Most Romanesque sculpture is non-realistic. The stone sculptures that mark the tympana and capitals in the churches are more concerned with the story-telling than in visual accuracy, especially in the human forms. Many people ascribe this to a primitive capability, but in reality this is not true; we need look no further than the sculpture in Souillac or Plaimpied to see otherwise. And if we still need convincing, we can simply turn to the wooden vierges romanes, also known in French as Vierges de majesté, that remain to us.
The best of these are clearly modeled from life, from real people who sat for their portraits in wood. Father Joseph Raaymakers, a sculptor in Villefranche de Conflent in the Pyrénées, told us of his belief that they were carved from life: “Go to Montserrat,” he said, “and you will see the Madonna walking in the town.”
From the vierges that are displayed here, we can see an astonishing portraits of medieval women who lived in the Auvergne. All of these are found in the modern department of the Puy-de-Dôme and I could have added half a dozen others and even more from the surrounding areas. These faces are as individual as photographs and not because they are painted. Notre Dame de la Rivière in Beaumont is unpainted but her features are still absolutely distinct.
Notre Dame de Chauriat shows a more stylized portrait; while the individual features are clear and distinct, far more realistic than the young child/man who depicts the figure of Jesus.
Notre Dame des Fers in Orcival was once known as a black madonna until she was restored fairly recently. Today, she has painted face and hands while the vestments are silver and gold-plated silver. She is known as Notre Dame des Fers, Our Lady of Irons, because prisoners who prayed for her intercession were miraculously freed. Even today there are irons suspended as votive offerings of thanks and recognition of her intervention. But she is a superb example of a realistic portrait, with realistic details like the lines from her cheeks and under her eyes.
Notre Dame du Mont Cornador in Saint Nectaire shows Mary in a mood of intense reflection, surely contemplating the fate of her son at the hands of his own people. The carving is not as realistic as some of the others but we still recognize the face of humanity facing an uncertain future.
Notre Dame de Ronzieres is unique; without any adornment at all and wearing only a cap over her hair, she is severe and plain, almost as if she were from the Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Notre Dame d’Heume is a favorite for both PJ and I, found in the small town of Heume l’Église. We have had our own effect on this hameau – Mme Geille, who watches over the church and the vierge, has told us that since we have written about her, bus tours now make a visit to this remote site to visit. I’m sure these visitors appreciate Notre Dame d’Heume’s enormous dignity and almost august grandeur.
We recently featured the vierge of Courpière in another post. She also has the great dignity shown by Notre Dame d’Heume and some of the others, but there is a vulnerability here that makes her unique. It is as if her gaze shows what remains after the visceral sensations of fear, pain, and loss have passed.
The final vierge, Notre Dame d’Estours, is for me, the most magnificent. The mystery of her gaze and the beauty and delicacy of the carving create an image of enduring power. For some reason, the carving of the cowl around her neck never fails to move me. It is simply perfection.
These statues are like a medieval portrait gallery. The women who inspired the sculpture must have given from their inner selves something profound to move the artists to create these works. I feel like an observer in some quiet poorly lit atelier where each of these women sat quietly, thinking of the mysteries of her life, as the sculptor used his tools to embed those mysteries into the wood.