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Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Abbey Church of La Madeleine, Vezelay.

The inspiration of Gislebertus!


Throughout my years as a practising artist, art historian, and teacher, many different artists and periods in Art History have inspired me. At different times or stages in my life some themes in art/artists/ aesthetic ideas have felt more relevant than others.  I have always been influenced by the great Western figurative tradition, and through looking at the work of my mother and uncle I now recognize more than before their contribution to my aesthetic tastes and judgments.

It was a happy occasion that found me back at the Abbey Church of La Madeleine, in Vezelay, on a school study trip to Burgundy recently. Twenty years ago my friend and I went inter-railing in our summer holiday, and inspired by our History of Art lectures on the Medieval art in the West, we set out to experience first hand some of the gems from this period.

Sadly when we eventually reached the Basilica, on that occasion, we found it closed. We never actually got to go inside, and view the original 12th interior, and sculptures (the exterior decoration being heavily restored by Viollet Le Duc in the 19th century). 

Whilst I did go on to study later Medieval Art History and taught Gothic architecture at one point, my love of the period has lain dormant for some years now.  It is exciting to rediscover one of my lost loves, and rekindle the romance!


At last I have been able to view the original tympanum in the Narthex, thought to be by the hand of Gislebertus, the wonderfully spacious and light filled Romanesque nave and the lively, detailed carved capitals.

It reminded me how much I adore the simplicity and beauty of the Romanesque sculptures and the work of Gislebertus (or that sculptor associated with the work at Autun).

Much has been written on the unusual subject matter or iconography of the tympanum, the ‘Pentecostal Mission of the Apostles’ and it’s relationship to the purpose/historical significance of the basilica (major site of pilgrimage, and setting for the political and spiritual discussions which precipitated the 2nd and 3rd Crusades).  For me it is the highly original style of Gislebertus that is so exciting and brings the subject matter to life!

What thrilling stories Gislebertus was able to sculpt!  Lucky amongst the mass of nameless, forgotten, stone carvers was he, who could let his imagination flow. Although his work would undoubtedly have been stipulated (in terms of iconography and layout) by the clergy, it is his imagination, depth of feeling/empathy and his ability to translate the ideas in a powerful visual language that give his work that touch of genius!

One of his most beautiful works is 'Eve' from Autun Cathedral, originally intended for the lintel of the doorway of the penitents. She flows like a mermaid along the length of rectangular stone, one arm by her side and her hand picking the apple from the tree of knowledge, while in that same moment her other hand is raised to her cheek in shame. The economy of means and poetic power of this piece is unrivalled!

The work is self-contained, defined by the rectangular block from which it is carved. From being attached to, and defined by the architectural setting in which it was placed, sculpture of the Romanesque period graduated to the free standing during the Renaissance, but still possessed that self-contained (shape of the block) feel. Of course much Renaissance sculpture looked to the Classical past and attempted to find that perfect  ‘Polykleitian’ balance of form and feeling.  With Bernini, and the Baroque, space was activated and an essential part of the sculpture. But, up until the 20th century sculpture, by the nature of the materials used by sculptors, continued to feel contained, in a sense, by the blocks from which they were hewn.  Sculpture, like Painting, in the 21st can be more difficult to define, in terms of subject matter and techniques. Some sculptors retain that identification with formal, self-contained principles and traditional themes, whilst others are at pains to express their own idiosyncratic and (at times) narcissistic ideas/views of the world in any visual form relevant to their aims. 

Back to the achievement of Gislebertus. His work is so singular and individual. In my teaching I encounter some students whose work is so individual, so honest and so completely their own. They can draw an object/person/thing and it is exceptionally 'theirs'. Sadly though I find that too many students feel their work is not good enough because it doesn’t end up looking like a photograph. The vogue for Super Realism is strong in representational art. We have lost the very quality which makes Gislebertus’s art so magnificent, the ability to shape a material to our imagination, an imagination that is based on observation and really looking at the world, and not through the lens, a distillation of ideas through the human lens.


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