One incredible feature of Romanesque art in all forms is the fact that the creators are, for the most part, anonymous. No headlines, no public tributes or fame acknowledge their skill and accomplishments. It was enough to create for the greater glory and love of God. The capital sculpture in the churches offers a clear example of this. The skill level varies from the consummate artisan, to the local stone cutter who seems to have come to his task by default. The capitals read like pages in a book of Christian history. They are exploited to tell the bible stories that we all know as well as stories of suffering and survival, triumphs and failures over sin and its punishments. It was a stone canvas treated as a tool to teach, to guide, and to warn. Sin and its messenger, the devil, are always with us. We must be vigilant. This is serious business. The artisans took this assignment to heart. The capital sculptures were meant to be solemn messages.
And then, in contrast, there is the Collégiale Saint-Pierre in Chauvigny. First, as a church, Chauvigny is a circus of pattern, shape, light and color. There exists a hint of what these churches must have looked like before the spoils of time stripped them of their fragile interior painting. From the capitals to the columns, to the very walls, there is no gloom, no sense of foreboding in this church. Rather, there is a feeling of joy and lightness. There is innocence here. Atop some of the gaily painted columns, swirling with color, demons are carved and painted. But as they surround the altar they are more like cartoon characters than the perils of hell and somehow we know they can’t really hurt us. In fact, it’s obvious. The artist of these whimsical creatures is Gofridus. We know that because, unlike so many others, he signed his worked. “Gofridus me fecit”, “Gofridus made me”. He signed the Visit of the Magi, center on the altar, visible to all.
I wonder what the church fathers thought when they first saw his work. I can’t imagine that these capitals achieved the desired effect – fear of sin and eternal damnation. I’ve seen and photographed hundreds of capitals and must say that those of Chauvigny are the only ones that make me smile. I’m charmed by them. At heart, Gofridus was an optimist; blessed are the innocent. Even the people of his sculptures look like children, ignorant of the dangers inherent in being human. These people cannot be corrupted. Their wide eyes and dreamlike expressions are more angelic than mortal. In any other hands, these scenes of demons tearing humans apart would be a nightmare. At the hands of Gofridus, the demons are powerless, strictly for show. The victims can hardly keep a straight face. Dennis lived in Chauvigny as a young boy and haunted this church. I think that Gofridus had quite an impact on him!
And Gofridus was certainly bold. The capitals are oversized in proportion to the columns. This was a craftsman confident of his message and materials. His iconography is not unusual, for we see variations on these same themes and stories in many other churches of the time. But somehow in the hands of this artist the interpretation changed. His personality is evident. He cannot hide his playfulness or his exuberance. By signing his work perhaps he is acknowledging the primary collaboration of God and his creation, man. I don’t believe it was vanity. God and Gofridus were a team. God gave the talent and Gofridus used it for God’s work. God made him, so, what he makes is, therefore, from the hand of God. How could the priests argue with that?
“Trust me,” we hear him saying, “You’ll love it.”
If you are interested in seeing more of these images, please see the Via Lucis website.
✚ This is a repost of one of my favorite articles by PJ from a few years ago. ✚