The Mask Capitals of Aulnay

Church of Saint-Piere de la Tour Aulnay de Saintonge
Church of Saint-Pierre de la Tour Aulnay de Saintonge

At Saint-Pierre-de-la-Tour at Aulnay de Saintonge, a number of mysterious carved capitals are presented at repeated intervals inside and outside. The church lies along the Tours route to Santiago de Compostela. The capital reliefs both on the exterior and the interior of the church feature a series of disembodied heads or masks.

Their meaning is obscure but similar heads can be found at other churches in the area. These images are particular to the region of the southern Poitou and Saintonge and one can therefore suppose that there was some intention behind their presence at strategic points in the church structure which was once intelligible to the inhabitants of this part of western France.

On the exterior of the north side of the building there is perhaps some clue to their significance. There one can see a head which appears to be that of some devouring, possibly androphagous or man-eating semi human creature. It notably lacks a lower jaw.

Church of Saint-Piere de la Tour Aulnay de Saintonge
Church of Saint-Piere de la Tour Aulnay de Saintonge

There is a possible connection between this image and that of an ancient Chinese motif commonly found on bronze vessels which were used for ritual purposes going back to the Neolithic period.

Having a head but no body it was said that the creature ate people but could not swallow them. It is notable that this image is presented on the north side of the church, the shadow side.

A connection can be drawn with the Leviathan as described in the Book of Job and which is featured on the porch sculptures at Conques and Espalion devouring the Damned. In Job the question is put, who can “draw out Leviathan with an hook” and  medieval exegetical writings interpreted the answer to this riddle  to be Christ. As Honorius of Autun declared, Christ’s hook destroys Leviathan’s jaw.

Church of Saint-Piere de la Tour Aulnay de Saintonge
Church of Saint-Piere de la Tour Aulnay de Saintonge

Within the church, three other capitals featuring dismebodied heads begin to assume progressively more human features, although stylistically ressembling that on the exterior of the north side. There is evidence to suggest that the four heads allude to the four elements. The first on the outside signifying the earth and more particularly the subterranean.

Inside, on the columns which line the south side of the nave is another with sightless eyes and pointed ears.  The twelve partitions of the hair suggest the phases of the moon  and the lack of a beard implies the feminine which corresponds also with the lunar aspect. The tidal currents determined by the moon, connoting water.

Church of Saint-Piere de la Tour Aulnay de Saintonge
Church of Saint-Piere de la Tour Aulnay de Saintonge

Further along towards the eastern end of the church is another capital with two heads. This time the faces are strikingly bearded and the eyes with clearly defined pupils created the impression of a strong gaze.

Just above the decoration of the laurel leaves containing rosettes convey the impression of mandorlas and the promise of election to Paradise.

These masculine faces, eyes wide open and contemplating the choices to be made indicate the indeterminate element of air.

Church of Saint-Piere de la Tour Aulnay de Saintonge
Church of Saint-Piere de la Tour Aulnay de Saintonge

On the north side of the nave is to be found a fourth mask whose features no longer have the zoomorphic qualities of the others.

Another striking  face this time with a piercing direct gaze. The beard is seperated into six strands, the number associated with power.

The flame like hair gives the impression of a solar deity and the element of fire.

Sources and Biblio: BEIGBEDER (Olivier) Lexique des symboles Paris Ed. du Zodiaque 1969

Also to be viewed: The Grotesques of Aulnay, Via Lucis

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