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Fabulous Fakes

Many's the time I've gotten excited by the prospect of visiting a medieval church, only to find that "medieval" mostly referred to the foundations, or some of the remaining walls. It's asking a lot for a building in continuous use to stand still in one's preferred moment or even century--a place of worship is a living document; while tradition and history are essential parts of its ideological construction, it has to be adapted to changes over time. Catholic liturgical practice changed from being standing processions to having worshippers seated in pews, which meant that floors were cleared of medieval monuments so that seating could be brought in. Some monasteries became more engaged with the general public, due to a rise in pilgrimage, which changed the numbers of altars and chapels.

Congregation sizes waxed and waned. Wars and unrest did their damage. Candles and wood-fires were exchanged for electricity and heating systems. Monarchs and archbishops would swing through to flex their power by updating art programs and building footprints. And so it goes.

Naughty Acrobat in Cahors, France

I really hope this little guy is "real" (or an accurate restoration), but he's in near-perfect shape compared to the carvings on either side of him. Only the church's records office and the archeology team know for sure.

However, in the mid-19th century, in France and Italy the rise of archeology inspired a concomitant drive to restore the past in particularly romanticized ways. This restoration was mainly ornamental. The financial boom times funded church repairs that were talked about as though they were historical, but were "better than the original." Philosophers of post-modern theory describe this phenomenon as the quest for "hyper-reality." The ostensible search for the past becomes a drive to bring it back "better" than before. The restorations become much more artifacts of the minds of the creators than a reflection of the medieval culture being invoked.

Saint Lazare, Autun

This trumeau, for example at Saint Lazare in Autun stands under a carefully preserved 12th century Last Judgment tympanum. There *was* a medieval door jamb here, and it may even have been composed of a statue of Lazarus, flanked by Mary Magdalene (left, above) and Martha (right). But. This is a 19th century sculpture, installed during restoration. The original was scraped away in the 1700s (and the famous tympanum covered by plaster) because the Romanesque style was then thought ugly and unrefined. The 19th century trumeau is beautiful, but there's nothing to announce that it is seven centuries newer than the tympanum it supports. Surely, it was intended to harmonize with the surroundings as a plausible replacement. This is only a problem if you are seeking to learn about medieval art and make the assumption that it's of a piece with the medieval sculpture surrounding it. These figures romanticize biblical characters who were not viewed as ideal in the Romanesque: Mary Magdalene's physical beauty and sensual hair were used to make her an example of how the world of the flesh is dangerous to the divine soul; Lazarus was usually depicted in his shroud and with a necrotic pallor to highlight that resurrection in the physical body is not sufficient--Christians have to resurrect their souls.

It is worth noting that in mid-eleventh century France a legend was concocted which had Lazarus, the Virgin Mary, Martha, and Mary Magdalene sail from the Holy Land to the south of France, performing various miracles. The Cathedral of St. Lazare was built to be a big pilgrimage draw, with relics of the saint here. The relics were particularly venerated because the saint represented the first believer Jesus restored to life, and so he was thought to be a powerful intercessory for pilgrims seeking redemption. French legend has him converting to Christianity in France, and becoming the first bishop of Marseille. However, I've found no images of Lazarus before the Renaissance which depict him as a bishop. So, whatever might have been in the original trumeau, odds are very good that it wasn't this.

Vezelay Tympanum, Last Judgment detail

The abbey at Vezelay, roughly 90 miles from Autun, also hosts over-zealous restorations. Again, these are beautiful sculptures, and I don't doubt there was a hell-mouth and a weighing of souls in the original tympanum, but this piece isn't remotely in character with the other, better-preserved bas-reliefs inside the portico. The original may have been too damaged by wars and the French Revolution to be salvaged, and this may be some educated guess-work from old drawings in the archives, but what it really isn't is medieval, and you'd have to be very persistent to find this out. Compare this "restoration" with the tympanum just inside.

These are, of course images taken at different distances, but if you look closely, the style of the figures in this tympanum are edgier, and less interested in making "good" figures pretty and smooth.

Ceci n'est pas gothique

This is a close-up of the famous spire of Notre Dame de Paris. Unfortunately, it toppled into the roof of the cathedral during the 2019 fire, and I doubt these sculptures were salvaged, since the spire was destroyed. The spire was beautiful, to be sure, and it was built in the 1850s by Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc. Viollet-le-Duc was a central player in the restoration of medieval French buildings in the 19th century, and his intentions were good, depending on how you felt about art restoration and French politics. He was a leader in a movement to affirm the former glory of France, before Napoleon and before the French Revolution, and he felt the French romanesque was essentially French in the same way that Italy could make the case that ancient Roman architecture was an essential part of a still-coalescing Italian identity. His writings declared that restoration should be 100% based in historical evidence, but the results were, well, mixed. He had an affection for gargoyles, for example, and placed rather more of them on Notre Dame and other churches than were originally there.

