Vézelay: The Capital of the Four Wind Spirits

Vézelay Marie-Madeleine South Nave Capital The Spirits of the Four Winds
Vézelay Marie-Madeleine South Nave Capital The Spirits of the Four Winds

The Capital of the Four Wind Spirits at Vézelay is a remarkable piece Benedictine Cluniac art. Located on the west face of an engaged column half way down the southern nave of the abbey church, it combines Classical and Biblical references in a sophisticated, elegant design.

Vézelay Marie-Madeleine South Nave Capital The Spirits of the Four Winds
Vézelay Marie-Madeleine South Nave Capital The Spirits of the Four Winds

On the outward face, two figures are leaning over objects which to the modern observer may be difficult to identify but are in fact wind bellows. Funnels made of leather with a handle at the top to compress the air towards the narrow end, this antique form appears also on a capital from Cluny and as an attribute of Vulcanus in a manuscript of the eleventh century of the work of Carolingian philosopher Rabanus Maurus.

Vézelay Marie-Madeleine South Nave Capital The Spirits of the Four Winds
Vézelay Marie-Madeleine South Nave Capital The Spirits of the Four Winds

This is corroborated by the figure on the right face of the capital who is using a form of bellows more readily recognised today. On the fourth face is another similar figure also using an antique bellows.

Vézelay Marie-Madeleine South Nave Capital The Spirits of the Four Winds
Vézelay Marie-Madeleine South Nave Capital The Spirits of the Four Winds

These are the Anemoi of Greek myth, children of the God Aeolus: Boreas, the spirit of the North Wind, Zephyrus, the West Wind, Notus, the South Wind and Eurus, the East Wind. All four have their cheeks swollen as they blow. One wears a Phrygian cap, possibly to designate Eurus the East Wind. Of the two figures on the front face, one is clothed while the other is naked and barefoot, the pair suggestive of the Monosandaloi of Greek mythology, implying a transitional state.

Vézelay Marie-Madeleine South Nave Capital The Spirits of the Four Winds
Vézelay Marie-Madeleine South Nave Capital The Spirits of the Four Winds

The Four Cardinal Points were seen as the portals which led to the stars and through which the Winds entered the World, a passageway between the Visible and the Invisible. For medieval writers, drawing on texts such as the Book of Enoch, the Winds symbolised the breath of Yahweh which animated Creation.

Vézelay Marie-Madeleine South Nave Capital The Spirits of the Four Winds
Vézelay Marie-Madeleine South Nave Capital The Spirits of the Four Winds

The composition of the capital of the Four Winds is completed by two large pine cones, one at each outward facing corner. The pine cone was a common motif in Romanesque sculpture but especially so in the Benedictine Cluniac monastic churches of Burgundy.

Vézelay Marie-Madeleine South Nave Capital The Spirits of the Four Winds
Vézelay Marie-Madeleine South Nave Capital The Spirits of the Four Winds

Its use in Classical Antiquity was well known, where a pine cone topped a shaft made of a giant fennel stem and was used ritually in Bacchanalian ceremonies as a symbol of fertility. By the Roman period, the pine cone was an established symbol used in funerary art to imply the after life. The inclusion in the Vézelay capital of these symbols of the Primal Life force represented by the Wind Spirits together with the Resurrection motif of the pine cone, inevitably suggest the Christian Trinity.

Sources and Biblio: Die Ikonographie der mittelalterlichen Windpersonifikationen. Thomas Raff, University of Heidelberg. 1978.

Introduction au Monde des Symboles. La Nuit des Temps, Zodiaque Champeaux/Stercks, 1980

Lexique des Symboles, La Nuit des Temps, Zodiaque, Olivier Begbeider, 1969

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