The Nightmare Figures of Bourges – Amuse-bouche #11 (Dennis Aubrey)


We have seen our share of images of the damned in Romanesque and Gothic sculpture, especially in Conques. But the tympanum over the central portal of the west facade of the Cathédrale Saint Etienne in Bourges has a scene that is as disturbing as anything we have ever seen in medieval sculpture.

Tympanum detail, Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Bourges (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Tympanum detail, Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Bourges (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The figures with human heads emerging from their bellies, breasts and buttocks can only be conceived to horrify. The torments of the damned are less terrifying than the figures who inflict those torments. Since this tableau can only be appreciated in detail, here is a link to a higher resolution version of the photograph. But please, don’t blame me for any nightmares that this imagery may provoke.

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

10 thoughts on “The Nightmare Figures of Bourges – Amuse-bouche #11 (Dennis Aubrey)

    1. That is another part of the tympanum, Kalli. As always, the judgment of souls has both heaven and hell. And as usual, the sculptural representation of the latter is more interesting.

      1. “Heaven for climate, Hell for company” — Mark Twain

        Also, one of the men standing in the cauldron seems to have regurgitated a plucked chicken carcass. Nothing’s too strange for a judgment day scene though.

      2. Twain had it right, Nathan. Although not sure this company is what I’d want, especially if you check some of the details! As for the chicken carcass, it looks like a frog – see the one just to the right?

      3. I think about kids growing up. Those who are nice and neat, trying to do the right thing are seldom noticed when compared with the troublemakers whose world seems much more exciting. Unfortunately I tended to be one of the ” goody two-shoes” most of the time.

  1. hmm, gross it is- but i think it a representation of what the souls in hell did to their children by each being immoral. it may be the person and the sin we are looking at… i see things simple. it is indeed gross-scary. kathy

    1. Kathy, I think that the church taught about damnation and Hell, but the artists chose to represent it from their own imaginations. That tells us something, doesn’t it? When I was a child, we lived in the Orleans suburb of Saint Jean-de-la-Ruelle. My brother David and I went to a French school just a short distance from the house. One day, the caretaker who walked us home took us to the furnace room, opened up the hinged door to the furnace and lifted me up to look at the flames inside. I could see the blazing of the fire and feel the heat. “That’s where you go if you are bad,” he said. I remember the mystery of this and how it had a different effect than he perhaps intended. I was not moved by fear but by a theatrical fascination of the vision. Perhaps something like this happened to the sculptors!

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