Tag Archives: Medieval

What is this medieval saint doing raising the heavy metal horns?

There’s a curious painting in Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford, St John the Baptist Enthroned. It depicts the precursor of Christ, J the B, in his trademark camel skin cloak, but rather than chilling in the desert, he sits on a magnificent marble throne with delicate Gothic canopies with finials and pinnacles with a luscious red robe draped over him. In his left hand, he holds his usual staff and a scroll which reads “Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi”, essentially the saint’s catchphrase: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold He that takes away the sins of the world”. But his other hand, instead of pointing to the Saviour of mankind, is held in a very unexpected gesture. Perhaps appropriate for his rather bushy light-brunette mullet, he extends his first and little finger upwards, his second and third fingers curled into his palm with his thumb hidden behind.

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Close Follower of the Master of Saint Cecilia – John the Baptist Enthroned, first or second decade of the fourteenth century, 101 x 59.5 cm (Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford)

Someone who has grown up in the pop culture of the last thirty years can only read this gesture as one thing. ROCK.

The picture was of course painted long before Blue Cheer even turned up the gain on “Summertime Blues”. It was painted in Italy, in the early 14th century: what art historians call the Trecento. It is characteristic of how artists of the time experimented with space and volume, away from the flat character of Byzantine icons. John is impressively bulkly and architectonic, something emphasised by the canting sides of his throne with foreshortened Gothic trefoil arches. The painting is first documented in the sacristy (a common dumping ground in Italian churches for old medieval paintings) of the church of Santa Maria degli Ughi in Florence. Around 1834 it was given to the library at Christ Church College Oxford: an unusually early interest in such a “primitive” painting. In 1857 it was exhibited at the great Manchester Art Treasures exhibition under the name Buffalmacco, a 14th-century painter famous from Georgio Vasari’s 16th-century Lives of the Artists as a great prankster, although he has no surviving signed works. Richard Offner’s Corpus of Florentine Painting now gives the artist as “Close Following of the Saint Cecilia Master”. Essentially, the painting looks very close to 1300, when the great Giotto was making a name for himself in Rome and Padua with the revolutionary plastic style of the Florentine School.

So why did the anonymous artist of this panel paint the Baptist seemingly showing us how metal he was? The connection to the modern meaning is actually closer than you might think.

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fiorino d’oro coin, 1484 (wikimedia commons, (cc) sailko)

John the Baptist was especially important in Florence: he was the patron saint of the city. The art historian Robin Simon, who wrote his MA dissertation at The Courtauld Institute on this panel, noted that the gesture first appeared on the florin financed by the Arte di Calimala, the Florentine guild of clothmakers, in 1252. The fiorino d’oro stayed essentially the same in metal and design, with fleur-de-lys on the obverse and the city’s patron on the reverse until the end of the republic of Florence in 1533. While some mintings are too indistinct to see what John is doing with his right hand, and others do have him doing the usual finger-pointing-at-unseen-Saviour thing, many, like this fifteenth-century example clearly show him extending first and fourth finger like a laidback metalhead.

Ken Kelly – cover art for Love Gun LP (1977)

Gestures are extremely important in medieval art and visual culture. They can also vary in cultural meaning, and the so-called “mano cornuto” is no exception. You can look at the Wikipedia page yourself, I’m sure, to see how it can be used to taunt a cuckold or support the University of Texas longhorns. But if the symbol fluctuates, the sign is rigid: horns. To understand why this saint is raising something so aggressive, it may help to look at the history of its current preeminent meaning in Western culture. A number of rock musicians used the sign of the horns in the early 1970s as a devilish symbol that resonated with heavy music’s use of the occult for counter-cultural shock value. For example, on the cover of the KISS album Love Gun, entrepreneur and sometimes-bass guitarist Gene Simmons, in his trademark make-up as the character “The Demon”,  emphasises his devilish nature with a horned fist. But the gesture became solidified in music culture by that much-missed and truly iconic vocalist of heavy metal music, the great Ronnie James Dio.

