Video: The Tympanum of the Virgin
An Artsymbol Production
Music by Martin A Smith
There are those who pray
Adalbert of Laon, Carmen ad Rotbertum Regem circa 1020
At the Benedictine priory of Notre-Dame-de-la-Charité-sur-Loire in Burgundy a large-scale monumental porch relief sculpture depicts Christ in a mandorla surrounded on one side by the Virgin Mary and on the other the archangels Gabriel and Michael . This is the “Tympanum of the Virgin”, one of two remaining portals out of an original five which formed the priory church’s west façade.
Although much mutilated, the relief appears to show tonsured monks genuflecting with hands clasped in attitudes of prayer occupying the same celestial space as Christ and his attendant figures.
The Benedictine Monastic Revival
The abbey of Saint Pierre et Saint Paul at Cluny in Burgundy led the way in developing an unmatched rigour in the performance of chanted prayer for the purpose of intercession.
The abbots of Cluny had progressively transformed the original Rule of Saint Benedict by increasing the time spent in prayer to the point where it ran almost continuously, imposing an unremitting burden on its monks.
These ritual acts were now performed in an atmosphere of extremely elaborate lavish ceremonial which was conducted in vast, imposing and richly decorated churches. To contemporaries the effect must have been dazzling and awe-inspiring.
In this way Cluny acquired a large and important network of dependent monasteries which followed to a greater or lesser degree its liturgical prescriptions. As a religious force in the eleventh century it was unmatched in western Christendom and was the Papacy’s most powerful ally.
It is that ideology which is represented in the “Tympanum of the Virgin”. The Virgin Mary after her Assumption is in the celestial presence of her son Jesus now Christ. His depiction in a mandorla surrounded by the waving bands of the Crystal Sea clearly reveals the scene as celestial. Christ is turned towards the Virgin, Mother of God, their hands reaching across the borders of the mandorla in gestures which indicate the process of Intercession.
The Nativity Lintel
The lintel depicts the scenes of the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity and the Annunciation to the Shepherds. Scenes of the Nativity are presented to confirm the main theme above, that of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into the presence of Christ upon which her role as intercessor on behalf of humanity rested.
The Visitation was considered as Mary’s first act of intercession, prefiguring her role in the scene above.
According to Luke’s Gospel, Mary pregnant with Jesus, visits her cousin Elisabeth herself pregnant with the future John the Baptist. By coming into contact with the unborn Jesus the unborn John is himself absolved of Sin.
The Monks of Cluny
That intermediary role was occupied by monks, and as the tympanum of La Charité would have it, specifically monks of the Cluniac Order.
The chain of intercessory connectivity is illustrated by the depiction of one of the monks touching the hem of the Virgin’s robe.
The longstanding formulation by Abbo of Fleury among others, that expressed the division of society into three distinct groups; the labouring class, the aristocratic warrior class and the clerical and monastic class, depended on the monastery to perform prayer for the benefit of humanity at large.
The writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius and John Scotus Eriugena were key to the Cluniac notion of the spiritual cosmos. They identified a celestial hierarchy of the angelic orders, which numbered nine. This was extended to include a tenth order and these were the monks of Cluny.
The five portals of La Charité
This would suggest that the same theme continued across the whole of the five portals of the façade of the priory church dedicated to the Virgin. The building was modelled after the great church at Cluny, then the largest in Christendom. The western facade of La Charité was perhaps the most ambitious sculptural programme of its day and would have culminated in a central portal relief depicting the Second Coming.
Biblio and Sources: Salet Francis. Le tympan de la Vierge à la Charité-sur-Loire. In: Bulletin Monumental, tome 126, n°2, année 1968. pp. 189-190
Séverine Hisquin: La façade de l’église Notre-Dame de La Charité-sur-Loire : Recherches sur le portail sculpté de la Vierge
Mémoire de maîtrise de l’Université de Bourgogne sous la direction de Daniel Russo, juin 2004
Christe Yves. A propos du tympan de la Vierge à Notre-Dame de La Charité-sur-Loire. In: Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 9e année (n°34), Avril-juin 1966. pp. 221-223;
Vallery-Radot Jean. La Charité-sur-Loire. A propos d’une thèse récente. In: Cahiers de civilisation médiévale. 9e année (n°33), Janvier-mars 1966. pp. 51-57.
Thérel . Pierre le Vénérable et l’iconographie des tympans de La Charité-sur-Loire (résumé). Bulletin de la Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France, 1969, 1971. pp. 191-193;