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 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.
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.
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.