The Deathbed Donation of Moirax – Part 2 (Dennis Aubrey)


In the previous post on the Église Notre Dame de Moirax, we discussed the architecture of the church at some length. This post will concentrate on the sculptural features. The quality of the artistry and the fine state of conservation of both capitals and the sculpted decoration make Moirax a treasure-trove of Romanesque sculpture.

Because there are six bays in the nave, there are a large number of ornate capitals – forty-eight on the nave columns and one hundred and thirty total. Many are decorated with stylized plants and animals, but there are also a good number of historiated capitals telling stories from Christian iconography.

Side aisle to nave, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The capital of the “Birds with Palms” gives a good idea of the stylized sculptural vocabulary. Two birds on each side of the composition tear at the same palm frond. In the background, a man stands watching while a second head of a man with a laurel wreath is suspended between the two pairs. But one of the most interesting details is how the birds on the inner part of the composition share the same perch. The birds on the outside each have their own perches.

Capital – Birds with palms, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

A similar stylization is used in the next capital of paired lions devouring their tails. Again, paired creatures with the innermost lions sharing the same perch, just as the birds were portrayed. There are no human interlocutors in this capital but there are mysterious claws feeding each lion his own tail.

Capital – Lions devouring tails, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One of my favorite capitals is that depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden at the moment of the Original Sin. God warns the pair; “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (Genesis 2:17 KJV). The serpent slithers his way around the Tree of Knowledge and gives the apple to Eve who clearly has eaten of it, because both Adam and Eve hide their nakedness behind large fig leaves.

There is a remarkable justaposition on this capital – in the center we see the fall of mankind and on the left, Saint Michael slays the dragon. I think that the iconography is clear – the dragon and the serpent are both descriptions given to the devil by Saint John in Revelations: “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” (Rev 12:9 KJV)

On the same capital that shows the Serpent in the form of the Devil causing the downfall and death of mankind, Saint Michael is seen slaying that same Devil in the form of the Dragon. The Fall is avenged by the sainted warrior.

Capital – Original Sin, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I don’t know the story behind this next capital which I have been informed is the “King with his Retainers.” It seems to me that the central figure is not on a throne but in some kind of carriage chair being carried by the men flanking him on either side. We can see the closer figures are holding onto the conveyance and the seated figure himself is holding on tightly. In addition, the man identified as the king does not have any kind of a crown or sign of office other than the richness of his raiment. This capital also shares a feature with many others in Moirax, the volute patterns of the vegetation in the background.

Note: one of our readers has corrected this mistake. Jean-Luc Moreno, who has commented frequently and given us updated information, provides the following: The capital “depicts Peter, the first prior of Moirax, who was the son of landlord Guillaume Arnaud, the one who made the donation in 1049. As soon as it had been done, this donation was contested by others members of the family and a long series of quarrels followed. Cluny had to wait quite many years (I have to check the exact date), to find a final agreement with the family. This agreement was solemnly signed by Peter, the first prior, and also by his mother and sister, in presence of the bishop of Agen. The capital depicts Peter, surrounded by his mother and sister and by the authorities of Catholic Church.”

Capital – Peter, the first prior, his mother and sister in presence of the bishop of Agen, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The capital of Daniel in the Lions’ Den is a superb depiction of Daniel taming the rage of the lions. “My God hath sent his angel, and hath shut the lions’ mouths, that they have not hurt me: forasmuch as before him innocency was found in me; and also before thee, O king, have I done no hurt.” (Daniel 6:22 KJV)

We see Daniel sitting calmly amid the placid beasts giving the sign of benediction. Two of the lions lie at his knees licking his feet in total submission. Notice the signs of polychrome still on the capital.

Capital – Daniel in the Lions’ Den, Église Notre Dame, Moirax (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There are a great many other sculptural elements in Moirax – the western facade, modillions, friezes, and decorations – all of which contribute to the glorious ensemble. PJ and I are always surprised at the imaginative powers of the Romanesque sculptors. Their skill at story-telling is full of power and economy. They created the book of their faith in stone for all to see and read. Because of this, we are creating a new exhibition called “The Romanesque Imagination” that will feature photographs of these great sculptural creations. We hope to show you excerpts of this exhibit later this year.

Location: 44.1374, 0.6096

8 thoughts on “The Deathbed Donation of Moirax – Part 2 (Dennis Aubrey)

    1. Absolutely correct. In the first instance I wrote Saint Michael and then in the second instance I had a brain-lapse and wrote Saint George. I corrected the mistake, thanks.

  1. In contrast to the Tamer of the Beast Near .Eastern model, Daniel here does it
    Look Ma, No Hands.

  2. When I used the term Tamer of the Beastsin commenting on Daniel, I didn’t know it was a popular game!
    Master of Animals yields a Wikipedia article with two illustrations.

  3. Dear Dennis,

    Once again, I can give you a few more informations about Moirax church.
    You’re right concerning the person holding a sword on the capital of Adam and Eve : it’s Saint Michael.
    But you’re a bit wrong concerning the capital that you call “king with retainers”.
    We now consider (after the researches of the historian of Arts Philippe Gibert) that it depicts Peter, the first prior of Moirax, who was the son of landlord Guillaume Arnaud, the one who made the donation in 1049. As soon as it had been done, this donation was contested by others members of the family and a long series of quarels followed. Cluny had to wait quite many years (I have to check the exact date), to find a final agreement with the family.
    This agreement was solemnly signed by Peter, the first prior, and also by his mother and sister, in presence of the bishop of Agen.
    The capital depicts peter, surrounded by his mother and sister and by the authorities of Catholic Church.

    Hoping that despite my bad English, it will help the followers of your site,

    Yours sincerely,

    Luke

    1. Jean-Luc, thank you so much for this information. I will make the adjustments as soon as possible. It is always such a pleasure to have people contribute like this to Via Lucis, even if to correct my many mistakes!

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