Plaster Cover-Up and the “Last Judgment” at Autun Cathedral

Tympanum depicting the "Last Judgment" from the Saint-Lazare Cathedral, Autun, France. c. 1120-1130 or c. 1130-1145. Base of tympanum is approximately 21' in length

Tympanum depicting the “Last Judgment” from the Saint-Lazare Cathedral, Autun, France. c. 1120-1130 or c. 1130-1145. Base of tympanum is approximately 21′ in length

Earlier this week, I was discussing the “Last Judgment” tympanum at the Cathedral of Autun with my students. I pointed out some details of the bottom-most register (such as this one), and explained that the dead are rising out of their sarcophagi, waiting to be judged by Christ at his Second Coming. These references to resurrection and life after death is especially appropriate on this church, since the Romanesque church was built to house the bones of Saint Lazarus, the man whom Christ rose from the dead.

Then one of my students asked where Saint Lazarus’ bones were located in the church. Since I haven’t visited this church in person, I said that I would look into that question and let him know. In the process, I discovered some very interesting history: the bones of Saint-Lazarue don’t exist anymore because they intentionally were destroyed. For centuries, beginning around 1170-1180, the bones of Saint Lazarus were located in a tomb in the choir area (closer to the east side of the church, in front of the the apse). However, the tomb and bones they were destroyed during the French Revolution (1789-1799) by hostile revolutionaries.

Such destruction of art was not uncommon during the French Revolution, due to the anti-religious and anti-monarchical sentiment that existed at the time. Some French revolutionaries wanted to disassociate themselves and the rising French nation from the traditional past, and the government even endorsed some of this destruction. In fact, other sculptures at the Autun Cathedral were also destroyed by revolutionaries, but luckily the Last Judgment tympanum was preserved through an ironic twist of fate. Around 1766, before the revolution, the tympanum was covered with plaster as part of a remodeling effort to remove traces of the medieval period within the church. In order to achieve a smooth surface of the new plaster covering, Christ’s head was cut off. The head was discovered in the 20th century, authenticated, and restored to its original position in 1948 (although a visible break in the neck is perceptible; see detail below).1

Detail of Christ from the "Last Judgment" tympanum at Autun Cathedral, c. 1120-1130 or c. 1130-1140. Image courtesy Steven Zucker via Flickr (; image is unaltered)

Detail of Christ from the “Last Judgment” tympanum at Autun Cathedral, c. 1120-1130 or c. 1130-1140. Image courtesy Steven Zucker via Flickr (; image is unaltered)

So, ironically, the Last Judgment tympanum was preserved because the clergymen didn’t like the medieval style! Because it was covered up with plaster about two decades before the French Revolution, the tympanum was not destroyed and was only rediscovered when the plaster was removed in 1837. What luck this work of art exists today!

1 Paul L. Cioffi, “Saint-Lazare Tympanum and Tumeau, West portal,” Georgetown University Library,, accessed  2 December 2017. See also Linda Seidel, “Legends in Limestone: Lazarus, Giselbertus, and the Cathedral of Autun” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 26.

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New(ish) Romanesque Theories

Boy, art history keeps me on my toes! If I ever start to feel too comfortable in my knowledge of an artistic period, I get knocked off of my feet again by discovering some new theories! Here are two new(ish) theories that I recently have learned about Romanesque art:

Theory #1 – Gislebertus the Count

Detail of Last Judgment Tympanum, Autun Cathedral, c. 1120-1130 or 1130-1145

For those of you who love that Autun Cathedral and the sculptural program there, this fairly new theory by Linda Seidel may come as a surprise. For a long time, it was thought that Gislebertus (and his workshop) were responsible for the sculptures here. This well-founded assumption is based on the inscription, Gislebertus hoc fecit (“Gislebertus made this”) which is located underneath the text of Christ in the Last Judgment tympanum (see above). It sure seems like Gislebertus was the sculptor based on that inscription, right? It was unusual for Romanesque sculptors to sign their work, so Gislebertus has received quite a bit of attention and recognition in the art historical world.

However, Seidel argues that Gislebertus wasn’t a sculptor at all. She finds that he was a late Carolingian count who might have contributed financially to the Autun Cathedral.1 Count Gislebertus made significant contributions to local churches, and his name might have been included in the tympanum in remembrance of his patronage. Seidel even goes further to suggest that this inscription may “challenge those in power to respect and continue the venerable tradition of patronage.”2 For more information, I would recommend Seidel’s book, “Legends in Limestone: Lazarus, Gislebertus, and the Cathedral of Autun” (1999, University of Chicago Press). I haven’t read Seidel’s book myself yet, but I look forward to checking it out. I think this theory is quite compelling.

And regardless of whether Gislebertus is an artist or count, I “heart” him all the same.

