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.

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