I Heart Gislebertus

In the world of art, there are a plethora of depictions of the Nativity story (with many thanks to the Catholic church, perhaps the biggest art patron of all time?). Depictions of the life of Christ begin in the Early Christian period, but during the Romanesque and Medieval periods these depictions of the Nativity (and Christ’s life in general) become even more widespread, not only due to the popularity of Christianity but also because images were used as a teaching tool for illiterate devouts. This capital from the St-Lazare Cathedral (Autun, France) is from the Romanesque period. It’s probably my favorite depiction of the three magi.

This capital was sculpted by Gislebertus, one of the few known sculptors during the Romanesque period.1 I really, really heart Gislebertus and his work. Not only does he have great textures and details (look at the crowns on the kings and the texture of the blanket), but he’s a great storyteller with a sense of humor. This capital (a capital decorates the top part of a column) contains a depiction of the angel coming to the three magi, telling them to not go through Jerusalem on their way back from visiting the Christ child. The angel is gently touching the hand of one of the kings – and see how the king’s eyes are wide open? I think it’s a great expression of one who has just been woken up, particularly one who has just been woken up by an angel. Classic. Plus, I love the idea of three ancient kings squeezed together under one blanket, sharing one big pillow, and sleeping with their crowns on their heads.

The other sculptures by Gislebertus at St-Lazare include a door lintel depicting Eve, as well as a tympanum of the Last Judgment. This tympanum is one of my all-time favorite sculptural reliefs on a cathedral. This is a detail from the tympanum, showing St. Michael weighing the souls of an individual with the help of a scale (as part of the judgment process). On the left is St. Michael, and on the right is a demon who is trying to tip the scale to be in his favor. The elongated proportions of the demons in this tympanum make them seem all the more gruesome. There are other gaunt and writhing demons depicted on this tympanum as well, straining to grab at the souls of the damned. And if that doesn’t scare you into being righteous, an inscription below the scales is included for the literate viewer: “May this terror terrify those whom earthly error binds, for the horror of these images here in this manner truly depicts what will be.”

Anyone intimidated yet?

All in all, I think Gislebertus is a really creative and innovative sculptor. The clever interaction between figures and details have caused scholars to pinpoint Gislebertus as a very modern sculptor for his time. I love these works from the St-Lazare Cathedral; they help add a touch of personality and humor to the surviving works of the Romanesque period.

1 UPDATE: A theory proposed by Linda Seidel (1998) suggests that Gislebertus may not have been the sculptor at Autun Cathedral, but a Carolingian count who was a financial patron for the church. For more information, see here.

  • Emilee . . . says:

    Can I tell you how much you inspire me? I *love* when you write on art. I feel so inspired by it — I learn so much, it makes me want to learn even more, and I almost always look into the artists you talk about (even if it is JUST Wikipedia :/ ).

    I think, most of all, it makes me want to make sure I (on my own silly little blog) continue to write things that I’m passionate about. I don’t want to lose my “edge” in my field when I’m done with school. Does that make sense?

    Anyway, I love when you write about these things. It’s so great. And yes, I agree, I love that the kings were all sharing a blanket. I’m pretty sure my eyes would be WIDE open if an angel came and saw me.

  • Kiersten says:

    I had to smile when I saw that magi capital at the top of your post. It reminds me of the time Mark Hamilton asked our class, “What is this a picture of? Three men in a taco shell?”

    I love Gislebertus as well–I was really excited to teach about the tympanum at St. Lazare to my 111 class because I loved being able to point out all the fun details.

  • e says:

    Even back then people got tucked in burrito style. Lovely.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.