Terror in Aulnay – Amuse Bouche #20 (Dennis Aubrey)


Medieval sculptors knew how to reach their audiences. From depicting the dreaded head snackers to sophisticated illustration of stories of the life of Jesus, these artists elicited a visceral response in their viewers. One of my favorites is found on one of the capitals of the Église Saint Pierre des Tours in the town of Aulnay-de-Saintonge. This poor, twisted character is consumed with terror as four serpents writhe around him. His body is contorted in a frenzy of fear.

Église Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge  (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I have always wondered about this capital, as with many others, why it was created. Did a monk or priest give instructions? Was this the creation of a mason who created something completely out of his imagination? It certainly is not accidental; to carve such an image from rude stone requires too much work and planning. For me, I prefer to think of the mason as having been given a generalized task, to supply a capital on the theme of fear of damnation. Given this theme, this long-departed artist sat in front of his hunk of stone staring into his own soul until he found an expression of his personal dread. Only then could he strike with his chisel.

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 “Terror in Aulnay – Amuse Bouche #20 (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I’ve always interpreted this capital as female, with the serpents on her head representing (and eating) hair and the others attached to her breasts as is common in depictions of Lust/Luxuria in Poitou-Charentes. The shape of those serpents also give the illusion of a vulva, as in the motif of the sheela-na-gig. Aulnay has several very misogynistic representations of females, both inside and out.

  2. Hi Dennis,

    I’ve always interpreted this capital as female, with the serpents on her head representing (and eating) hair and the others attached to her breasts as is common in depictions of Lust/Luxuria in Poitou-Charentes. The shape of those serpents also give the illusion of a vulva, as in the motif of the sheela-na-gig. Aulnay has several very negative representations of females, both inside and outside this gorgeous church. Whomever commissioned the sculptural program was clearly concerned with the female as diversion for both the laity and the brothers of the (then) attached monastery.

  3. goodness, i wish i had more to go on ..most singular..i would have gone with birthing..the fear and pain of birth..and the mystery and evils surrounding it..but it prob is just as written a poor soul in fear of evil or in fear of what he has done and not repented at…k

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