Theory #2 – Hildegard as Artist

"Hildegard and Volmar" from "Liber Scivias," facsimile of an original of 1150-1175 CE

I’ve always remembered when I first learned about the “Hildegard and Volmar” frontispiece of the Liber Scivias (shown above) as a student, since my professor joked that the stylized flames of fire (representing Hildegard’s vision) looked like tentacles. I can’t remember his joke verbatim, but it was something like, “and we can see in this manuscript that the Spirit of the Lord descended on Hildegard like a squid.”

All joking aside, I’m very interested in the new(ish) theory regarding the Liber Scivias. This book is a text that contains descriptions and illustrations of Hildegard of Bingen’s visions. This theory by Madeline Caviness proposes that Hildegard might have been the designer for the illustrations for her visions. Caviness supports her argument in two ways: 1) She finds that these depictions of visions of very unconventional and 2) She thinks these designs also conform to some of the “visionary” aspects that are experienced by people during migraines.3 Hildegard had migraines throughout her life, but especially during the period when she was composing the Scivias.

"Vision of the Angelic Hierarchy" from "Liber Scivias," 1150-1175 CE

I think this is another interesting argument, and I to think that many of the designs are quite unconventional and unique. One of the images that I like is the “Vision of the Angelic Hierarchy” (1150-1175, shown right). You can see read a synopsis of Hildegard’s visions (and see some small images for some of the designs that may have been created by Hildegard) by looking here.

I hope I can get my hands on a copy of Caviness article; I’d like to learn what “visionary” aspects of these illustrations compare with the effects produced by migraines. More information can be read in Caviness’ article, “Hildegard as the Designer of the Illustrations of her Works” (1998, Warburg Institute).

“Hildegard and Volmar” image courtesy of Wikipedia.

“Vision of the Angelic Hierarchy” image courtesy of Wikipedia.

1 The example of an owner (or patron) signing their name in connection with a work of art has also been seen in later medieval art. An early 14th c manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS selden supra 38) has an inscription which could be interpreted as an indication of the artist, but is certainly the name of a later owner (since it is written in a 15th c hand): “Jehan Raynzford me deit.”

2 Stokstad, Art History (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 478.

3 Ibid., 487.


The Bayeux Tapestry and Halley’s Comet

The Bayeux Tapestry (ca. 1070-80 AD) is really impressive, not only in size, but also because of the figures and details depicted in the work. This immense strip of linen (it is 230 feet long!) depicts the Norman conquest of England in 1066. This tapestry is a great resource for historians to learn about Romanesque/early medieval life, clothing, architecture, armory, towers, churches, etc. And seriously, what a great resource – there are 1,515 objects, animals, and figures depicted therein!

It is pretty common for art historians to emphasize that the Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry. In actuality, it is an embroidered work. (But I’m going to call it a tapestry in this post, just for consistency with the title.) Legend has it that Matilda (William the Conquerer’s queen) performed all of the needlework, but this has never been proved and is highly unlikely.1 It is generally thought, though, that the needleworkers were either Norman or English women. So let’s give three cheers for one of the earliest extant examples of female artists! Hip hip hooray!

I have a couple of favorite scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry. One favorite is the funeral procession of Edward the Confessor (shown above). It was Edward’s death in 1066 that sparked the whole conflict with the Normans. The Normans believed that Edward had chosen William of Normandy as the heir to the throne, but the crown went to Harold, earl of Wessex (the king’s brother-in-law, who had already sworn allegiance to William). Anyhow, I really like this scene because of two reasons: 1) the finger of God pointing out of the sky towards Westminster Abbey, the church where Edward was buried and 2) the inclusion of Westminster Abbey itself. The abbey was consecrated on 28 December 1065, just a few days before Edward died. You can tell that the needleworkers took a lot of pains to record the architectural features of this new building.

My other favorite scene shows Halley’s comet. Yep, that’s right: Halley’s comet! You can see a group of messengers pointing out the appearance of the comet in the scene below:

It’s a pretty fun depiction of the comet too, huh? I think it’s especially interesting that this scene appears out of chronological sequence with the other events in the tapestry. The comet is shown just after the scene that depicts Harold’s coronation, when in actuality the comet appeared about four and a half months later. The inclusion the comet at this point in the tapestry, though, was meant to display divine judgment and foreshadow the impending evil which would follow Harold’s perjury.2

How cool is it that a comet appears in Romanesque art? Apparently, in 1986 there was a conference in Bayeux which discussed the 1066 comet and its interpretations.3 I wish that I could have been there (and would have been old enough to appreciate what was discussed!).

1 Lucien Musset,
The Bayeux Tapestry (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2005), 14.

2 Ibid., 178. See also John D. Anderson, The Bayeus Tapestry: A 900-Year-Old Latin Cartoon,” The Classical Journal 81, no. 3 (1986): 255.

3. Musset, 178.


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.


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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.