Curious Corbels of Saint Gemme (Dennis Aubrey)


The Prieuré Sainte Gemme is a Romanesque priory church built in the 12th Century in the Saintonge style that we have explored before. We can see the highly sculpted west facade featuring stunning carvings on all of the archivolts. The church is – no pun intended – a gem.

West facade,  Prieuré Sainte Gemme, Sainte Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West facade, Prieuré Sainte Gemme, Sainte Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is one feature of the priory church that is completely charming and worth a special look – a series of imaginative corbels. In architecture a corbel is a structural piece of stone jutting from a wall to carry a superincumbent weight, in other words, a type of bracket. Romanesque masons often used these distant features as a place to showcase their sense of fun and satire, and nowhere is this more apparent than at this small church. At Sainte Gemme, there are two orders of corbels; the first is above the portals and the other above the second story arches.

Bearded man, Prieuré Sainte Gemme, Sainte Gemme (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Bearded man, Prieuré Sainte Gemme, Sainte Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The varying styles of the carving are displayed with this realistic bearded man and a thoroughly menacing demon. The demon shows deeply carved features adding special depth to the threatening mouth and eyes.

Demon, Prieuré Sainte Gemme, Sainte Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Demon, Prieuré Sainte Gemme, Sainte Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Contrast that demon with a carving of an impish man sticking out his tongue. This is a cartoonish figure full of fun and merriment, a figure that PJ and I call a “braticus”.

Man sticking out tongue, Prieuré Sainte Gemme, Sainte Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Man sticking out tongue, Prieuré Sainte Gemme, Sainte Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This cartoon character gives way to a surrealistic image of a lion with a man’s head in his mouth. The sharp-fanged lion is ferocious and the man’s face expresses his terror at being devoured.

Lion with man in mouth, Prieuré Sainte Gemme, Sainte Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Lion with man in mouth, Prieuré Sainte Gemme, Sainte Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But for me, nothing is more evocative than this triple-faced figure found directly above the central portal on the first order of corbels. Whether the figure is looking left, right and center of the door or possibly expressing some kind of human duplicity, this is a deeply disturbing figure. It is not one face looking in different directions, but three different faces completely. Even the hair is different for each.

Triple visage, Prieuré Sainte Gemme, Sainte Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Triple visage, Prieuré Sainte Gemme, Sainte Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

These are just a few of the more three dozen corbels that adorn the western facade. As interesting a church as Sainte Gemme proved to be, the corbels were the highlight of our late-afternoon visit.

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

23 responses to “Curious Corbels of Saint Gemme (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Thank you for these shots. Yes, you are right, the three faced image is disturbing in one sense – if you view it as the triplicity (is there such a word!!) of man; however, maybe, just maybe, it might be the sculptor’s attempt to portray The Holy Trinity. I would be interested to know what the other sculptures are around it, this might give us a clue as to his intent.
    Possibly, the sculptor is making a somewhat veiled social/political comment on the political leaders of the day – we can certainly relate to that!

    • Paul, it is surrounded by lions, women, monsters, and a saltimbanque, so I don’t think there is a real iconographic program going on here. As far as the political commentary, I think that is probably the closest understanding that we could come to!

  2. The first time I saw this type of carving in the “flesh” was at a small church in Chipping Norton in England. They were fascinating then and still are; not only the variety of the portraits but the skill of the carvers.

    • These corbels are everywhere, of course, but we were struck by those at Sainte Gemme. Nearby at Surgéres there is another great set, but those will have to wait for another post!

  3. Pingback: Dragons, lions and whatnot | L'Historien Errant

  4. Chers amis,
    La façade Ouest de l’église prieurale de Sainte-Gemme fut fortement restaurée entre 1869 et 1870 : environ 80% des parements et des sculptures sont modernes.
    La plupart des modillons sont l’œuvre de tailleurs de pierre du XIXe siècle…
    Avec toute ma considération,

      • Ci-joint le dessin d’Auguin (vers 1840) montrant la facade Ouest de l’eglise etayee par trois immenses contreforts (remarques aussi archeologiquement).

        Peu des sculptures et des parements du Moyen age ont resiste…

        Un modillon medieval expose dans le petit musee jouxtant l’eglise montre la lutte d’un homme avec un serpent. Sur la facade de l’eglise, a gauche de la corniche inferieure, les tailleurs de pierre des annees 1869-1870 ont represente sur le premier modillon un serpent et sur le troisieme un homme, ce fait montre qu’a Sainte-Gemme les maitres du XIXe (c’est l’epoque ou Viollet-le-Duc beaucoup cree) n’ont pas suivi les anciens modeles.

        En plus, le projet de restauration de la facade montre plusieurs variantes pour le meme element d’architecture (portail, fenetree) ! Bon courage et belles photos.

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