Thursday, 28 August 2014

From the mouth of the lion - Saint-Bertrand de Comminges

Some towns, some cathedrals, some palaces, grew over time. They have a lived-in feel. Generations of different patrons, architects, craftspeople, DIYers and repairers, have left their mark on them. They're works of cooperation, of adjustment, of agglomeration and compromise.
Other places are the work of one visionary. Versailles - though its kernel is in fact a Louis XIII hunting lodge, which survives at the centre of the larger, later work like a small jewel set in a much bigger and more exuberant monstrance - can't be seen without the figure of Louis XIV, bestriding the scene in his curly long wig and gold embroidered frock coat. St Petersburg, though many of its buildings are later, has at its heart the great urban plan of its founder, Peter the Great; and quite literally, almost at its geographical centre, his original wooden cabin, predecessor of all the imperial palaces.
The cathedral of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges is one of those works. Even though the Romanesque cloister and narthex and the Gothic choir were the work of others, it's the work of bishop Jean de Mauleon that gives the church its character - the warmth of the woodwork, the fantasy of the carvers, the richness of the decoration, are all his work. Most choir stalls simply fill a space in the east end of the church - these stalls dominate the cathedral, thrusting out into the nave, leaving pilgrims and parishioners (excluded from the choir in the Middle Ages) almost nowhere to go. They're complemented by the organ - unusually, neither set up in the west end, nor as a 'swallow's nest' hanging from the wall of the nave, but straddling the north-west angle of the nave.
Jean de Mauleon was a bishop brought up in a humanist age, and something of a scholar. The work he commissioned shows that dual nature; there are busts of Dante and the Medicis, and the organ shows the Labours of Hercules, as well as a number of musicians including a fetching little bagpipe player. The busts of the Nine Worthies show the pagan heroes Hector, Alexander, and Julius Caesar, in the company of Joshua, King David, and Judas Maccabeus, and the Christian heroes Charlemagne, Arthur, and Godfrey of Boulogne. In the stalls, the dorsals show not just prophets and saints, but the Twelve Sibyls, pagan prophetesses (also found in the choir stalls at Auch, which just happens to be where Jean de Mauleon was consecrated bishop).
His humanism shows through too in the triumphal arches which form part of the concept, an appropriate symbol in this ancient Roman town (there are numerous remains of the Roman forum and theatre in the plain below). The entrance to the choir is through one such triumphal arch, and another is shown, facing it, in the east window.
And then there are lions everywhere. There's a wonderful pair of crouching lions in the choir stalls, their haunches curved with tension as they wait to spring, full of suppressed energy. There's a lion painted high above on the stone of the vault. You might think they are just symbols of strength, like the Romanesque lions which flank the entrances to so many Italian cathedrals; or lions of St Mark. But they are also the bad lion, the Mauvais Lion, Mau-Leon, the heraldic badge of Jean de Mauleon. He's put his mark on the woodwork.

There are numerous St Johns, too. There is a lovely young John the Evangelist with his eagle, carved in the round. There is a John the Baptist whose camel skin garment actually shows a camel's head hanging down beside the fringe- a little like figures of Hercules wearing the skin of the lion. Both of them are shown, together with St Bertrand, in marquetry, above the clergy seats in the choir. And there's a John the Baptist on the bishop's throne; with a rampant lion on a shield below, just in case you had missed the allusion.
Again, not unusual to find either or both of the Sainted Johns in a cathedral, though perhaps less usual to find them so prominent in a cathedral that's dedicated (as this one is) to the Virgin. But then think that of course they were both Jean de Mauleon's patron saints, and again you see how the free-spending bishop signed his work to show off his patronage.
By the lion in the vault the initials EHN (for Jehan, the older spelling of the bishop's name) can be seen - easy enough to work out. The initials OAT are a bit more obscure, but his contemporaries would have known; Omnis Amor Tecum, all love be with you - Jean de Mauleon's motto. The OAT logograph is found elsewhere, on the woodwork on the outside of the choir.
It's not ridiculously overt, like the portcullises and roses in King's College Chapel, or the crescent moon symbols of Diane de Poitiers at Anet, or the Sun of the roi soleil at Versailles. It's rather subtle, worked into a rich tapestry of fantasy and symbolism. Saint John the Baptist mixes sociably with the Company of Saints, the Evangelist and his eagle join Mark with his lion (a significant pairing?), and the lions romp with mermaids, wodwoses, nickering horses, and chained pet monkeys.
The most subtle touch is yet to come. Right at the bottom of one of the east windows, and (consequently) almost invisible from inside the choir, is a little kneeling figure of a priest. Almost always, in medieval art, the little kneeling figure is that of a donor, praying to his patron, or to the Virgin, or kneeling in admiration of the whole sacred scene playing out in the window above. Here, in a surprisingly humble position, if my supposition is right, we find Jean de Mauleon himself.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Unexpected delights

The car broke down. Again. The problem a mechanic had incompetently fixed a bit north of Clermont-Ferrand stopped us completely a bit south of Aurillac.

We pulled up, ironically outside a Renault garage that had closed down, called the insurance company, and were told we'd have to wait an hour. We walked into Montsalvy for lunch.

Montsalvy is a sweet little town, once you get through the fortified gate, with a single main street lined by low stone houses. Nothing much in the way of attractions, just an old church, a monks' refectory that now serves as exhibition space, and a few bars and restaurants.

And one marvellous, unexpected delight; a treasury in the local church.

Here were fine liturgical vestments, chalices, monstrances, curiosities. A monstrance with tiny cherubs peeping between sharp shards of sunburst; another with angel-heads in entrail-fat clouds. A crocheted surplice that used to belong to a Colombian priest, and on his death was left to the priest here in Montsalvy who had once worked with him. All displayed in a tall, light, vaulted room, just off the south aisle.

It was a little like the town. Nothing would rate two asterisks in the Blue Guide; no Romanesque candelabras, no priceless medieval textiles or Limoges enamel, no Byzantine ivories. Just a collection of interesting and sometimes beautiful things, which neatly occupied a few minutes while we waited for the mechanic to arrive.

And then we had to go all the way back to Aurillac to get the car fixed, through a horrendous traffic jam in the narrow one way street at the end of which the garage was located. And then we were told it would take a few hours to fix. And then we discovered there was a street theatre festival in Aurillac.

There were white-faced, rouge-cheeked ladies in huge white satin crinolines. Pirates roaming the streets. Jugglers and bubble-blowers, prestidigitators and propagandists. There were Duos Habet, two men in stridently plasticky suits - one lugubrious, one glib - who present magic as a means of mass manipulation and neatly puncture their own mysteries with sardonic cynicism, and there was an incredible Italian clown who spoke a language entirely his own invention and threatened members of the audience with immense streams of cross babbling if they dared to sit in the wrong place, and flirted outrageously and still wordlessly with a woman who took his photograph, and ...more silliness, like this.

And then Jacques' mobile rang, and the car was ready, and we were actually, after the unexpected and uproarious fun of the afternoon, just a little bit annoyed.