I love Romanesque art because, you know, this is what I do. If something’s too popular and well-known, I’m no longer interested. I started out way into the Italian Renaissance. It turned out that everyone’s way into the Italian Renaissance, so I moved it back a bit to late Medieval, like Gothic. Then that was too popular, so I moved back to Romanesque, which is not particularly popular, but just a little bit too much, so I moved to Islamic, then Ancient Near Eastern. With a splash of African. I did the same thing with instruments — played clarinet, then oboe, then English Horn, which is about as obscure as you can get in the high school band. I don’t particularly like Monet and the Impressionists (too popular), and I don’t like reading the most popular books and seeing the most popular movies. This can be a problem, because I miss out. When I finally get to it, turns out that sometimes things are popular for a reason — sometimes they’re even good! Like Mozart. SO popular, but for a reason. He’s amazing. But I digress. I want to talk about a piece of art that I just can’t get out of my mind, or should I say, my eye. It’s been stuck there for years, which is fine, because I love it. It’s just below — the Prophet Jeremiah from the Abbey of St. Pierre, Moissac, France. It appeals to me aesthetically — I love the lines — his legs crossing, the drapery (his clothes) folds, his hair and beard. (I wish you could see it better. Check out this website for really good photos and witty text.) And it appeals to me because of the way the artist used the space, the way that the artist was limited to this bit of architecture and used it to his (or her?) advantage.
Prophet Jeremiah, Abbey of St Pierre, Moissac, France, 12th century
I heard an art historian say yesterday, “Trust what you see.” What he meant was that if you do a quick formal analysis, that is, run through what you’re looking at, not thinking about anything other than lines, colors, shapes, etc, you’ll get a long way toward what the piece is about. I have to really slow myself down to do this, even saying or thinking, “I see . . . .” It feels juvenile, doesn’t it? But check out how it works with this sculpture.
I see a man with long hair and a beard, crossed legs, holding a scroll, barefoot. The lines on his clothes form a pattern — they don’t look real, that is, his clothes don’t drape like they would if he were an actual person. Same with his hair and beard — they make a lovely pattern, actually, but hair isn’t nearly so orderly, at least in my experience. He looks down, like he’s sad. And he looks like he’s scrunched into the space and elongated to fit into it. You could keep going, and I’d recommend that you do. It can be really meditative.
So what you’ve noticed tells you a ton. The figure is elongated and scrunched because he’s on a trumeau, between the doors (see example below). If you just had a photo of the Jeremiah part of the trumeau, you’d be able to guess he’s on a tall, long piece of stone. And isn’t it cool the way his legs are crossed? The artist didn’t have to do that, but it makes it much more interesting, gives it much more movement. He looks like he might be about to spin around.
St. Pierre de Moissac, France, 12th century CE, South portal with trumeau between the doors
Jeremiah prophesied about the end of the world. No wonder he looks sad. Plus: “Jeremiah was attacked by his own brothers, beaten and put into the stocks by a priest and false prophet, imprisoned by the king,threatened with death,thrown into a cistern by Judah’s officials,and opposed by a false prophet.” Yikes! (Wikipedia has a great description of his life, putting it into historical context.) Just for fun, I’ve included Michelangelo’s Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel and Marc Chagall’s Jeremiah print. Seems that Jeremiah is often looking down, kind of sad. I would be too, had I seen visions of the end of the world and been imprisoned. No doubt.
Michelangelo, Jeremiah, Sistine Chapel, 16th century
Jeremiah, Marc Chagall, 1956
When you get down to it, the Moissac sculpture just appeals to me, and knowing even a little bit about it makes it mean so much more. This sculpture feels almost joyous, to me, in a way — like the artist was reveling in the medium and the challenge of fitting this man onto this piece of stone. And you don’t see it from the front — you see it as you’re passing through the door. Why did the sculptor (or whoever was in charge of the program) put the lions on the front and the prophets on the sides, do you think? It seems to me that Jeremiah is a lot more powerful here. As you’re walking in, you see prophets rather than lions, which sets the tone for moving into the church. Who knows? But I can’t help thinking about how people at that time would have experienced it and what it might have meant to them. I love that it can seem joyous to me and was probably nothing of the kind to people in the 12th century. Such is the beauty of art.