Our last post was a description of the 12th century Église Saint-Révérien in the department of the Nièvre. This article will discuss the sculptures of the nave and hemicycle capitals that are found there. The capitals at Saint-Révérien are wonderfully evocative and tell their stories with great skill.
Saint-Révérien was a pilgrimage church and as such it can be expected that the capitals served a didactic purpose – they were there to instruct the pilgrims in Bible stories and the rewards of living the just life. The Story of Jacob is wonderfully illustrated in one capital. Isaac sits on his deathbed, giving his blessing to the deceitful Jacob. We can see in the depiction how Isaac inspects Jacob’s hands. “And Rebekah took goodly raiment of her eldest son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them upon Jacob her younger son: And she put the skins of the kids of the goats upon his hands, and upon the smooth of his neck.” Genesis 27:15-16
Just to the right, Esau returns from his hunt carrying the game that he had killed at his father’s request.
On the other side of the capital we see Jacob’s ladder, seen in the vision: “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” Genesis 28:12
The next capital shows the Resurrection of the Dead and the Righteous in Heaven. On the left, the dead rise from their coffins at the sound of trumpets played by the angels: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first.” 1 Thessalonians 4:16. On the right side of the capital we see the Righteous gathered in the Kingdom of Heaven, represented by the Heavenly Jerusalem.
There are also a number of capitals that show mythical beasts in various guises. One of the most vivid examples shows two ravening beasts consuming an owl.
As might be expected, there are many capitals showing the damnation of sinners and the demons who torment them. In this capital we see a familiar trope – the weighing of souls. The devil, as we often see, is cheating – his hand is pressing on the scale while he carries another damned soul in his free arm.
One capital is labeled Infernus, the Inferno. In it we see the souls of the damned in the maw of Hell, shown by the row of teeth at the bottom. A clawed hand grips the skull and a demon with a sledgehammer prepares to deliver a crushing blow.
In a detail of the Inferno, we see how the damned are tormented by vicious fanged and leering demons. The soul has been pierced by some kind of a pitchfork as the demons rejoice in inflicting the pain. It may just be me, but the demon on the left looks suspiciously like George Bernard Shaw.
We have seen time and time again the extraordinary expression and boundless creativity shown by the Romanesque sculptors. The artists were able to fill these small spaces with complex and vivid storytelling of the highest order. We can imagine ourselves among the faithful, walking through these churches and looking at the sculpted works surrounding us, able to read the stories and lessons of our spiritual life in these stone texts. Walk through Vézelay or Conques to this day, and you will see entire families reliving this medieval passage just as their forebears did a millennium past.
Location: 47.211822° 3.503938°