the fiery tortures of the damned are far more interesting. The enormous ensemble was not originally found here on the western facade but most likely was placed inside and moved later, when this portal was constructed. This shot was taken the night of the Festival of Saint Foy as the pilgrims gathered before the church to begin their candlelit parade through the town.

Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The tympanum of Cathédrale Saint Lazare in Autun is a supreme accomplishment of medieval sculpture and has the additional cache of having what many believe is the artist’s signature, “Gislebertus hoc fecit” directly below the Christ in Mandorla. Others (Linda Seidel, “Legends in Limestone: Lazarus, Gislebertus, and the Cathedral of Autun”) dispute the attribution, probably a reaction against 20th Century art historians who professed to see a whole oeuvre of work throughout France that was created by the same hand as that sculpted this tympanum. Whatever the truth of Gislebertus, there is no doubt as to the genius and inspiration of the creator.

Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d'Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The tympanum at Vézelay is unique both in its subject and its location. Instead of the conventional position over an outside portal, this one is in the narthex opening into the great nave of the basilica. The subject is the Pentecost, the Mission of the Apostles. Christ is flanked by his Apostles and he instructs them to go out and evangelize all people of the earth. Below this main part of the sculpture is a line of figures representing all the heathen peoples of the world, including the “Monstrous Races” of distant lands. These last are symbolized by legendary giant-eared Panotii of India.

The symbolism of the tympanum is also unique. Vézelay was always closely associated with the Crusades. Pope Urban II originally planned to call for the first crusade at the Basilique Sainte Madeleine but later changed the location to Clermont-Ferrand. On the 31st of March, 1146 Saint Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade here before a giant crowd of nobles and gentry. In 1189 Richard the Lion-Hearted and King Phillipe-Augustus of France met here to begin the Third Crusade. The tympanum (completed in the years between the First and Second Crusades) represents a spiritual defense of the Crusades, providing a Christian allegory for the Crusader mission.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Back to the south of France we find the magnificent remains of the Abbey Church of Saint Gilles du Gard. This was once one of the greatest pilgrimage churches, but the religious wars of the 16th Century resulted in the destruction of the apse and caused damage to the sculptures. But what remains is extraordinary (and served as the inspiration for Henry Hobson Richardson‘s Trinity Church in Boston, the birthplace of the American Romanesque Revival architecture). The entire western face with its wide frontage is covered with sculpture. This tympanum depicts the Last Judgment in the same way as that of Saint Trophime; Christ is surrounded by his symbolic Four Evangelists.

Abbaye de Saint-Gilles, Saint-Gilles-du-Gard (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There are a wealth of these tympana throughout France and they are part of the Romanesque treasure that provides so much richness to that country. They are monuments to the faith that raised them, the hands that carved them, and the religion that guided them. (By the way, PJ has just added a post showing the details from the Conques tympanum.)

29 thoughts on “The Romanesque Tympanum (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Hi, I just ran across your site while doing a little research on a related topic. I was wondering if there is you would have any info, or even any theories as to who may have carved the tympanum of Conques? I am hunting down all the leads I can pertaining to medieval depictions of Christ specifically making those gestures. Thanks for you help, great site!

    1. Michael, if you are asking who actually did the carving, we have no information on that. There is no “Robertus me fecit” as at Notre Dame du Port in Clermont Ferrand, “Giselbertus hoc fecit” as at Cathedrale Saint Lazare in Autun, or “Gofridus me fecit” in Chauvigny at the Collegiale Saint Pierre. It is pretty clear when the Conques tympanum was made – sometime between 1030 and 1070. The gesture to which you referring is quite common – I know that it is at the tympanum in Conques, Saint Pierre de Moissac, Église Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens (Goujounac), Saint Etienne de Cahors, Saint Pierre de Carennac, Saint Trophime (Arles), and there are early Romanesque versions in Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines at the Église Saint-Michel and the Eglise Saint-André at Saint André de Sorède. Specifically, the gesture is one of benediction or blessing. Of all the tympana that I can recall at this moment, the only depiction of Christ not giving this gesture is at Saint Pierre in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. Hope this helps.

    1. We were in Andorra a few years ago and were terribly disappointed. For some reason, almost every single church was closed and the entire country is full of huge cranes building condos. My earlier memories of the principality being a wild mountain country was overthrown by a mecca for shoppers. I do hope you have much better luck than we did. Thanks for coming to the Via Lucis site. I was very interested in your take on the Compostella pilgrimage.

      1. Thanks for the feedback! If you liked the Santiago Pilgrimage travelogue, then you might as well enjoy the Silk Road travelogue…I will post it in a couple of days.

  2. Thanks for visiting the Rowanberry Studio blog. I came to see what your blog is about, and really enjoy your site. There is so much information here, and wonderful photos. I am bookmarking, and will be back to explore in the future! Great job.

  3. I love your photos and your knowledge of religious architecture. I am also a fan. While I don’t pretend to know much about the history behind such fabulous structures, I know some; I find the historical aspects of religious artifacts and structures i.e., churches/basilicas fascinating and so incredibly beautiful. I wish that architects would have continued to follow in the footsteps of the fathers of early age architecture and brought some of that knowledge to the US. Our country lacks the history, beauty, and splendor. Unfortunately, not many travel the world to see such beauty. Even if people are not religious there is something to be said about walking into the Vatican or an ancient basilica.

    1. Louise, thank you for the kind words about our Via Lucis project. It is very special for PJ and I to do this together, but I guess that you and Lloyd know this for yourselves. Actually, there are a surprising number of European-style churches and cathedrals in the United States. In the last year we shot in Washington DC, Providence, and Boston (the great Trinity Church!) and we hope to shoot at Saint John the Divine in New York in June. There were Romanesque and Gothic revivals at the end of the 19th and early 20th Century in the US – in fact the Bryn Athyn Cathedral in Pennsylvania was re-designed to take advantage of the newly (re-)discovered medieval entasis.

      I know that most of these churches are on this side of the country and not in Oregon, but it is easier than going to Europe. BTW, do you know the work of Kathy Sievers, the Hillsboro, Oregon iconographer?

      We wish you the best of luck on your worthy project.

  4. thank you for “liking” my pitiful little picture of a steeple. I only wish I could actually see with my own eyes the beautiful sites you have photographed. You are very fortunate and blessed.

    1. Thank you, Sindy. The photography of these Romanesque and Gothic churches is our life’s work and we are glad when people see them with the same enthusiasm that we do.

  5. I have followed Via Lucis with pleasure for quite sometime but your article on the Romanesque tympanum prompts me to to send you a picture that I recently took of the South portal at Moissac abbey. it demonstrates one of the problems of photographing religious buildings which often display a lot of detail but with a limited colour palette. The portal contains the well-known representation of the Last Judgement.

    My photograph is pin-sharp even at 100% magnification revealing every detail, including the pigeon on Christ’s head, which rather reduces the solemnity of the occasion! The 24 elders of the Old Testament look as if they are splitting their sides.

    I just didn’t see the beast against the grey background. I guess it could have been masquerading as the Holy Spirit.

    The image is at

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