Once in a while in our travels, PJ and I find something so extraordinary and unexpected that it takes awhile for the gift to register. Today we had such a moment. Yesterday we had a long-awaited day at Bourges and we made the most of it – over a thousand shots between us of this great cathedral. But we expected the wonders that we found there; they are well-documented and known to the world.
This morning, however, on our way to Chartres we decided to stop to visit a small church in the town of Plaimpied-Givaudins just a few miles south of Bourges. We found a lovely Romanesque church with some unfortunate reconstruction in the 17th century, but the sculpture was remarkable. In particular, the capital representing the Temptation of Christ is one of the most amazing Romanesque works we have ever seen, all the more so because we had never even heard of it.
Our ignorance of art history meant that we had never heard of the Master of Plaimpied or the possible relationship with the famous Nazareth capitals found at the beginning of the last century. Julianna Lees has written a monograph on the subject that can be found on her “Green Man of Cercles” site.
The story told by the “Temptation of Christ” capital is extraordinarily complex but the composition created by the sculptor captures it completely. After he was baptized, Jesus spent forty days and nights fasting in the Judaean desert. It was then, in his weakened state, that Satan tempted Jesus.
In the capital, there are two demons, a furred one and a naked one, each on one side of the central figure of Jesus. The naked demon on the right holds an apple, symbolizing the first temptation, food to break Jesus’ fast. Above the figures are cities representing both the temple – the site of the second temptation to jump from a pinnacle and rely on angels to break his fall – and the kingdoms of the world, .
In the third and final temptation, Satan transported Jesus to a mountain where he could see all kingdoms and offered the dominion of the world; “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” All of this story is encompassed in the simple composition of the capital.
Jesus is shown with his eyes to heaven, importuning his Father to help him resist the temptations of Satan. The great swath of hollowed-out space surrounding Jesus emphasizes his isolation in the barren desert, except for the two creatures on either side of him that seem to defend him against the demons.
This is an astonishing piece of storytelling and the quality of the sculpture is as fine as anything we have ever seen from this Romanesque world. PJ compares it to the Jeremiah at Moissac or the Isaiah from Souillac. The dance-like movement of the demons, Jesus’ anguish, and the ferocity of the beasts work in a deeply-incised, fully realized space filled with movement and passion. This Master of Plaimpied was an artist of the highest order and we are stunned to find that there are no other undisputed works known by this hand. It is like a miraculous bolt of genius that struck a piece of stone and left us a masterpiece.
Location: 46.998283° 2.455310°