The Weighing of Souls – Amuse Bouche #12 (Dennis Aubrey)


There are many stories and parables illustrated by Romanesque sculpture, most of them serving as a visual catechism for the faithful, precepts of instruction, as it were. One of the most prevalent is the illustration of the “weighing of souls” in the context of the Judgment. A soul is placed on the scales. On one side is an angel representing the balance of good and on the other a demon, representing the balance of evil. The soul is usually seen hovering awaiting judgment. One element that is always present is the cheating of the demon, placing a finger or hand trying to tip the balance to evil. The most evocative of these scenes is found on the tympanum of the Baslique Sainte Foy in Conques. We wrote earlier about how a Danish family studied and interpreted the sculpture, and how the young boy was scandalized by the cheating demon. His father replied, “Han er en djævel”. “He is a devil.”

Capital - the Weighing of Souls, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron)  Photo by PJ McKey

Capital – the Weighing of Souls, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

Our last post featured the wonderful scene at the Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois in the Limousin. Here the soul appears destined for salvation despite the cheating of the demon.

Capital - Weighing of souls, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Weighing of souls, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

And finally we have an example from Giselbertus’ magnificent tympanum on the west portal of the Cathédrale Saint Lazare in Autun. Not only is the demon cheating by placing his hand on the scale, but a smaller demon is throwing his weight onto the measure as well. One telling detail is how the judged soul is seen beseeching the angle for mercy.

Tympanum detail, Weighing of Souls, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d'Or)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Tympanum detail, Weighing of Souls, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There are many of these parables and stories used in common throughout the churches in the Romanesque world and the details are always so telling. The drama of the weighing of souls seems to bring out the best in the imagination of the sculptors. But then, actors often prefer playing villains instead of heroes because the parts are so much more interesting. Nathan Mizrachi quoted Mark Twain on our earlier post on the demons in the cathedral at Bourges; “Heaven for climate, Hell for company”.

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.

5 responses to “The Weighing of Souls – Amuse Bouche #12 (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Great post. Thank you!

    This idea of weighing of souls is also found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead and ancient Egyptian murals from Pharaonic times.

    Here, I really like the elongated style of Giselbertus’ figures. The Twain quote, of course, is also funny:)

    • Thanks, Yuri. The elongated style that you described occurs in most medieval sculpture, particularly of the hands and feet. It is one of the things that I find most fascinating. We know that the artists were capable of the most realistic renditions of figures, but they chose this vocabulary. I always think of Angelico Surchamp’s statement, “Don’t you think, gentlemen, that abstract art, by transferring the sense of reality, promotes access to the sacred?”

  2. I love the determined look of the angel in the first sculpture as he(or she) defies the devil. In this case the sculpture poses the opposite of the “elongated’ but is squat and powerful.

  3. I often come across people from the US who describe things – say a large colourful ice-cream – as “awesome!” and I want to drag them to look at the tympanum at Autun. This. is. awesome. And some. That last image of yours, the souls in the scales at Autun, grips and doesn’t let go. It is etched in my brain. Picasso made a fine attempt at Guernica to delineate fury and fear. Giselbertus got there.

    • John, the tympanum at Autun is truly magnificent, as is the entire church. I love the comparison to Guernica, although I believe the horse figure in that work is one of the great creations of the artistic hand.

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