The Mysterious Capitals of Biollet (Dennis Aubrey)

The village of Biollet is located in the very rural Auvergne commune of Combrailles. It is only 30 miles from the metropolitan area of Clermont-Ferrand, but that short distance takes an hour to drive. Biollet itself boasts 379 inhabitants and has, according to Wikipedia, a density of 41 people per square mile. When I visited the website for the town, I was the 785th visitor. In researching the town, I found a video on the Fête du cheval à Biollet which perfectly conveys the sense of the village.

The town is part of the land once held by the small and insular Celtic tribe of the Cambovices and was transected by the Via Agrippa, a major Roman road between Lyon and Saintes d’Agrippa. In the center of the town is the Église Saint Pierre, a mostly Romanesque 11th Century church of modest interest in a land replete with churches of extraordinary interest. But inside is a set of capitals that are absolutely unique. We have shot over 400 churches in France but have never seen anything like the carvings in Saint Pierre de Biollet.

Église Saint Pierre, Biollet (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

At first we thought these were extremely naif and primitive sculptures, in fact we referred to them as the “ET” capitals. We imagined that they were carved by some relative of the mason who built the church – “Oh, my son? He’s an artist. He can carve your capitals. And if you hire him, you’ll get the family rate!” They certainly seemed at odds with the sophistication of the architecture of the church itself.

But while the execution may or may not be primitive and unsophisticated, as we looked more intently at the capitals we discovered a complex and enigmatic iconography featuring passionate embraces, decapitation, pagan gods, and more. What is the sense in this?

Capital, Église Saint Pierre, Biollet (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The answer may lie deeper in time and further distant than French Romanesque sculpture. The British Isles have the greatest collection of Celtic stone sculpture, especially in Ireland where there was no Roman hegemony to interrupt two millennia of Celtic culture. We found several examples of Irish Celtic sculptures that are very similar to the capitals of Biollet.

This figure from the Boa Island off the coast of Northern Ireland would be immediately familiar to those who have viewed the Biollet sculptures.

Boa Island figure, Boa Island (Ireland) Photographer: Jon Sullivan (Photograph in the public domain)

The figures on the base of the High Cross of Moone feature the same figural style in both humans and animals. The Moone cross is a work of amazing sophistication which was carved perhaps 150 years earlier than Biollet. This cross does not represent a departure from earlier Celtic sculpture in Ireland, but a continuum. It may be that Biollet somehow represents a similar continuum with Celtic culture in the Auvergne.

Base of High Cross of Moone (County Kildaire, Ireland) Photo by Michael Farry

And finally, there are a series of Celtic statues from White Island, all of which carry the familial resemblance to the Biollet capitals. They suggest that there was a pan-European Celtic culture, undisturbed in Ireland, but still alive in France as well.

Celtic statues from White Island (Fermanagh County, Ireland) Copyright Kenneth Allen (Geograph Project) licensed under Creative Commons

In Biollet, Celtic influences co-mingled with Christian. The figure with the cross is clearly Christian, but the others? Decapitation was common in Celtic art because the Celts cut off because the heads of their enemies for display. Notice how the figure to the right of the cross-holder is carrying a severed head. The meaning of the capital is a mystery, however.

Capital with severed heads, Église Saint Pierre, Biollet (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is another capital featuring the Celtic god Sucellus (apparently he was exclusive to the Gauls), whose name means “one who hits hard.” He is represented in this capital in the traditional manner as a bearded man carrying a jar, a symbol of fertility, and a hammer with two heads – one of which may cause death and the other resurrection.

Celtic god Sucellus, Église Saint Pierre, Biollet (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

A small monograph in French called “Biollet, Figures d’entre deux mondes,” by Albert and Monique Pinto (2007) further discusses these capitals and their possible interpretation as a fusion of Celtic Gaul and medieval Christianity.

Église Saint Pierre, Biollet (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

So despite our initial reaction to the capitals, we have come to realize that there is a sophisticated iconography at work at Saint Pierre de Biollet. And perhaps even more importantly, what we took to be primitive execution in stone may be a stylistic choice that hearkens to deep Celtic roots that spread throughout Europe for a thousand years. The Celtic and Christian imagery merged into an iconography unique to this small region in the Massif Central. And we made the same mistake that we so often criticize in others, believing that those who precede are somehow more primitive and less sophisticated than ourselves. Picasso, Derain, and Braque were strongly influenced by Romanesque art because they recognized in it a truthfulness and power of expression that had all but vanished from modern art. Our own lack of understanding of the true intentions of Biollet’s sculptors should occasion in us some kind of humility instead of a rash assumption of superiority.

So Biollet remains outside of our comprehension – eloquent, fascinating, and unclassifiable. And the figures on the capitals mock us gently.

Location: Click this link to see the location on our custom Google Map.

7 responses to “The Mysterious Capitals of Biollet (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Dennis, these are great. Could they be from an earlier structure reincorporated in the new church? I wish Françoise Henry were alive to look at them for us! I’m going to look for the Pinto publication. Thank you for something new today!

    • Nice to hear from you again. Biollet is a bit of a mystery to us. At first we thought of these capitals as cartoons, but realized later that they may be part of a longer visual tradition.

  2. Congratulations for this excellent review. Thank you for quoting our bookl et ” Figures d’entre deux mondes” dedicated to the capitals of St Pierre de Biollet. They are indeed unique in the whole romanesque sculpture in France by their coherent reference to celtic themes . I think that further studies can throw some new lights on those strange figures that were for long contempted as “personnages larvaires”…
    I appreciate particularly your excellent photographs that are rather sharper than mine, though I am usin a Nikon D300.
    I have also for some time attempted to realize an iconography as axhaustive as possible of romanesque madonnas, especially in Auvergne.
    (The study of Helen Forsythe is particularly helpful in such an enterprise).
    I think you are welle aware that the so called “black madonnas” recover only a very marginal aspect, since the romanesque “thrones of Virtue” were originally polychrome, when not entirely gilded ( which was probably the case of the mythic “Vierge d’or de Clermont”.
    I’d be glad to hear from you.
    Albert Pinto

    • Albert, we are delighted to hear from you. You might have seen from an earlier comment that Professor Janet Marquardt was going to look at your monograph on the iconography of Biollet. She is currently preparing a book on the Editions Zodiaque (and will be doing a post here next week).

      We are very interested in seeing your work on the Vierge Romanes, which are of particular interest to both PJ and myself. We have several posts on them on this site and many photographs. Ilene Forsythe’s book “The Throne of Wisdom” is the most important work that we have found on these figures and is our constant guide. Your point about the Black Madonnas is well taken – we know that both Notre Dame de Mont Cornador at Saint Nectaire and Notre Dame des Fers in Orcival were both considered vierges noires until the restoration returned them to their original polychrome aspect. There is much nonsense written about the Black Madonnas and we would welcome a volume that addresses the iconography clearly. Please let us know when the book is published so that we can get a copy.

  3. These do indeed bear a great resemblance to Celtic sculptures. But in regard to the bearded figure with the hammer, Sucellus is widely depicted carrying a staff-length hammer, not a short one like this. Could this instead be a version of Thor with his hammer? The object he carries does not resemble a jar so much as it does two cloven hoofs, one facing up and the other down. A devil, perhaps? but now my imagination is running away with me. What a mystery….thanks for writing about these, and illustrating them.

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