As much as you could point to him as an advocate for art history and restoration, he's also pretty clearly one of the many fathers of medievalism--that is, the dream of the Middle Ages, which can be used to ornament any contemporary political agenda, including sexism and racism.

Truth Hurts

This capital in Autun Cathedral is one that broke my medievalist heart. I was very excited to see it. It is a depiction of Judith decapitating Holofernes, while her servant stands by with a handy sack. I teach the Anglo-Saxon poem of the biblical story of Judith.. It was a popular Christian subject, even though a Jewish story, because it was (for the Anglo-Saxons) satisfyingly bloody, and was a useful inspiration as pagan warlords fought Christian ones for control. Judith and her servant, with God's help and Holofernes' natural tendencies, murdered the Assyrian general who was destroying the Israelite army. She cuts off the head of her would-be rapist in his drunken sleep, and smuggles the head back to the army, to inspire them to keep fighting. Well into the Renaissance, this story was a popular subject in art, because it, like the story of David and Goliath, suggested that the powerful should remember that the weak have their own resources.

So, what a joy to see it in a 12th century church setting! Look at that adorable "wrong" sense of perspective, as Holofernes' body skews up the side of the capital, so that the viewer below can tell he's in his bed! The bodies are suitably unrealistic, with their Romanesque-style drapery rippling to suggest knees and breasts. There was even a part 2--another capital where Judith, her hair flowing just like that of her bearded trophy's, holds up the head to the Israelites waiting in their crenellated fortress.

Except, it wasn't. It's not even a restoration, in the sense of replicating what was there. Many of the capitals in the cathedral were so damaged as to have their subjects obliterated. So here we have a fabulous fake. It looks very Romanesque, and if it were truly medieval, it could be the subject of multiple studies, tracing the use of women warriors to make political points, like this 12th-century manuscript letter:

But it's a red herring. I like it and the sculptor in the 19th century who decided to dress up a bare spot with something plausible liked it, too. But that makes it art that says something about the modern sculptor and me, and from that we don't learn anything about the Middle Ages.

Fan Fiction

This capital, with a centaur (with a lion body?) and a dragon buddy at San Pedro El

Viejo is probably some wishful thinking. It is flanked by some damaged capitals which also have fantastic creatures on them, but this is a modern, cartoonish fantasy.

She's Had Some Work Done

I'm not meaning to pick on just the French here. Spain and England had their Art Nouveau era with romanticizing sensibilities. Their restorers also wanted to bring the Middle Ages back "better" than before. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and a useful device, especially in the modern push-and-pull for gender roles and morality. Knighthood, courtly love, and pious sacrifice were new again, and medievalism was a way to make a case for one's position, whether traditional (or some imagining of the way things used to be) or modern (in the sense of taking past forbidden love or yearning and freeing it).

The capitals in the cloister at San Pedro El Viejo in Huesca are a mixture of attempts at faithful restoration and some imagination--as with the scourging scene above, where you can see a salvageable original figure on the left and a pristine rendition of Christ and the Roman soldiers, complete with a crown of thorns very cleverly done. There are also some additions which were made up from themes the church patrons liked, as in Vezelay.

There needs to be some space between the horror vacui of empty ruin and stoic realism and the Disney-fying of a medieval building to the point that you expect gargoyles to dance and tell jokes. There's a point where we fill in blanks with what we wish was still there that we create a simulacrum that's hard for people to let go. I say this as someone who has to explain every year that Grendel's mother probably didn't look like Angelina Jolie.

Accept No Substitutes

This hellmouth at the Narbonne Cathedral is chipped and fading, but it's also the real medieval item: gory, graphic, grotesque. It can give us some real insight into the Middle Ages and its program for persuading sinners. It can help us discover what its patrons' and creators' *own* political and social agendas may have been.

St. Radegonde, in Poitiers, France

Archeologists and medievalists now carry out restorations which hew more faithfully to Viollet-le-Duc's stated values. Scientific methods have been developed for paint sampling and scanning surfaces for changes in depth which can give better evidence of an object's history, and from that, cautious restorations can be made which are both more accurate and less likely to damage the record of the object's origins.

There's room for the fabulous fakes, and for churches to modernize and redecorate. All I want is just some adequate signage, and less contemporary imposition, so that I don't have to interrogate a piece of art as though it's a hostile witness.

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1 Comment

Wendell Ricketts
Wendell Ricketts
Apr 09, 2021

Fab post! I’ve occasionally wondered why some “medieval” sculptures held up so well, but never thought of fakes & replacements. Now do finto marmo, which has disappointed me so many times! (And anything that shows Notre Dame is just so damn sad ... how come I never got to see it?)

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