The Soul of Genius (Dennis Aubrey)


This article is not about the appreciation of a deep iconographic program of medieval historiated capitals, but rather an appreciation of the human imagination that created these sculptures. I am using some examples from the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay and the Cathédrale Saint Lazare in Autun. We must understand that these capitals were meant to be seen; in Vézelay they are only about twelve feet off the ground. And they were to be seen not only by the resident monks of the abbey, but by the myriads who came to venerate the relics of Mary Magdelene.

Capital - Sampson and the Lion, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d'Or)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Sampson and the Lion, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The historiated (or storied) capitals illustrate stories from the Old and New Testament, from classical stories and fables, and from various metaphorical lessons of the Church. The stories selected for illustration are filled with violence. In Vézelay alone we have four killings from the story of David; David and Goliath, the execution of the murderer of Saul, the assassination of Ammon, and the death of Absalom in the Wood of Ephraim. In addition we see Judith with the head of Holofernes, the death of Cain, Moses killing an Egyptian, and an angel killing the son of Pharoah. There are combats between men and animals, men and other men, Jacob and an angel, angels and demons, demons and men, and even demons against demons. Certainly we must grant these medieval sculptors a flair for the dramatic!

The drama serves a bold and vivid story-telling. The Autun capital of “The Fall of Simon Magus” tells the story of the magician who used the aid of familiar demons to work great wonders in Rome. At the Forum, Simon used the power of these demons to levitate. Saint Peter prayed to God to stop his flying, and Simon stopped mid-air and fell into a place called the Sacra Via. In the capital, Simon falls to the evident delight of the demon, who cannot help but rejoice in the suffering of humanity, even if it was one of his own minions. It is very interesting how physics was not a great concern to these sculptors. Simon’s tunic falls as he does, instead of streaming out behind him.

Capital - Fall of Simon Magus, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d'Or)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Fall of Simon Magus, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But these artists didn’t need cheap theatrics to accomplish their marvels. The famous capital “The Mystic Mill” shows Moses on the left pouring the grain into the mill while Paul collects the flour in his bag. The mill represents Christ “extracting the very substance of ancient law to release it into the fully renewed message of the New Testament.” I am so moved by the look of concentration and devotion on the faces of the two men.

Capital - the Mystic Mill, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – the Mystic Mill, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The piety of the saved, however, was not as interesting as the threatening face of beasts and demons. Even here in the “Funeral of Saint Paul the Hermit”, as the artist features Saint Anthony wrapping Paul in the cloak that was the gift of Athanasius, for drama he adds the two lions that came running across the desert with their manes flying. They kneel by the body of Saint Paul and roar their lamentations.

Capital – Funeral of Saint Paul the Hermit, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Funeral of Saint Paul the Hermit, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The capital depicting “Moses and the Golden Calf” is a masterpiece of concise narrative. On the left, Moses wields the tablets with the Commandments given to him by God on Mount Sinai. A flame-haired demon emerges from the mouth of the Golden Calf, dancing in a pagan frenzy on its back. He has a lion’s claw for a foot. To the right, staring in consternation is a bearded Israelite carrying a ram for sacrifice. Whether the sacrifice is intended for the Golden Calf is not clear.

Capital - Moses and the Golden Calf, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Moses and the Golden Calf, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The capital often called “Two Birds” is also called “The Pelican” because it shows strange water birds with webbed feet with a kind of open collar on the neck. One of them feeds on a snake or an eel. It has been suggested that the Bible mentions pelicans, which did not exist in Europe, and this was the sculptor’s imaginative version of that biblical creature.

Two pelicans, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Two pelicans, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

These capitals demonstrate the complexities of the medieval mind. The lives of these artists were ruled not by what they could see, but by what they believed. They believed in angels and demons, hell and heaven, saints and sinners. This is what they tried to communicate in their work. These capitals demonstrate the roiling ferment of the spiritual imaginings. This is what the artists tried to communicate in their work.

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (detail), Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (detail), Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Later, when the so-called rational mind took precedence from the religious view of the world, the expression of the artists became more realistic. This movement started in the Gothic era, and by the time of the Renaissance, the ferment still existed, but it was restrained and rational. Only the presence of visionary artists like Pieter Bruegel the Elder and William Blake remind us of the imaginative ferment of the Romanesque world.

The Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, William Blake

The Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, William Blake

There is a massive energy in the carving of these stones, brooking no repetition or hackneyed vision. There is a true abandon in this imagination, wild and unchecked. Where it did not know reality, that medieval imagination created something that would serve. Evil was given a face, the wages of sin reflected in the terror of the damned. These medieval masters used these imaginings to articulate the longings, temptations and terrors of the human soul.

11 responses to “The Soul of Genius (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I wonder how the 19th century restorations affected/preserved these works? How were they interpreted at the time of the restorations?

    • I understand that most of these are the originals, those that were badly damaged are in the local museum. It is not like Viollet-le-Duc’s west front tympanum at Vézelay, which was a concoction of his own. Do you have information that these are not the originals, Margarita. I would love to know.

  2. In addition to the philosophy in your beautiful blog I would just like to add my wonder that the artists were able to pack such a large amount of detailed carving in such a relatively small space.

  3. Thank you for the post! With such a lot of demons and death in these portrayals, no one can say that modern humanity has a greater penchant for violence and drama. Also, though perhaps not scientifically accurate, the intense detail and care that went into these decorations is jaw-dropping. They are worthy of being stared at and studied. -Atreyee

    • They were not strangers to violence, Atreyee, certainly. The sculptors were not interested in scientific accuracy. It is funny, but in Vézelay there are no recognizable flowers from the area! It is not as if they didn’t know what existed around them, especially since Viollet-le-Duc believed that the faces represented on the capitals found their descendents walking in the Morvan seven hundred years later!

  4. Reblogged this on Life is a Camino and commented:
    Vezelay and Autun have a special place in my heart; I have yet to see Autun, but Vezelay is where I began my Camino de Santiago. Never will I forget walking into the silent nave on my first morning, alone with the sculptures that have been glazed by sunrise for almost a millennium.

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