The Temptation of Christ (Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Temptation capital detail, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins  (Cher)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Temptation capital detail, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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, .

Temptation capital detail, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins  (Cher)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Temptation capital detail, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Temptation capital detail, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins  (Cher)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Temptation capital detail, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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°

12 thoughts on “The Temptation of Christ (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. What exquisite sculpture. I totally agree with your comments on the beauty and artistic merit of the capital. How blessed you were to find it.

  2. These capitals are mind-blowing, and of course we can see the detail so clearly in your photos, which wouldn’t be so easy from the floor of the church with the naked eye. The next time I face temptation I’ll remember these demons.

    1. Trish, totally amazing piece of sculpture. We are able to get the images that we want because we use the 400mm Canon lens. When we talked to Angelico Surchamp in May, he asked if we used ladders. I told him that by using the 400mm from a distance, we lessen the angle of the shot and it makes it possible to explore the capitals more in depth.

    1. Peter, I have found two monographs now on the capital and several scholarly references. They reference the Master of Plaimpied and there are many attempts to find other works created by this master.

  3. Dennis, if your researches included A Church of Berry: The Abbey of St. Martin at Plaimpied by Alden F. Megrew (Gesta Vol. 7 (1968), pp. 29-35) – available on JSTOR for free read-on-line – you will know that the writer mentions ‘an element of Islamic derivation’ and ‘Lombard influence’. Norman Sicily, much? In addition, as the author appears not to know the Lombard churches of the Mezzogiorno, he is unaware of quite how much depth of Lombard/Norman sculptural influence he is looking at.

    May I refer you as a source for all these elements combined – and capitals scarily reminiscent of the ‘rending beasts’ and bird-like winged souls you saw here – to the most concentrated rendering of the style in the cloister at Monreale in Sicily, which dates to the same period. There you will find these features in quantity. I can supply illustrations if you would like them :). Nothing of the stunning individuality of the Christ, though. Thank God that it was saved to delight and impress modern eyes . . . and thank you for bring it to us . . .

    1. Just looked up the article and read it, Ellie. Most of this I have from other sources. The influences Megrew mentions seem to be mostly about the architecture and not the capitals, which are of types mostly well-known throughout France. As you saw in today’s post, illustrated by other capitals from Saint Martin, you’ll see lots of familiar scenes. There are what PJ refers to as “head snackers” of the kind seen at Saint Pierre in Chauvigny and the Église Saint Gervais et Saint Protais de Civaux as well as the “rending beasts” (my title, to accompany the text). We have also seen many of these in Normandy, which would make sense with your reference to Monreale.

      As to your illustrations, I would love to see them. Thank you for the commentary, love to have this kind of feedback.

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