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Dio and fans showing the “metal horns”, at Black Sabbath show supporting the Mob Rules album, HemisFair Arena, San Antonio, TX, 13 May 1982 (Photo: Fin Costello/Redferns)

Ronald James Padavona (1942 – 2010) had an extraordinary musical career beginning in New York state during the late 1950s, but coming to international prominence in 1975 when he and his band Elf were taken over by all-round British sociopath and Deep Purple’s guitar genius Ritchie Blackmore to be in his new band Rainbow. After he inevitably fell out with Blackmore, Dio joined Birmingham’s heavy-metal pioneers Black Sabbath in 1979 to write and record the Heaven and Hell album, the subsequent tour of which he popularised the sign of the horns during concerts. This was the first time a musician had really pulled the horns in a manner to encourage imitation in the audience (see the brilliant archive photo above). It came at just the right time: when Dio formed his own eponymous band in 1982, heavy metal was consolidating as a distinct genre rather than just a derogatory label for particularly heavy rock music. This gesture was just the sort of thing the burgeoning sub-culture required. However, the traditional roots of Dio’s use of the gesture are subtly different from the way someone like Gene Simmons had used it as an attribute of mock-Satanism.

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Ronnie James Dio, c. 2004

Dio often told the story of his adoption of the horns, which takes us back to the part of the world this medieval painting came from. His parents were Italian immigrants who came to New York probably some time in the 1920s (it is hard to research because Ronnie was a very private person, allowing the notion to circulate that he was a decade younger than he actually was). He recounts how his Italian-born grandmother taught him the gesture to ward off someone giving you the “evil eye” (malocchio). In this sense the gesture is apotropaic: an image or symbol that has the power to ward off evil. And that’s what our 14th-century Florentine John the Baptist is doing. On the coins and the Oxford painting, he’s fulfilling his special role as protector of the City of Florence by exhorting them to stay hard as iron to scare away the devil and the malocchio of any other jealous city states through the use of a vernacular superstition.

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Grimacing pointy-eared face from the centre of the Tomb of Christ / Sacrament Shrine at Hawton (Nottinghamshire), late 1330s.

So any initial surprise you might have at a medieval saint apparently giving the sign of the devil actually says a lot about art and culture. Dio’s lyrics show a fascination with the concept of evil. From his “Holy Diver”, facing the apparitions in the midnight sea to the night terrors that lurk in your own mind in “Dream Evil”. Of course, they are adolescent fantasy that pervades much of heavy metal, but not that far removed from the Middle Ages. As everyone knows, medieval artists put monsters everywhere, as apotropaic symbols but also acknowledgement and morbid curiosity in the darker side of existence. Church water spouts were in the shape of grimacing gargoyles who vomited down the rain onto the churchyard. The margins of rich people’s prayerbooks were full of bizarre creatures. The statues of saints on altarpieces were held aloft by all sorts of profanities we find difficult to understand. This is because the Church embraced everything: both the divine and the human fascination with the grotesque.

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Headstop between chancel sedilia and piscina, St Mary in the Marsh (Kent), probably last quarter of the 13th century: the spitting image of Iron Maiden mascot, Eddie.

It reminds us that art should only be obsessed with virtue, but also explore notions of vice to understand the human condition. I often say it’s curious that the two genres of music I love to listen to that basically sound like white noise unless you sit down with the lyrics and concentrate are sacred polyphony (Josquin Desprez, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Palestrina) and death metal (Suffocation, Cannibal Corpse, Gorguts, Necrophagist). In some twisted way, this painting encapsulates that for me.

On and on and on, it’s Heaven and Hell!

