Today’s amuse bouche features a familiar figure in architecture, the boss. The boss is defined as “a knob or protrusion of stone or wood. Bosses can often be found in the ceilings of buildings, particularly at the intersection of a vault.” There is a singular example in the Église Sainte Foy de Bains in the Haute-Loire.
The boss is normally a decorative element but can sometimes be historiated and have a narrative function. In the chancel crossing of the church in Bains, there is a wonderful rendition of the Assumption of Mary, body and soul, into Heaven.
We see that Mary’s eyes are closed in sleep as angels carry her to heaven, a reference to the dormition, or “sleep of Mary” (the word dormition comes from the Latin dormire, meaning “to sleep.”) A further detail shows other angels placing a crown on her head signifying that she is the Queen of Heaven. The very position of the boss reinforces the message of the sculpture – we stand below looking up at Mary on her journey to heaven.
There is one mysterious element to this sculpture, however – the sleeping Mary holds an infant in her arms. At first I thought this figure represented the infant Jesus, but then I remembered some Byzantine ikons that I have seen in the past. In the Eastern Orthodox church, the Assumption is known as the Dormition of the Theotokos and is well-represented in ikons. Unlike western Christian representions, Mary is not depicted ascending to Heaven but lies on her deathbed accompanied by the Apostles. Christ is depicted standing above her, often depicted carrying Mary as an infant clothed in white robes. This infant Mary represents her soul.
There have been western Christian versions of this Dormition scene where Jesus is seen at Mary’s deathbed carrying her soul.
Perhaps like the British library depiction, the Assumption boss in Bains reflects this Byzantine influence with the difference that Mary carries her own soul accompanying her to Heaven. I have never seen this depicted in any other western medieval work of art and would be glad of further explanation from anyone who might know what it means.
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.