A Psalter in Stone (Dennis Aubrey)


Our trip to Angers was specifically to view the remaining gallery of the cloister of the Abbaye Saint Aubin which is embedded into the structure of the office of the Conseil Général. As we were photographing, our guide, who is immensely knowledgeable about the patrimony of Angers, asked if we knew about the porte du réfectoire, a door from the old refectory to the cloister, which we did not. When I asked if it was as impressive as the cloister, he could only roll his eyes. “Better?” I asked. He nodded. A few hours later we were taken to the refectory and we understood his enthusiasm. It is one of the most unusual and powerful sculptural ensembles that PJ and I have ever seen from the Romanesque world.

It is a strange thing to find a magnificent Romanesque remnant incorporated into the offices of the Conseil Général of Angers. We described the discovery of these fragments in a previous post on the Abbaye Saint Aubin, but the portal that we found in a conference room defies belief. It is important to picture the scene; we enter a glass-walled conference room with a large table surrounded by chairs, a typical business environment. But in one corner is a sunken entryway with an ornately carved 12th century porte du réfectoire, a door from the old refectory to the cloister.

Refectory Door, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Refectory Door,
Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This refectory originally was located just to the south of the western gallery of the cloister and the door would have opened into that gallery, which still exists today.

Location of cloister and refectory in original abbey

Location of cloister and refectory in original abbey

This door was covered under layers of whitewash by the Maurist monks who had charge of the abbey in the 17th century. In 1853 this door between the cloister and the refectory was uncovered by Ferdinand Lachèse when working on the salle des fêtes. What was uncovered is a true masterpiece of polychromatic sculpture. This portal is composed of three elaborately carved archivolts with figures representing the virtues and vices, a Lamb carried by angels and other figures. All the figures are covered with polychrome and gilding.

One of the central details of the ensemble is in the first archivolt right above the door – two lions devouring a pig. Since this room was the old refectory, or dining hall, it might symbolize that as the brethren went to the cloister for meditation, they should consider the dangers of gluttony.

Lions attacking pig, Refectory Door,  Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by  PJ McKey

Lions attacking pig, Refectory Door,
Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

But there is a more interesting interpretation available, especially considering that the image is composed of two lions attacking the pig. In the church of Saint Saturnin in Tououse, there is a carving on the choir stalls from the 16th century that carries a picture of the heretic Calvin in the shape of a pig with the inscription, Calvin le porc.

As I understand it, the pig was the symbol of both gluttony and heresy in the Middle Ages. Anjou, in the eleventh, was particularly troubled by the heresy of Bérengariens, named after a famous archdeacon of Angers who preached against transubstantiation. Perhaps the image was an exhortation to the community to fight like lions against the heretical preachings of a fellow cleric.

There is also a mysterious Latin phrase that can be faintly made out just at the top edge of the shot. It reads,

Et dolet et plangit, quem sic fera morsibus angit;
Accipe Samsonem Cristum victumque Leonem

which translates approximately to “And he suffers and laments from suffering the bites of a ferocious animal, accept the Samson Christ and vanquish that lion.” (Note: I would welcome from anyone a better translation than this attempt). That this appeal appears directly above the lions-pig figure seems to strengthen the heresy interpretation.

This interpretation receives one further element of support. Notice in this expanded view of the ensemble that there is a man tearing the jaws of a lion on either side. This represents the Samsonem Cristum; Samson triumphant represents the Christ Conqueror.

Lower archivolt detail, Refectory Door, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Lower archivolt detail, Refectory Door,
Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It is interesting to note that in this ensemble, the lion serves two purposes. In the first, Samson defeats the lion as a symbol of paganism and sin. In the second, the lions devouring the pig serve as representatives of the militant defense of orthodox Christianity against heresy.

The second archivolt seems to be easier to interpret. At the lower left and right are Saint John the Evangelist and the prophet Isaiah. Above them are angels worshiping the central Lamb of God.

Refectory Door,  Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by  PJ McKey

Refectory Door,
Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The angels are exquisitely carved and despite the disfigurations, still quite moving. Notice that this angel’s feet rest on an arch, below which is Saint John. This is the same motif as exists with Isaiah on the right hand side.

Angel, Refectory Door,  Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by  PJ McKey

Angel, Refectory Door,
Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Finally, one further detail on the Lamb. Notice the three dots in the red fields behind the lamb. It is thought that these represent the stigmata. There are three instead of four because in conventional iconography, Christ was fixed to the cross with a nail through each wrist or hand and one through both feet. This accords with the positioning of the dots in this representation.

Lamb detail, Refectory Door, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Lamb detail, Refectory Door,
Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The outer archivolt has the most dramatic and evocative imagery. There appear to be six knights in armor with shields and weapons being assailed by demons.

Detail, Refectory Door,  Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Detail, Refectory Door,
Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But this is not as simple as it first appears. Look at the top-most figures. First, these two figures are supporting a crown over the Lamb. Second, notice that the sword tip of the figure on the left is penetrating the skull of the demon at his feet. The demon on the right side is being trampled by the knight above.

Crown detail, Refectory Door, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crown detail, Refectory Door,
Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Third, look carefully at the figure of the knight, the only one with features still recognizable. This is clearly a woman. This archivolt represents Christian virtues as women warriors triumphing over evil, leading to the crowning of the Lamb of God. This makes the iconography of the entire display clear – the Battle of Good and Evil, the Triumph of Good, and finally the Crowning of the Lamb.

