The Lost Capitals of Mozac (Dennis Aubrey)


In the Auvergne near Clermont-Ferrand, PJ and I visited what remains of the great abbey church of Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais in Mozac. The abbey was one of the oldest and most important monasteries of the Auvergne, founded in the late seventh century and governed from the outset by the Rule of Saint Benedict. It was attached to the Abbey of Cluny in 1095 and bore the title “abbaye royale” and was placed under the protection of the King of France.

The passing years have done significant damage to the abbey. In the 15th century, an earthquake demolished the the apse, the transepts and the upper parts of the nave. The vault collapsed in 1741 and was rebuilt. But just a short time later, the abbey was dissolved during the French Revolution and little today remains of the great medieval abbey complex.

Abbaye de Mozac in the 15th Century, Guillaume Revel, L'armorial d'Auvergne, Bourbonois et Forestz de Guillaume Revel (Image in the Public Domain)

Abbaye de Mozac in the 15th Century, Guillaume Revel, L’armorial d’Auvergne, Bourbonois et Forestz de Guillaume Revel (Image in the Public Domain)

The remaining glories of Mozac are the Romanesque capitals ascribed to the “Master of Mozac”. These sophisticated and supremely beautiful sculptures are among the finest we have ever seen and those of the nave remain intact in their original position. This post is not about those beautiful works, however, but about the eight 12th century capitals of the hemicycle in the choir. These capitals disappeared in the earthquake that destroyed the eastern end of the church. In 1849, however, the architect Mallay discovered two of them during his excavation of the ancient crypt. It seems that when the sanctuary collapsed into the crypt, the new apse was erected (half the size of the original) on top of the old.

Mallay discovered two enormous capitals in the ruins, each weighing over 1300 pounds. The first is the great “Resurrection” capital that is displayed on the altar. This sculpture shows the women who discovered the empty tomb of Christ after the crucifixion, named by Luke as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “the others with them”. On the opposite side of the capital, sleeping soldiers guard the empty tomb.

Resurrection capital, [Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey"

Resurrection capital, [Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey”

In the detail shot that follows, we can see the sleeping guard with his arm resting on the tomb.

Resurrection capital detail - guard at the Tomb of Christ,Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Resurrection capital detail – guard at the Tomb of Christ,Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The faces of the women are superbly rendered. The most beautiful represents, in PJ’s view, Mary Magdalene. It is interesting to contrast the sophistication of the this face with the relative naivete of the image of the guard.

Resurrection detail, Mary Magdeleine, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Resurrection detail, Mary Magdeleine, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The second capital that Mallay uncovered was the “Atalantes” capital. In architecture, an Atlantean or Telamon is a male version of the caryatid. This piece is currently displayed in the west aisle of the church.

Atalantes capital, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Atalantes capital, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

This large capital has an Atlantean carved into each corner, each on his knees and supporting the weight above. Originally these figures would be seen supporting the arches of the hemicycle.

"Atalantes" capital, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

“Atalantes” capital, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This detail shot shows the beauty and sensitivity of the carving, which was done in hard limestone. All of these capitals would originally have been painted.

Atalantes capital detail, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Atalantes capital detail, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The discoveries were not finished, however; in 1914 a priest named Luzuy extracted a third (also on the theme of the Atalantes) from the wall of the rebuilt Gothic choir, where it had been reused in the construction. This capital suffered a great deal of damage.

A fourth was found some time between 1914 and 1937 (there are no records of who found it or where). A private party who lived next to the abbey had the capital lying in the garden for years. It was loaned to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and then in 1937 it was sold to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Evangelist capital, Victoria and Albert Museum

Evangelist capital, Victoria and Albert Museum

The capital depicts the four angels displaying scrolls diagonally across their bodies. Each scroll contains a text relating to one of the four Evangelists.

The last of the capitals is unique in the iconography of western Christianity. It is the “Revelations” capital (sometimes called the “Apocalpyse” capital) depicting four angels and the four winds. The capital was discovered on September 7, 1983 by Father Jean-Granet and extracted from the south wall. The theme is from Revelations – “And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.” King James Bible, Revelations 7:1.

Revelations capital, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Revelations capital, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The winds depict the judgment of God on humanity. The four angels (lovingly carved on the corners of the stone) restrain the winds of judgment until God releases them. In the following shot of the detail of the capital, we can still see the remains of the polychrome that once adorned the sculpture.

Revelations capital detail, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Revelations capital detail, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

I can only think of a handful of churches that PJ and I have visited solely to photograph the sculpture – the Basilique Saint-Andoche in Saulieu being one – but Mozac was among this small number. This post only begins to demonstrate the skill and artistry of the “Master of Mozac,” whose work is still coming to light. Five have been rediscovered – perhaps the remaining three will some day be found as well.

Location: 45.890591° 3.094681°

11 responses to “The Lost Capitals of Mozac (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Susan, one of the delights of these capitals is that they are at ground level. It is possible to study and photograph them quite closely. As you might know, we use long lenses (especially the 400mm) lens when photographing the normal capitals in situ. But the three hemicycle capitals that remain in Mozac we could shoot with whatever lens worked best for the job.

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