Grandeur and Misery of the female representation
in Romanesque iconography
The basilica of Notre-Dame du Port, in Clermont-Ferrand, a major building of Romanesque art in Auvergne, was completely renovated in 2009, which allowed to fully appreciate its unique architecture, especially the wealth of its choir where a series of capitals by the sculptor Robertus exhibits a remarkable iconographic dramaturgy extending from Genesis to the Assumption. The brown brush strokes added to the capitals make them more visible to the visitor’s eye, but photography in high resolution reveals a certain coarseness of some features that distorts the original expression of the characters. Fortunately, such a restoration is nondestructive, reversible and could be improved in the future.
One of the capitals in this choir, representing Paradise Lost, leads me to a reflection on the contemporary look that can be worn on the art, especially through the representation of women in religious iconography of the romanesque and more generally the medieval age. It shows an ugly and deformed body of Eve (with a navel, which denotes naïvety or ignorance of the artist) handing to Adam the forbidden fruit offered by the serpent (unless she herself, doubly guilty, corrupts both of them)! On the other capitals, the female figure of the Virgin Mary, the “New Eve” is fortunately treated quite better, but still awkwardly.
This obviously induces a distorted and very negative image of women – supposedly impure and lower – which has gone all along the Middle Ages, through more or less relevant interpretations of an epistle of St. Paul or comments of saint Gregory , although other theologians, such as St. Victor and St. Thomas Aquinas have somewhat, but only partially, corrected the dogma of masculine superiority.
The distrust of women is to be found in numerous carvings, such as the so called “luxuries,” in which a feminine figure intermingles with a snake. One of the most curious sculptures related to the “luxures” is a capital in the church of Langogne (Lozère) showing a woman with two monsters attached to her breasts. The proliferation of sirens (usually considered as symbols of temptation) in Romanesque iconography is also no stranger to this reputation of evil related to women.
Even the iconography illustrating episodes of the Gospel is not immune to a hierarchy in which the woman is often situated “below”, as is the case of Madeleine, lying under the dining table at Jesus’ feet. A striking example of this representation can be seen on a tympanum of the church of Saint-Hilaire-la-Croix, in Auvergne.
There is some similarity, at least from a pictorial point of view, with the acrobatic performance of the unholy Salomé creeping under the table at the banquet of Herod : a capital of the Church of Saint-Sever in Béarn is a good example.
It can be noted that even the admirable romanesque “Thrones of Virtue” (the wooden madonnas of Auvergne in particular) obey such a hierarchy; the hieratic figure of Mary being primarily engaged in presenting the Child Jesus to the World.
Such was the conventional rule until the Gothic era and, later, the Renaissance, gave birth to a more smiling and graceful image of Mary and the female characters. Only one romanesque image diverges dramatically with this vision: that of the lying Eve of the Autun lintel, in the Musée Rolin. Beautiful, languid and sensual, this figure of Eve definitely seems more attractive and suggestive than struck by the original sin! However, it has been suggested that this lintel was placed above a low door of the church, forcing symbolically as well as physically the processing faithful passing through the door to bend repentfully under the weight of sin. Whatever the motivations of the sculptor (probably Gislebertus himself), it remains that this image expresses the freedom of the artist and his aspiration towards beauty beyond the stereotypes of his time.
Such an exception leads us to reconsider the way we observe and understand today a medieval religious iconography that is never to be simply reduced to an illustration of some narrow exegesis now largely obsolete . We should rather admire, in an anthropological perspective, how modest and frequently anonymous stonecarvers and masons were able, while remaining dependent on their times, their society and its customs, to create pieces of art fully deserving contemporary admiration. I mention incidentally that, in his excellent academic book: “L’iconographie mediévale,” Jérôme Baschet , while throwing new lights on the subject, gives some valuable tracks to enjoy the full flavour of Romanesque art.
As a conclusion, to illustrate the primacy of artistic creative freedom , opposite to the dull and stubborn tradition of “bible for the illiterate” that has long been attached to historiated capitals, I consider as a unique masterpiece a small mask, arising from the foliage on a capital of the Abbaye of Mozac, which was enthusiastically described for the first time by Bernard Craplet (“L’Auvergne Romane”, ed. Zodiaque).
The overwhelming humanity which enlightens this face proclaims how an obscure and nevertheless great artist of the twelfth century anticipated all the expressiveness that took place in Art at the Renaissance time.