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Perambulating Picardy: A Gothic pilgrimage round north-east France

Looking at manuscripts in Arras with Prof. John Lowden

Looking at manuscripts in Arras with Prof. John Lowden

Each year, the Courtauld Institute has a joint meeting with Lille and Leuven Universities, and this time it was the turn of the French to host, and I was invited along. In between two days of papers which managed to provoke some interesting discussions and sharing of ideas,  we visited the new Louvre outpost at Lens, and then Arras to view some Carolingian, Romanesque and Gothic manuscripts. It was a rewarding few days, but really for me it was an excellent opportunity to get under the channel and do a trip round the area to actually see some Gothic architecture in the place where it all began. Four nights, five cathedral towns: Rheims, Soissons, Laon, Noyon and Amiens…

 

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Rheims Cathedral, begun 1210. Choir.

Rheims Cathedral, begun 1210. Choir.

So from Lille I took an evening train via Charlesville-Meziers (where, in my hour’s change over, I found a C15 Flamboyant church in the dark, the lights were on but no one was home) to Rheims. I found the Cathedral in the early morning light and watched it slowly emerge in its pointy splendor. The coronation church of the French monarchy, this early thirteenth-century Cathedral is the birthplace of bar tracery, where the window heads are subdivided into skeletal shapes, leading to a whole new concept of surface ornament. Indeed, my interest in Gothic is often a little obsessed with linear forms, and it is the sheer scale of Rheims Cathedral and everything about it that impresses. The experience of these forms, and subsequently, the spaces they create, at their actual size that is a vital part of their meaning, and why it is borderline preposterous to write anything about these buildings without having been in them.

Gargoyles choked with lead from burnt-off roof, preserved in Palace of Tau museum

Gargoyles choked with lead from burnt-off roof, preserved in Palace of Tau museum

It’s a little harrowing however how little of Rheims is left. The roof was burnt off when the Cathedral got caught up in the First World War, and the gargoyles choked with the resulting lead vomit one of the most shocking things in the Palace of Tau next door. Yet also, many of the exterior sculptures are gradually being replaced with facsimiles, and removed from their original context into the museum they seem like idolatrous pagan  giants, including the quite incredible and massive scene of the Coronation of the Virgin from over the central portal of the facade. Once again, it is the size that it is incommunicable outside of experience.

Romanesque and Gothic in the nave of Saint-Remi, Rheims

Romanesque and Gothic in the nave of Saint-Remi, Rheims

Rheims Cathedral is largely the result of one campaign, unlike most English Cathedrals. Much more of a puzzle along the lines I am used to back home is the Abbey of Saint Remi not far south of the centre. This is a Romanesque church remodelled into pointed, with a pure Early Gothic twelfth-century chevet of the kind of Saint Germain-des-Pres and St. Martin des Champs in Paris. Opened by an elderly gentleman with a cane at ten to seven, I spent a most rewarding hour or so investigating its pier forms to see how they came to a solution for renovating this church.

St Jacques, Rheims. Nave elevation

St Jacques, Rheims. Nave elevation

Even more obscure was the parish church of St. Jacques, which I only learnt about from perusing the guidebooks in the Cathedral shop. Asking for, and following directions in French, I was rewarded with my schoolboy linguistics with a three-storey Gothic nave, a late-Gothic Flamboyant apse and two chapels in a bizarre Renaissance-Gothic hybrid. It was kept open by two welcoming ladies, which as I would find, to be a rather unusual arrangement for parish churches. (Since this doesn’t seem as well documented as other buildings I visited, I’ve uploaded my photos from here)

 

 

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Facade of Saint-Jean-et-Vignes, Soissons

Facade of Saint-Jean-et-Vignes, Soissons

Next up was Soissons. The plan was to catch a bus to Braine for its Premonstratensian Abbey church, but the bus never materialised, despite numerous enquiries. If anyone know if ligne 560 to Soissons exists, I would be intrigued to learn where I went wrong! So it was a longer way round to Soissons by rail, and arrival at my rather grim highway-side hotel was rather late and I held a bit of a grudge against Soissons subsequently. The town is dominated by the facade of Abbey of St. Jean des Vignes, the rest pulled down at the revolution as it was too much to maintain, but the sculpture and ornament is well preserved.

