Abbey Church of St. Pierre, Moissac: Prophet Jeremiah (or Isaiah?) detail from trumeau of S. portal (orig. W. portal), view from R., ca. 1115-1135 Courtesy: Minneapolis College of Art and Design


Moissac:  The Sacred and the Secular in the Sculpture of the South Portal

Ilene H. Forsyth
Professor Emerita, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

This presentation questioned earlier interpretations of the sculpture program at Moissac’s south portal that have tended to claim oversimplified moralizations of good versus evil and to overlook many subtleties that issue from the layered ambiguities lodging in complex, often intertwining visual metaphors.  In this analysis, mundane objects, such as beds, tables, bulging money bags and fulsome breasts, were seen to convey commingled but often antithetical and various secular and sacred references, the antitheses sometimes alluding to changeling, chiasmic content.  Formal features in the sculptures, such as slenderness and attenuation, for example, were seen as relevant to expressions of heightened spirituality or moral deprivation, sometimes with simultaneous implications of both selfless generosity and self-indulgent greed.  

Focusing on the rarely discussed trumeau--in relation to the adjoining figures of the doorway-jambs, the long narratives of the adjacent, lateral walls of the porch, and the Apocalyptic Vision of the tympanum above--this study dwelt on this central feature as key to the inter-relatedness of all parts of the portal’s sophisticated design.  The lionesses and lions, rather than being thought of as merely conventional, apotropaic beast-imagery or regarded as making up a sylized tau-motif (without consideration for the elongated figures of Paul and “Jeremiah” pressing against them), were claimed here to have been carefully selected and to hold multiple valences critical to a more deeply engaging reading.  All forms were seen as attuned to the experience of entering and exiting the church, in the transition from the public viewing space without to the more intimate, reverential ritual space within.  The subjects enabled visual linkages with the broader themes of nurture and neglect, charity and parsimony—of material and immaterial as well as individual and collective sort—that dominate the porch narratives and form a foundation for the transformative leap to the acclaiming elders above.  The elders’ gestures, which are unfettered gifts of homage and acclamation, trumpet the culminating transcendence of the tympanum’s vision of Christ in Majesty.  

Also a structural innovation, the trumeau can be thought of as facilitating unprecedented breadth for a Romanesque portal program.   Its scope ranges from the deploring of bestial, sexual, sensual, leprous, and avaricious inclinations (at the left wall of the porch with allusions to selfish denying and profligate giving via the Lazarus and Dives narratives) to the lauding of selfless donations through offering and sacrifice (at the right wall with the Magi and the Presentation of the Child at the altar). While exploring these secular and sacred realms of the familiar, yet incorporating relevance to both testaments of biblical history, the design’s metaphors could extol gifts of tribute on levels that moved from mundane vulgarity to magnificent majesty and inspire a viewing public to feudal beneficence like that portrayed in stone.