Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | Two Capitals

I have long adored this pair of Romanesque capitals and they form a personal highlight of every visit to this museum. They are carved from a local sandstone known as molasse, and date to the 11th century. They come from a church, now destroyed, in Bocsozel, a small town about 40km to the north-west of Grenoble. As capitals, they would have sat on top of pilasters or columns of some description within the church. The museum's information card doesn't comment as to whether or not there were further carved capitals in the Bocsozel church. If these were the only two, it's likely they were part of a chancel arch and, thus, in full view of the congregation.

One capital is interpreted by the museum as Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Daniel was a Hebrew during the period of the Babylonian Captivity and was sentenced to Death by Lion (Pantheracide? … though that would be the other way around …). Surprisingly, he didn’t get mauled and eaten and the miracle was taken as a teachable moment about the tangible rewards of faith. As a child, I was more taken by the detail of how those who conspired against Daniel were themselves thrown to the lions, along with their wives and children. Obviously, the way it was taught was to highlight the severe price of colluding against a man of faith, but it struck me (even then) as rather sinister that a supposedly merciful god would also require the murder of numerous small children to appease his anger. Be that as it may, I’m unsure about these lions. I know that there’s a long history in western art of depicting non-native animals poorly, especially lions. But still … Daniel looks like he’s holding hands/paws with the lions, not fervently praying that they don’t suddenly feel like a snack. Instead I wonder if this isn’t actually an image of the coming of Christ as prophesised by Habakkuk and given variously as: ‘In the midst of two animals thou shalt be known’ or ‘between two beasts are you known’, itself a probable inspiration for many’s a nativity scene.

The second capital shows the Archangel Michael in the act of weighting souls at the Last Judgment. This act, formally known as the psychostasia, is a fundamental tenet of Christian mythology where the good are sent to Heaven and the damned go to Hell. The idea appears in Classical mythology, for example in the Iliad, but is best known from various Egyptian sources where the heart of the deceased is weighed by Anubis and overseen by Toth. In Egyptian lore the heart (representing the life-spirit ‘Ka’) is weighed against the feather of Ma’at. On the Bocsozel capital Michael holds the scales to judge the two naked characters. Eagerly awaiting the outcome of this process, a grimacing demon with a trident and an accompanying serpent stands to St Michael’s left.

Readers familiar with Irish archaeology will recall the similar scene on the east side of Muiredach's Cross, from Monasterboice, County Louth. This example is about a century older than Bocsozel and is conventionally dated to the period from 900 to 923 AD. Other well-known examples of the psychostasia include one on the west tympanum of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris that is dated to the period from 1163 to 1250 AD. Together, these examples show the enduring power of this image of divine retribution.

In considering the capitals as a pair, my initial though was that 'Daniel in the Lion’s Den' was the correct reading of the first example. In this way they would, perhaps on either side of a chancel arch, convey a unified message about the fate that awaits the ungodly and the unbeliever. That said, the idea of both capitals conveying a unified message still holds good, even with the Habakkuk interpretation. Such a scenario would see the two carvings speaking to the viewer about the End of Days and the imminent return of the Messiah and the inevitable Judgment. No matter how one chooses to interpret these pieces, I think that most can agree that they’re not high art. Even for the 11th century, they’re not examples of the very best of the stone carver’s art. So what’s the fascination? For me, at least, it’s that although they lack something in ability, they still have an arresting quality that draws the eye and excites the mind. The other part is that, despite the shortcomings of the sculptor,* they are still part of a larger set of illustrative and liturgical themes within western art – and beyond – that spans over several centuries. It’s a simple notion, but one that I find endlessly fascinating – whether you were in Paris, Monasterboice, rural France, or wherever, you could gaze up to contemplate the coming of the Messiah and the Judgment.

Admittedly, it would have been at a smaller subset of these sites where you could have looked up and thought: ‘What are those animals? Are they supposed to be lions? Really?’


* I would just like to acknowledge that, whatever the skills and limitations of the sculptor who produced these capitals, their abilities surpasses my own in this regard.

Capital as photographed in 2003
Capital as photographed in 2003

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | Panels from an altarpiece

These two panels come from an altarpiece associated with the chapel of the castle of Bon Repos, Jarrie, just to the south of Grenoble. The castle was built around 1470 by Guillaume Armuet. The panels are oil on wood and are dated to the late 15th or early 16th centuries, making them broadly contemporary with the earliest phase of construction. My understanding is that the surviving panels were positioned at the back of the altar, on either side of a depiction of the Nativity, though this central portion is now lost. The surviving pieces depict Jacob, Patriarch of the Old Testament, and his seven sons. Jacob is shown with a long beard and wearing an elaborate hat. The streaming scrolls, almost reminiscent of a James Gillray cartoon, are intended to show Jacob sharing prophesies with his ‘good’ sons about the coming of Christ and the advent of Christianity. However, shoved over on the right-hand edge is his ‘accursed’ son, Dan – founder of the Israelite tribe of the same name. Poor old Dan was shunned (and apparently here depicted as a grotesque) because of the belief that the Antichrist would come from within his tribe. Leaving aside Dan, I’m particularly drawn to how the artist has depicted the others in these panels. I can’t be sure, but my gut feeling is that they were drawn from real individuals from around 15th century Jarrie – possibly even members of the Armuet family themselves. Here they are, bedecked in an amazing array of hats, looking like they’re throwing gang signs for all eternity.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | The Helmet of Chlodomer?

The helmet as photographed in 2003
This wonderful helmet was found in the 1870s in a peat bog at Saint-Didier, near Vézeronce-Curtin, about 55km to the north-west of Grenoble. It is composed of a gilded copper helm with brass cheek-pieces, and a ring mail neck protection in iron (the leather portions are modern). The helmet appears to be of Byzantine manufacture and was, most likely, owned by a Frankish chieftain. The museum information card dates it to ‘Around 524’ as the find spot was close to the reputed site of the Battle of Vézeronce, fought between the Franks and the Burgundians on June 25, 524 AD. While the battle initially went in the favour of the Burgundians, the Franks turned the tide, albeit with the loss of their king, Chlodomer. The museum’s information card for this piece notes that such a richly decorated item would have belonged to an important individual and dangles the possibility that it may have been Chlodomer’s before saying that is impossible to know for sure.

The helmet as photographed in 2003

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | The parakeet mosaic

I do love a good mosaic, and I have a particular soft spot for this one from Saint-Romain-en-Gal (Ancient Vienne), approximately 75km to the north-west of Grenoble. In its heyday, it would have adorned a wealthy house and dates to the second century AD. The panel is just over 1m square, and the alternating grey and white borders lead the viewer’s eye to a composition of two birds perched on either side of a two-handled vase (krater) with a jet of water erupting between them. Everything about this composition screams symmetry – two handles, two birds in mirror image, the same number of water streams falling one either side of the central pillar. However, it doesn’t quite work as the main jet of water – that should act as a line of symmetry – is offset ever so slightly (but noticeably) to the right. It simultaneously causes an itch somewhere deep inside my brain while still making me love it all the more.

I see different things in this mosaic every time I photograph it. I think that in this particular image it looks like the parakeet on the right has just said something to shock and offend the one on the left … but maybe that’s just me!