The south transept at Soissons

The C12 south transept at Soissons

The Cathedral is a high Gothic unity, the generation of the purity (or, depending on your taste, boredom) of Chartres. The only major disruption to this is the somewhat disconcerting apsed and aisled south transept preserved from an earlier building. A very weird feeling, as it seems to provide a climax worthy of an east end, but diminished by a chapel jutting out at an angle. I did find a pointed niche at its entrance that may have been a sedile, although the floor level would need to be higher. I sat in it anyway.

Uncusped tracery in the Abbey of St-Leger, Soissons

Uncusped tracery in the Abbey of St-Leger, Soissons

After a quick peruse of the exterior of the Abbey of Saint-Leger, with uncusped circles in the tracery (a favourite obscure thirteenth-century motif of mine), I felt I had to forgo visiting the museums at these abbeys which did not open til the afternoon and escape Soissons early for Laon.

 

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Laon Cathedral, from the south-west

Laon Cathedral, from the south-west

Laon was probably the most spectacular town on my trip, on top of an immense plateau with the Early Gothic rose of the Cathedral transept beaming north. Of course, the train does not get up there, so it was probably a bad idea when I wandered off to a hideous C19 Neo-Romanesque building and missed out on the funicular railway. The Cathedral is a largely twelfth-century building with a clean, cool atmosphere. You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but the original round east end was extended into a most unFrench flat termination after 1200, the only indication being the change of the triforium capitals from fussy Early Gothic to simple crockets. The Cathedral was also souped up with a Rayonnant remodelling in the transept and the ever-common buttress chapels inserted along its length, which I of course pedantically investigated for piscina and potential seating arrangements.

The Abbey Church of St Martin, Laon

The Abbey Church of St Martin, Laon

Disappointing was the fact that the exceedingly interesting-looking church of St. Martin at the other end of town was locked up. I even asked at the library next door when it reopened after lunch, but apparently it was only open at 17:30 – presumably for Saturday vigil mass. A strange state of affairs considering the large amount of tourist groups visiting the Cathedral.

Fifteenth-century altarpiece from Laon Cathedral in the museum

Fifteenth-century altarpiece from Laon Cathedral in the museum

There was other stuff to see in Laon. The Hotel Dieu, the hospital formerly in front of the Cathedral and now occupied by the tourist office is worth a look, as is the museum, which has a twelfth-century round-naved Templar Church in its grounds, and a nice collection including the wing of an altarpiece from the Cathedral.

 

St. Jean-Baptise, Laon (new town)

St. Jean-Baptise, Laon (down the hill in the new town). Romanesque facade.

I also found a Romanesque church on the way back down to the hill, but, as usual, not so much as service times outside. Even if you are feeling particularly lingual, adventurous and cheeky abroad, without so much as a priest’s door to knock on, it’s difficult to know where to start getting into a church like this!

 

 

 

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Sunday morning sedilia in Laetare Sunday pink vestments in the mid-twelfth century crossing of Noyon

Sunday morning sedilia in Laetare Sunday pink vestments in the mid-twelfth century crossing of Noyon

After the diminishing returns on my hotel rooms since Lille, Noyon was a relief, as I was staying in the budget wing of a relatively posh hotel. Noyon is fairly out-of-the-way and its Cathedral not of the same fame as Rheims or Chartres, but a very important building. Begun 1148, it is perhaps our first extant, unmodified approximation of what the premiere Gothic monument of St-Denis, Paris looked like before it was remodelled in the thirteenth-century. It is a precious survival of Gothic in its most primitive form, when walls were first opened to light and a new concept of shaping space started to emerge. After the over-restored facades of Rheims and Laon, the authenticity of Noyon stands out: there is a large amount of fragmentary polychrome surviving in the church, and the thirteenth-century portals are shocking since nearly every single piece of figural sculpture has been carefully obliterated, leaving only silhouettes and foliage.

