I’ve always wondered why certain saints were chosen as patrons for medieval churches. I can easily understand some of the choices – Saint Denis because he is the patron saint of France, Notre Dame in infinite variation, Saints Peter and Paul (or both as in Andlau, Ingrandes, ), or Saint Jacques. But there are many obscure saints who have their churches – Saint Menulphe, Saint Vosy, Saint Vigor, or Saint Cerneuf. We found one of these latter in the Pyrénées last year, the Église Saint Blaise in Lacommande.
Saint Blaise was the bishop of the Roman-Armenian city of Sebastea who is believed to have begun as a healer then became a “physician of souls.” People often turned to Saint Blaise for healing miracles.
Catholic Online describes his death: ” In 316, the governor of Cappadocia and of Lesser Armenia, Agricola, arrested then-bishop Blaise for being a Christian. On their way to the jail, a woman set her only son, who was choking to death on a fish bone, at his feet.
Blaise cured the child, and though Agricola was amazed, he could not get Blaise to renounce his faith. Therefore, Agricola beat Blaise with a stick and tore at his flesh with iron combs before beheading him.”
There is little remaining of Saint Blaise’s church in Lacommande from that built between 1135 and 1140. The part that remains, however – the apse – is something well worth seeing and is decorated with a magnificent ensemble of well-preserved capitals that sit at eye level. It is such a pleasure to be able to investigate the capitals closely with the naked eye instead of using a 400mm lens to mechanically bring them closer.
These capitals are the work of the Master of Oloron and represent biblical and secular scenes, richly decorated and ornamented. We are focusing on four of the capitals for this post. The first two represent the story of the Magi bringing gifts to the infant Jesus. The first capital shows the Magi riding following the star to Bethlehem. The star is to the upper right of the central rider. A second rider can be seen on the left and a third appearing on the right. This is such a richly portrayed scene with the detailing of the horse’s livery, the crown and the vestments.
The second image is of an engaged capital showing two of the wise men presenting their gifts to the Mother and Child. Above them is the star of Bethlehem that served as their guide. Note that Mary and Jesus are shown in the Throne of Wisdom pose that was so popular in Romanesque times.
The second shot is from the right hand side of the composition, showing the third Magi carrying his gift. This is a very clear demonstration of how in the hands of a master sculptor the capitals could be composed in three dimensions with a continuous narrative.
These two Magi capitals are richly decorated and fine illustrations of a popular biblical narrative. The next two capitals, however, are completely secular and far more animated. The first of these shows in the central position a bearded man playing a bowed musical instrument much like a fiddle. The image seems to swirl to the music with curved forms within and above the composition.
The panel to the left, however, brings the capital to life. We see another musician playing a lyre and accompanying a frantically contorting dancer. Again, the swirling of the knot pattern above the capital and the sinuous vegetal forms within the capital create an enormous sense of movement.
The adjacent capital completes the ensemble – a pair of horn players gaily offer up their music while dancing. The plant form behind them graphically echoes the sound from the instruments and brings the scene to vivid life. These four capitals are certainly worthy of the Maitre d’Oloron.
The fact that I was personally unaware of Saint Blaise was no impediment to enjoying the bounty of the sculpture inside. What I thought was true about Saint Blaise was that he was the patron saint after whom my brother Stephen Blaisdell Aubrey was named. This was completely wrong, of course, but PJ was not so ignorant. She remembers growing up as a Catholic school girl in Marion, Ohio, and attending mass for the Feast of Saint Blaise on February 3, the day before her birthday. The priest consecrated two candles, tied them together with a red ribbon signifying martyrdom, and then approached the children kneeling at the communion rail. She remembers that the priest placed the candles on her throat along with a few solemn words in Latin as the blessing. “This was one of the first signs of faith for me growing up,” she says. “As a child it was so mysterious and powerful. I always thought I would never get a sore throat.”
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