The tympanum of the church of Perse at Espalion features a dramatic carved Romanesque relief. Located above its southern porch entrance and carved in the distinctive red sandstone in which the whole building is constructed, the theme is both singular and perplexing. The subject combines the Effusion of the Holy Spirit with the Resurrection of the Dead and is unique in Romanesque portal sculpture.
The tympanum is set within four archivolts, two of which have carved voussoirs. The outer archivolt features the archangel Gabriel and Raphael and a crowned figure. This latter bears a hammer in the right hand, an attribute of Charles Martel, victor of the battle of Poitiers against the Saracens and founder of the Carolingian dynasty. Eleven angels are set within the inner register each holding an open book.
The tympanum itself is divided into three distinct registers. At the top, the sun and moon are set on either side of a motif of three clouds from which emanate eight rays and a dove. These are the Holy Spirit and the Tongues of Fire of Acts 2:3
The notion that this might represent the Pentecost, however is belied by the scene beneath, showing the Virgin surrounded by ten Apostles. These ten correspond with the number present when Christ appeared on Easter day when Thomas and Judas were no longer present and the disciples first experienced the Holy Ghost. According to John 20:22, “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and saith unto them, receive ye the Holy Ghost.”
The depiction of the sun in the top register would seem to confirm this. Shown as a male figure bearing a sheaf of wheat this is a reference to Leviticus 23:12 which describes the feast days, according to which, on the day following the Passover, “Ye shall offer that day when ye have the sheaf, and the Lamb without blemish of the first year for a burnt offering unto the Lord”. This would be an unambiguous allusion to Easter.
In John 12:24 wheat is used to symbolise the Resurrection: “Verily, verily I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die it abideth alone: but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit.” Furthermore, the Jewish feast days of Leviticus imply a relationship with the Pentecost, in that the offering of the sheaf of wheat also inaugurated the Omer, or counting of forty-nine days which according to the Christian calendar culminated in the the feast of Pentecost when the disciples received, once more the Holy Ghost and their Apostolic Mission.
Depicted on the lower register the central image is of the Weighing of Souls. On either side, Christ and Satan. Christ in a mandorla and surrounded by the Tetramorph on the right and on the left, Satan surrounded by the figures of an owl, a crocodile, a pig and a centaur in an antithetical parody of the Tetramorph.
This latter distortion is part of the almost unaccountable strangeness which pervades this frieze. Closer inspection reveals that much of the imagery has been inverted. Christ in Majesty, ordinarily the central figure of any large scale monumental image is at the far right of the frieze and Satan to the left. The Living Beasts of the Tetramorph surrounding Christ’s mandorla are depicted in the opposite positions of their standard iconography and yet Christ is holding his right hand in benediction and his left holds the Book of Life according to the traditional model. The Jaws of the Leviathan are ejecting the human figure from the entrance to Hell rather than swallowing as would normally be shown in such a scene.
The explanation for this anomalous imagery lies in the subject matter which is not the Last Judgment but Christ’s triumphal Descent into the Land of the Dead in the two days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, as described in I Peter 4:6 and also recorded in Ephesians 4:9. This article of faith was encapsulated in the Apostle’s Creed formulated around the end of the fourth century, which declared that Christ “Was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again”. Although it is not clear what the medieval conception of reflections was, it would appear that some of the fears of mirrors as magical objects have lent themselves to such a rendering of the Land of the Dead. Thus the lower register depicts the Elect before the End of Time, partaking of the joys of Paradise in the Present.
The Perse tympanum is closely related to the great west porch tympanum of Conques, which shows the Elect in the Bosom of Abraham as they await the Day of Judgment. It is worth noting that Perse was a dependent priory of Conques and was similarly dedicated to Sainte Foy.
Sources and Biblio: Jean-Claude Fau, Rouergue Roman Zodiaque, La Nuit des Temps 3rd Ed.
Pierre Séguret, http://www.art-roman conques.fr/perse.html.