The Capital Gift (Dennis Aubrey)


We have seen several instances of a signature from a medieval mason, most recently Robertus’ signature at Notre Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand. Gofridus’ famous signature at the Collégiale Saint Pierre in Chauvigny is as prominent as a neon sign over the image of the Adoration of the Magi. At Abbatiale Notre Dame de Bernay in Normandy, the sculpture announced on an image high above the ground, Me Fecit Isembardvs. The most famous is the tympanum of Cathédrale Saint Lazare in Autun. This is a supreme accomplishment of medieval sculpture and has the additional caché of having what many believe is the artist’s signature, Gislebertus hoc fecit directly below the Christ figure.

Tympanum detail, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d’Or) Photograph by Dennis Aubrey

Tympanum detail, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d’Or) Photograph by Dennis Aubrey

In her book “Legends in Limestone: Lazarus, Gislebertus and the Cathedral of Autun,” Linda Seidel posits that the signature of Gislebertus in Autun is not that of the sculptor, but refers to the donor of the tympanum. It is a persuasive argument, but I am not convinced. Perhaps it is more a result of my personal bias, but I still feel that these were signatures of the sculptors themselves. There is, however, support for Seidel’s position at other churches. We have actual records of a donation – Notre Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand. There is a capital known as Stefanus offrant un chapiteau, “Stefanus donates a capital”.

This character is represented as a layman, dressed in a short tunic, with a beard and finely coiffed hair. With his right hand, he supports the base of carved capital that he offers to an angel. The angel holds an open book with an inscription reading In onore sancta[e] maria[e] stefanus me fieri jussit, “in honor of Holy Mary, Stefanus directed me to do this.”

Capital – Stefanus donates a capital, Église Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Stefanus donates a capital, Église Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This imagery perpetuates in stone the memory of the donation to the Blessed Virgin by Stefanus. In like manner, the book carried by the angel perpetuates the good deed of helping in the construction of the church, ensuring the promise of salvation.

Detail of capital - Stefanus donates a capital, Église Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Detail of capital – Stefanus donates a capital, Église Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is another example of the donation in nearby Saint Nectaire. At the famous basilica, there is a capital showing a layman donating a column with a capital, although he seems a bit more mercantile. Rather than relying on angels to inscribe his donation in a book of good deeds, he prefers to sign the column in large letters with his name – Ranulfo.

Capital - Ranulfo donates a capital, Basilique Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Capital – Ranulfo donates a capital, Basilique Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

We must make note that the practice of recording the gift of the donor in a great book is still active today. The names of all contributors who help with the restoration of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres are inscribed in the “Golden Book of Donors” which is kept on public display in the cathedral. We ask all of our readers to consider a gift to American Friends of Chartres – no matter how modest – to help in the great work of bringing Notre Dame de Chartres back to her full glory. You can also make the donation in honor of or in memory of someone – that person’s name will also be inscribed. We all will be continuing the great work of Stefanus and Ranulfo, although I’m not convinced that they were able to use Paypal!

To make a contribution to American Friends of Chartres, please follow this link. Thank you.

4 responses to “The Capital Gift (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. You are certainly right, Dennis, to sustain that the signature Gislebertus refers to the sculptor and not to a donator. An the references to N.D. du Port are quite convincing. A largely shared but false idea is that the romanesque sculptors were mainly humble and anonymous workers. An interesting refutation of this beleif can be found in Xavier Barral i Altet’s book : “Contre l’art roman ? essai sur un passé réinventé” (Fayard éditeur).
    Bien amicalement à vous deux
    Albert

    • Merci, Albert! I’ll order Altet’s book right away. As for the modesty of the artists – certainly Gofridus’ signature at Saint Pierre in Chauvigny would contradict that notion! Advertising is not a new invention, it seems.

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