Video: The Tympanum of the Virgin

La Charité-sur-Loire

An Artsymbol Production

Music by Martin A Smith

Duration: 4.34


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. 


La Charité-sur-Loire, Tympanum of the Virgin

The Benedictine Monastic Revival

Notre-Dame de La Charité-sur-Loire Crossing Tower
The centuries from the tenth to the twelfth were the great age of the monastery. These institutions had been revived and fostered during the Carolingian period but there had always been a tendency for some to lapse into laxity in their practice of the Benedictine monastic rule.

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.

A reputation for efficacious prayer for the deceased led to the abbey accruing enormous wealth. This was not merely financial but came also in the form of donations of land and property. Failing religious establishments under secular rule were also donated. These gifts were intended to benefit their donors in the afterlife.

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.

Notre-Dame-de-la Charité-sur-Loire

One Cluny’s most important dependent establishments was the priory of Notre-Dame de la Charité-sur-Loire. Holding the soubriquet of “Cluny’s eldest daughter”, the priory was designated as second only to the most influential and powerful monastery in western Christendom and as such was a prime exemplar of Cluny’s spiritual ideology.

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.


La Charité-sur-Loire, Tympanum of the Virgin, Christ and Virgin Mary

The Nativity Lintel

On the tympanum, beneath this celestial scene is a terrestrial one. The lintel is devoted to a Nativity cycle, an expression of the historical fact of Mary as the Mother of God.
La Charité-sur-Loire, Tympanum of the Virgin, Nativity and Annunciation to the Shepherds
Because of her divine maternity, the Virgin was deemed to have the preeminent role in the history of human salvation.

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

The image of Christ in the tympanum is not the full frontal deity of the Second Coming. His depiction in three-quarter profile confirms that this is the present hour and for the process of intercession to be achieved there must be an intermediary between the terrestrial and the celestial worlds.

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.


La Charité-sur-Loire, Tympanum of the Virgin, Monk
The role of Mary was paralleled by another feminine figure, Ecclesia, the Church on Earth. In the context of the sculpture at La Charité this would represent the church of the Cluniac order, the most perfect realisation of Ecclesia. The “Tympanum of the Virgin” presents the closest visual representation of the Cluniac monastic ideal which has come down to us.

The five portals of La Charité

Today the church of La Charité retains two out of an initial five monumental portal relief sculptures. The other remaining portal is the Tympanum of the Transfiguration whose lintel also extols the role of the Virgin in its lintel depicting the Adoration of the Magi and the Presentation in the Temple.

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;