Saint Nectaire and the Daughters of Jerusalem (Dennis Aubrey)


The Last Judgment is not Fable or Allegory but Vision. Fable or Allegory are a totally distinct and inferior kind of Poetry. Vision or Imagination is a Representation of what Eternally Exists. Really & Unchangeably. Fable or Allegory is Formd by the Daughters of Memory. Imagination is Surrounded by the daughters of Inspiration who in the aggregate are calld Jerusalem. William Blake, “The Vision of the Last Judgment.”

The structural function of the capitals that top columns and pillars is to serve as a break before the spring of an arch. But these large blocks of stone also served since classical times as vehicles for sculpture. From Greece, we know the familiar Ionic, Doric and Corinthian orders.

Classical order, Planche VII (vol. XVIII) de l'Encyclopédie de Diderot et d'Alembert  1761

Classical order, Planche VII (vol. XVIII) de l’Encyclopédie de Diderot et d’Alembert 1761

These same orders were the basis of Roman architecture as well, but when the Romanesque world began building its churches, there was a complete change from everything that preceded sculpturally. Nothing makes this clearer than the evolution of the capitals. Instead of the formalized orders of Greece, we begin to see historiated capitals – carvings that told stories from the Bible, the classical world, the secular world, and even from the darkest imaginings of the medieval mind.

The Auvergnat church Basilique Saint Nectaire is one of the master works of medieval architecture because of its pure and elegant structure and for the superb sculptural decoration. It is one element of this sculpture – the capitals that surround the hemicycle in the ambulatory – that we explore in this article.

Hemicycle, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Hemicycle, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The capital “Angel brings the dead to life” is seen on the capital to the left of the previous shot. It is part of the Last Judgement sequence. A winged angel on the right leads the dead into Paradise. The palm fronds recall the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, the symbol of victory in that war waged by the spirit against the flesh.

I love the way that the lower figures are in a deeper state of death than the upper, whose open eyes show that they live again. In this capital, as in many of Saint Nectaire, we see the polychrome paint that originally adorned these works.

Capital - Angel brings the dead to life, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Capital – Angel brings the dead to life, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Continuing the eschatology of the Last Judgment, we see “The Redeemer’s Cross” on the central column of the hemicycle photo. The cross is the instrument of salvation, the cross on which the Redeemer died, carried like a banner before a conquering army.

Capital - the Redeemer's Cross, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Capital – the Redeemer’s Cross, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The “Tomb of Christ” capital is one of the most fascinating because of the image of the guards sleeping. In Matthew 27:62-66 the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate and asked for a guard to be set over the tomb. Pilate replied, “You have a guard; go and guard it as well as you know how.” When Jesus’ body was found missing after the third day, this was a problem for the chief priests, who knew of the prediction of the Resurrection.

In a passage of Matthew 28:11-15 we read: “…some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed.”

Capital - the Tomb of Christ, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Capital – the Tomb of Christ, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The capital “Combat of the Angels against the Forces of Evil” illustrates the great war between angels of light and darkness. The challenge of Satan to God was an important concept in medieval Christianity because it explained the presence of evil on earth.

And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.
But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven.
Revelation 12:7-12

Satan vowed his revenge in a passage that only William Blake could have written.

Satan.—I will have human blood, and not the blood of bulls or goats,
And no Atonement, O Jehovah; the Elohim live on sacrifice
Of men: hence I am god of men; thou human, O Jehovah.
By the rock and oak of the Druid, creeping mistletoe and thorn,
Cain’s city built with human blood, not blood of bulls and goats.
Thou shalt thyself be sacrificed to me thy God on Calvary.

William Blake, The Ghost of Abel

The capital portrays an armed angel with a shield thrusting his spear into the mouth of a naked devil. The devil is forced off balance by the blow, with his knees bent and his head thrown back, unable to cope with the power of the angel.

Capital - Combat of the Angels against the Forces of Evil, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Capital – Combat of the Angels against the Forces of Evil, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

“He shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom.”—Isaiah 40:11. “The Sheep Carriers” shows the image showing two young men carrying a lamb round the neck. This was a representation of the allegorical story of the Good Shepherd.

We also see a famous Green Man, the human face surrounded by, subsumed by, or composed of foliage. These foliate masks are often seen to represent the cycle of nature, but nobody knows for sure how they came to exist. There are several of these enigmatic figures at Saint Nectaire.

Capital, the Sheep Carriers, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Capital, the Sheep Carriers, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

In the capital “The Arrest of Christ”, we see the moment of betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane. The armed soldiers and servants of the Sanhedrin wait in concealment on one side of the capital for the signal of that arrest. That signal is, of course, the kiss of Judas, seen just beyond on the central face of the capital. There is a very telling detail in this ensemble – Christ reaches out with his right hand, past Judas, to ear of the servant of the high priest whose ear Peter had severed. “And Jesus answered and said, Suffer ye thus far. And he touched his ear, and healed him.”

Capital - the Arrest of Christ, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Capital – the Arrest of Christ, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The capital of “Moses saved by the daughter of Pharaoh” depicts an event from Exodus 2; “While Pharaoh’s daughter came to the Nile to take a bath, her servants walked along the bank of the river. She saw the basket among the papyrus plants and sent her slave girl to get it. Pharaoh’s daughter opened the basket, looked at the baby, and saw it was a boy.”

The imagery is quite different from the story of Moses told in Exodus. Here we have a crocodile or some other frightening beast being pushed away from the child by a man with a stave. In actuality, there are three beasts in the full capital. According to Hugh of St. Victor, the child Moses represents man dragged into the mire of sin , while Pharaoh’s daughter is the grace that saves him.

Capital - Moses saved by the daughter of the Pharoah, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Capital – Moses saved by the daughter of Pharoah, Basilique Notre Dame de Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

One must note that it is difficult to photograph these capitals since the stories wrap around three or four sides. Sometimes there are different scenes of the story and sometimes the same scene is represented continuously. These capitals were intended to be viewed from all sides as the pilgrims moved through the church. In fact, elaborate circulation patterns in the church have been developed to explain the sequence of the story-telling.

These are just a handful of the dozens of capitals that grace Saint Nectaire. They are so rich in their story-telling detail that to convey the entirety of the imagery would take a book. And indeed, these capitals were a book for the age. Here was a vivid demonstration of stories from the Bible and the life and passion of Christ, in a form understandable to all. It was the text of their faith carved in stone.

Location: 45.588254° 2.992326°

11 responses to “Saint Nectaire and the Daughters of Jerusalem (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I can visualize the brightly painted capitals as they would been viewed by the populace or perhaps pilgrims absorbing the stories into memory. Beautiful and difficult photography, P.J. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Helen. We have started to spend more and more time on these sculptural touches in the churches we shoot. Part of that is just research, but the other part is that we have started to realize what a unique heritage they preserve.

  2. Those capitals are stunning, and the sequence in which they are supposed to be viewed is itself really interesting. When I was researching Autun and read Seidel’s book she really went into the significance of pilgrimage processions. It’s pretty fun just wandering from capital to capital and trying to plot the relationship between two seemingly disparate stories.

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