Tympanum at Vézelay

Today, I will tell you about the sculptural decoration of the tympanum at Vézelay. But first a few words of introduction. The functioning of the Romanesque sculpture was closely related to architecture. It decorated portals, jambs, archivolts, lintels and sometimes spilled over the entire facade. Inside the building, it focused on columns, accumulated on capitals, and in exceptional cases – filled the pillars. However, its significance for the believers was evidenced not only by where it was placed, but what stories it presented.

Stories in stone

Last Judgement in Sainte-Foy in Conques

In the Middle Ages, the Christian religion permeated every aspect of life. However, in order for the foundations of faith to reach the faithful, they must have been properly communicated. The liturgy of the mass was celebrated in Latin, a language incomprehensible to large groups of people. On the other hand only sermons were preached in native languages. They brought the biblical stories, the dogmas of faith or the teachings contained in parables closer. In order for these stories to be preserved in the memory of the believers, they were chosen for topics for the sculpted stories.

Angel waking up the three Magi, capital in the Saint Lazarus cathedral in Autun, 12th century

The subject area was wide: from eschatological scenes (e.g. the Last Judgment) on the facades of churches, to scenes from the Bible (like a shared accommodation of three kings during a journey to Bethlehem). In the relief decorations, there were often figures of fantastic creatures with human or animal shapes. Their presence was most often associated with exceptions derived from bestiaries and didactic writings (I wrote about them here).

Siren, capital in the crypt of Saint Patrice, Saint Parize-le-Chatel, 12th century

Tympanum at Vézelay

However, the decoration of the portal from the Basilica of Mary Magdalene in Vézelay from around 1120-1132 is quite a different story. It adorns the entrance to the nave of the temple belonging to the Benedictine abbey, intended for lay faithful.

Saint Mary Magdalene at Vézelay, ca. 1120-1132

In the basilica in Vézelay from at least the eleventh century there were relics of Mary Magdalene, the patron saint of France. It made the temple an important pilgrimage site, attracting crowds of pilgrims. At the same time, Vézelay was closely associated with propagating the idea of crusades against the Muslims living in the Levant. Pope Urban II planned to give here a speech calling for the first crusade in 1095. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1147 in a fiery sermon on the fields of Vézelay bowed King Louis VII to organize the second crusade. That is where also the third crusade set out.

Louis VII the Younger taking the cross from saint Bernard of Clairvaux at Vézelay (1146), Sébastien Mamerot, Passages d’outremer, ca. 1490,
Bibliothèque nationale de France (Fr.5594)

Thus, the tradition of the (armed) christianization of the pagan world was closely related to Vézelay. Although the portal’s decoration was created two decades before Bernard of Clairvaux’ speech, its iconographic program is built around the idea of the missionary role of the Church.

Iconographic themes

Tympanum, Mary Magdalene basilica at Vézelay, ca. 1120-1132

In the center of the tympanum, Christ is presented with his arms spread over which fiery rays rise. Around him, apostles were placed in pairs. The closest are St. Peter (left side), holding the keys to the Kingdom of God and Saint. Paul (right side), with his hand raised in a gesture suggesting a speech.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul

The remaining performances are arranged on the horizontal beam of the lintel and in the archivolt aka arches framing the tympanum. They were divided into cells in which various scenes were placed. On the external part, the signs of the zodiac are shown, symbolizing the periodicity of the seasons and the passage of time. Other resemblances include the figures of pilgrims, knights, but also – dog-headed people. On the lintel, two processions were shown. Here also appear monstrous human races – pygmies and panotti, preceded in procession by knights. All these representations refer to the diversity of peoples living in all latitudes and include them in the plan of salvation. The apostles and their successors – missionaries (and implicitly, crusaders) will carry God’s Word into the most remote corners of the world, according to the will of God.

bottom right – panotti and pygmy

Iconographic program

The study of an iconographic program is like an attempt to determine what story art is trying to tell us. In the case of the tympanum of Vézelay, several thematic threads were combined. There are references to:

  1. Pentecost. Fifty days after the ascension of Christ, the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles in the form of tongues of fire, giving them the gift of speaking in the tongues of the world. However, Jesus was no longer there.
  2. Ascension and announcements of the Pentecost – this is suggested by the figure of Christ in the center. The announcement of sending the apostles on a Christianization mission took place on the day of the Ascension. Their conversion power and the gift of communicating in different languages were to come on Pentecost.
  3. The rise of the universal Church. A reference to a fragment of Saint. Paul to the Ephesians (2:11-22), describing the rise of the universal Church, connecting Jews and peoples not previously included in the covenant with God – Gentiles.
Pentecost, ca. 1304, Giotto di Bondone, chapel of Scrovegni, Padua

The sending of the Holy Spirit is considered a foundation moment for the Christian church. The apostles received the power and authority to establish missions throughout the world. Thus – to include all of human creatures within the church.

The key to understanding the sense of the story is the”double” appearance of the figure of Saint Paul. He is shown both as part of the group around Christ and “commands” the procession presented in the lintel. It is him to whom the knights lead the atypical inhabitants of distant lands. St. Paul was an apostle of the Gentiles. Unlike him, Saint Peter was the missionary among the Jewish Diaspora. The universal church was created from the combination of these two godly converts, converted by the power of God’s word.

Tympanum, Mary Magdalene basilica at Vézelay, ca. 1120-1132

Monstrous races as the other

For us, it is particularly interesting to see how the monstrous human races were used to show “other” in Christian culture.

The dog-headed people, were shown on the Jewish side. They make a gesture of clinging to the throat suggesting that they can not speak. They become a metaphor for Jews who rejected Jesus’ teachings. Cassiodorius, a Christian writer from the sixth century, interpreted a passage from Psalm 22:17 ( For [the pack of] dogs have surrounded me; A band of evildoers has encompassed me ) as a description of the Jews. They would, like dogs, bark at everything that is new to them. Barking, in turn, is a kind of muteness, impossibility of communication and formulating words. They are accompanied by representatives of other disabilities, personifying blindness and deafness to the teachings of the Church.

dog-headed people

The other two monstrous races were placed on the pagans side. They are led by knights, perhaps to emphasize the role of their valiant abilities in the Christianization of the “others”. Behind them were shown pygmies, according to Pliny living in Africa, and then panotti – from India or Scythia (more about them here and here). They came from outside the well-known Christian world, which symbolic center was Jerusalem. The use of the forms of monstrous human races served to emphasize this alienness and remoteness.

Summary word

What story emerges from this complex arrangement of meanings and cultural context? Its central place was to underline the power given by God to the Church to pursue a Christianization mission. It aimed to merge the whole world into the community of the universal church. There is a place for all – the Jews and the peoples living without the knowledge of God, as long as they choose to accept the Gospel. The appearance of knights in this story reminds us of the recent first crusade, and at the same time it announces the next, carried out under the sign of the cross. The role of knighthood is particularly clear in the section devoted to the conversion of pagans, where monstrous races are “escorted” to the bosom of the Church by the armed ones.

For further reading:

Peter Low, “You Who Once Were Far Off”: Enlivening Scripture in the Main Portal at Vézelay, “The Art Bulletin”, vol. 85, no. 3 (Sep., 2003), pp. 469-489

Mary Magdalene Basilica at Vézelay

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