The Fall of Simon Magus – Amuse Bouche #22 (Dennis Aubrey)


One of my favorite capitals in all of the churches in France can be found in the Cathédrale Saint Lazare in Autun. The subject is the fall of Simon Magus, a story that had great currency in the Middle Ages. Simon was a powerful sorcerer from Samaria who converted to Christianity. But his power was more important to him than his religion, apparently.

14 Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John:
15 Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost:
16 (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.)
17 Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.
18 And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money,
19 Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.
20 But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.
Acts 8:14-20 King James Version

This exchange was the reason that his name was the basis for the sin of “simony”.

But the most fascinating part of the story of Simon is that of his death. After Simon was cast out by the Apostles, he went to Rome. He represented that he appeared among the Jews as the Son, in Samaria as the Father, and among other nations as the Holy Spirit. During the reign of Claudius, he performed such miracles of magic that he was honored with a statue with the inscription Simoni Deo Sancto, “To Simon the Holy God.”

The Acts of Peter give an account of his death. In order to prove the truth of his doctrines, Simon offered to ascend to Heaven in front of Nero and the Roman people. In the forum, Simon levitated. Peter prayed for him to stop flying and Simon stopped in mid-air and fell to the ground, breaking his leg in three places. The crowd turned hostile and stoned him. He died “while being sorely cut by two physicians.”

The story was popular in the Middle Ages as a representation of the dangers of hubris. In the capital we see Simon falling, a demon on the right exulting in his failure, and Saint Peter on the left with his great key.

The Fall of Simon Magus at Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Fall of Simon Magus at Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The closer version of the capital shows the dramatic details of the agony of the fall, with Simon’s tongue lolling out in terror. The schadenfreude of the demon is visible, but his tongue hanging out is a sign of his bestial delight.

Fall of Simon Magus, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Fall of Simon Magus, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One final note on this wonderful legend. The church of Santa Francesca Romana in Rome is reputed to have been built on the spot where Simon fell.

 Santa Francesca Romana, Rome.  Photo by Christine Riggle, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Santa Francesca Romana, Rome. Photo by Christine Riggle, icensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

This capital is the only one of which I am aware that features this scene. If anyone knows of another from the Romanesque world, please let me know. Thanks.

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.

9 responses to “The Fall of Simon Magus – Amuse Bouche #22 (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I am finally moved and so back to enjoying my favorite ‘blog’, but so much more than that. Loved the capital after hearing the story on numerous occasions. Thanks for sharing.

      • The move went well. The glitch was the day before I was due to drive down here sone idiot decided he needed to cross in front of me on a busy thoroughfare and smashed into the front of my car. Fortunately I was driving my diesel Mercedes and was not hurt. His car was totaled. My car is due here in Green Valley on the 18th of November!

  2. Thanks Dennis for this interesting post. I also saw the ascent of Simon in Autun, but never in others places. So I try to ask to internet …
    I find 2 places ,where some people think there is simon.
    Vezelay : in 2001 Kirk Ambrose suggest that the capital knowed as “vision of st Antoine ” or “fall of old law”, is in fact the fall of Simon with Peter and Paul on the side.
    In neuilly en donjon , a capital outside near the door, with a man, head on the bottom, feet on the top,.
    I have some links if you want.

    Do you know the web site of the tympan d’Autun, you can zoom and see it in 3D :

    http://cathedrale.autun-art-et-histoire.fr/manieres-de-voir/toucher-le-tympan.html

    Best regards
    Chantal of Rhone valley ( in Florence Italie today :-))))

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