C15 south-centre buttress chapel appended to C12 nave of Noyon Cathedral

C15 south-centre buttress chapel appended to C12 nave of Noyon Cathedral

It was also nice to attend Mass at Noyon, in the Chapter House on Saturday night, and for 10:30 High Mass on Sunday morning. Technically Noyon is no longer a Cathedral and only a parish church, so it was no surprise it was all conducted by one Priest with lots of young servers, but had plenty of incense, some nice hymns (“Debout resplendis” was a delight) and a large and reverent congregation. Yet it still felt like a distant echo of what used to go on in the choir behind and the tremendous chapels such as the C16 Flamboyant buttress chapel by the architect Charles de Hangest, if the patronage of the liturgy was even a tiny proportion of what was bestowed upon the architecture.

Ourscamp Abbey, choir, c.1150 (with later clerestory)

Ourscamp Abbey, choir, c.1233-57

Another Gothic delight is a short, or not so short if you’re on foot like muggins here, distance south of the town. The Cisterican Abbey of Ourscamp was founded around the same time Noyon Cathedral was built, and the choir rebuilt in the 1230s with a very restrained vocabulary of forms, making it not too disimiliar to the Early Gothic/Rayonnant hybrid at St-Denis, Paris. The pockets of the vaults were removed in the eighteenth century leaving only the ribs to improve its picturesque quality as a ruin, and this skeletal beauty is testament to the Gothic system. Worth the four miles walk, I think, if a little trying for the four miles back.

 

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Amiens facade in the evening light

Amiens facade in the evening light

Finally on my gruelling Gothic quest came Amiens. We are now back to the early thirteenth-century spatial triumphalism of Rheims, but here with a choir superstructure of the 1250s that shows the beginnings of the self-referentialism of Gothic: once purely structural forms like gables are now used decoratively, resulting in the dreamy fantasy of the cosmic palace of the Heavenly Jerusalem, causing a formal feedback resulting in a delightfully cacophanous harmony of ornament. The facade is a sublime masterpiece of The Gothic, with the whole solution of our existence sculpted in stone across its surface. The Cathedral is also a bit of an oddity in France due to the amount of interesting stuff in it. While many English Cathedrals have bishop’s tombs, choir stalls and other furniture, the disestablishment of the whole Church in France means much of this stuff went at the Revolution. Amiens has all this and more: the fifteenth-century sculptural narratives are of absolutely remarkable quality, with incident, psychology and most of all, impressive skill that is characteristic of the late Gothic artisan.

Saint-Leu, Amiens. C15 Flamboyant Style church to west of Cathedral.

Saint-Leu, Amiens. C15 Flamboyant Style church to west of Cathedral.

Otherwise Amiens was a disappointment. Unavoidably, I was there on a Monday, which is a no-no for an art historian on the continent, as it tends to be galleries-and-museums-shut day. The churches were also all locked without so much as a sign with its dedication outside. It is surprising for a Catholic country how many of the churches are treated as “historic monuments”, and just sit there in the urban fabric with no real life or presence inside them. Services often seem to take place within, and in spite, of them, with no real community keeping them alive. I am sure there are exceptions, but French churches seem much more unloved than English ones.

Cheap 'n' nasty Lille Cathedral, 1850s.

Cheap ‘n’ nasty Lille Cathedral, 1850s.

Anyway, it was back to Lille for a look in the Cathedral, entirely rebuilt as a triumphal Catholic gesture in the 1850s on the site of a demolished collegiate church. It is a horrible, stodgy lump of a thing, like someone had poured concrete on top of the classic radiating chapel plan, sticking some ever-cheap plate tracery in the windows and giving it some strange galleries that look like something off a Brutalist car park. It doesn’t even have a rib-vault over the main vessel. It was irretrievably mechanical and depressing, especially after the tour d’forces of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries of the last few days. So quickly it was down to the Beaux Arts museum for some more authentic Gothic in the form of Netherlandish sculpture as well as some fine paintings before home on the 20:30 Eurostar. It was an ambitious few days, and although I prefer the smaller and more obscure to the famous and top-tier, it proved an unparalleled learning experience of the Gothic.

I will upload images to this Flickr set, but possibly not all because I think a few people have been to these buildings with a camera.