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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.