A Boss for the Virgin – Amuse Bouche #13 (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

West facade,  Église Sainte Foy, Bains (Haute-Loire)   Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West facade,
Église Sainte Foy, Bains (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Chancel crossing boss,  Église Sainte Foy, Bains (Haute-Loire)   Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chancel crossing boss,
Église Sainte Foy, Bains (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Detail of boss,  Église Sainte Foy, Bains (Haute-Loire)   Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Detail of boss,
Église Sainte Foy, Bains (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Dormition of the Theotokos

Dormition of the Theotokos

There have been western Christian versions of this Dormition scene where Jesus is seen at Mary’s deathbed carrying her soul.

Detail from Add MS 37955 A: a miniature of the Death and Assumption of the Virgin Mary, British Library

Detail from Add MS 37955 A: a miniature of the Death and Assumption of the Virgin Mary, British Library

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.

4 responses to “A Boss for the Virgin – Amuse Bouche #13 (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Dear Dennis

    I make guess. The Catholic churh states that the living Mary ascended to heaven whereas the Eastern Church states that Mary died and resurrected after 3 days and then ascended to heaven. The Berrichom amuse is therefore not correct and unique.

    Greetings

    Hein van Valenberg

  2. I could not open Amuse Bouche #13, so there will be no comment for you on this post. I’m so sorry because I really enjoy your wonderful blog. Best, Kalli >

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