Knight detail, Refectory Door, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Knight detail, Refectory Door,
Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One final note on this extraordinary portal; notice that all of the human faces have suffered the outrages of the iconoclasts of the Wars of Religion. Only a single human feature is recognizable. But there was no such stricture against the faces of the demons, who are as fiercely individual today as the day they were carved.

Demon detail, Refectory Door, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Demon detail, Refectory Door, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Location: 47.468333° -0.553056°

This article is part of a series on the Romanesque wealth of the city of Angers. Located on the Loire River, this city was the seat of Angevin power during the Middle Ages. That power and prestige are visible in many of the monuments that remain here. We document three of them – the cloister and porte du réfectoire of the Abbaye Saint Aubin, the Cathédrale Saint Maurice d’Angers, and the Palais du Tau. There is nobody who better understands this power and prestige today than our guide from the office of the Conseil Général of the Maine-et-Loire, an intelligent and passionate advocate for the medieval arts of Angers and its surrounding areas. This man took a great deal of time to introduce us to the wealth of sumptuous Romanesque art in the region.

23 responses to “A Psalter in Stone (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Trish, thanks so much. It was such fun trying to find out about the piece. Most of the information came from a spate of academic articles in French published around the time of the discovery by Ferdinand Lachèse . It’s like a detective story, finding a thread and following it to the skein.

    • Hubert, so glad to hear from you again, especially concerning these issues of preservation and restoration. As I am sure that you know, the reason the polychrome was in such good condition is that the Maurists covered the entire ensemble with layers of whitewash and that it was always an interior space anyway.

      BTW, your last comment referred to the destruction of the lost Amber room when Schloss Koenigsberg was destroyed by the Soviet soldiers – an irony if ever there was one. I had understood only that the the room had been lost, so it sent me on a research binge. Thank you (belatedly) for that. Your discussion on the “Destruction of Sint Jan de Doper” article was fascinating and I am sorry that I did not reply at that time, but I was ill.

    • Jane, thank you so much. We just realized the we published our 500th article this week. Can’t believe it! Anyway, so glad to have you aboard the Via Lucis Express, which moves glacially, but moves nevertheless.

    • Juliana, thank you so much. I followed your Facebook link and saw that you live in Montagrier near Riberac. I know of the Romanesque church there, the Église Sainte-Madeleine de Montagrier. We are returning to France and Italy again in a month including a brief trip to Quercy. We can’t wait to return. How lucky you are to live in one of our favorite places in France.

      • Then come and see us next time you’re this way. Sadly, we’re now housebound due to my husband’s poor health. I have a key to show you the newly-restored frescoes of St Méard, not far from here. Not Romanesque, unfortunately, but quite impressive – and we are now pushing for the second tranche to be discovered. I had the thrill of being interviewed about the project by Tom Holland on “Making History”. I think you can still pick it up on the BBC Radio 4 web site. Best wishes, Julianna

      • Julianna, we may take you up on that offer if we make it to Périgueux to shoot again at Saint Front and Saint-Etienne-de-la-Cité. We’ll be back in touch.

      • That would be lovely – we’ll have lots to discuss. If you have time you could look at my images of Picasa & Flickr to check where we’ve been. Not that our pictures are in your class – or a complete record of our wanderings . . .

      • Peter Hubert lives in the epicenter, doesn’t he. We know that area well (in fact just completed publishing a cycle of six articles on churches in the Pyrénées. I’ll look up his website.

      • Julianna, sorry to bother you all the time, but is Peter Hubert the founder of “Satan in the Groin”? Another reference source for our work here at Via Lucis.

      • Julianna Lees has drawn my attention to your wonderful site – superb photography and most interesting observation. You may have seen that I shared a site wiith Julianna but more recently developed my own. After 11 years in the Dordogne, I am now based near Perpignan and so your site was of particular interest

      • Peter, just discovered your Romanesque Heritage site and linked to it. This is will be one of our go-to references for Romanesque architecture. BTW, we just finished a six-church series on the Pyrénées-Orientales, which is one of our favorite regions for Romanesque architecture. So glad to have made contact. BTW, I asked this of Julianna, but is the “Satan in the Groin” your site?

  1. What an extroardinary find! My imagination attempted to replace the original color to the masterful sculptures. And of course, this takes me back to the topic of religious wars.

    • Thanks, Kalli. The greatest thing about this is that we knew nothing about it the morning we arrived at Saint Aubin, intent only on photographing the remarkable cloister gallery.

  2. No, ‘Satan in the Groin’ is not mine. I belongs/belonged to Anthony Weir who lived in the Limousin some 10 or 15 years ago. He also wrote ‘Images of lust’ first published in the 1980s but republished twice since, last in 2003.

    I saw your photos from churches in my area. Cuixa has an annual week long study in July that I have attended for many years and where I meet many experts such as Gereldine Mallet and the president of the ‘Amis…’ for St Genis des Fontaines – These are professionals and experts; I am strictly ill-educated amateur!

  3. What a treasure. I spent far too long studying the images. I see a couple letters remaining of another inscription on the archivolt just above the foot of the top left angel holding th Lamb which looks like either “EA” or “FA”. An incredible tour de force and again a marvel that it survived.

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