Jean-Claude Bonne, École des Hautes Études en Sciences sociales

Opening conference: Sanctifying the world.

I. Romanesque art and the question of the relationship between the sensitive and the spiritual in creation

Man, art and nature” are not universal and unambiguous categories that can be associated with self-evident realities. When we think of “Nature” – a notion with multiple meanings that are still changing today – we can say that the Middle Ages first thought of “Creation“, an earthly world that was originally harmonious and entirely sanctified, but which, as a result of the sins of the first men, was cursed by God. This curse resulted in a disharmony within man and in the world between the sensible and the spiritual. Christ essentially re-established the posanesque image always shows the need to turn to the spiritual, it is because the spiritual infuses (the word is from Hugues de Saint-Victor) the material, what we will call a spiritualisation of the material.

But the Romanesque period and Romanesque art are not monolithic; they are shot through with tensions, tensions of which the definition of creation formulated by the same Hugues de St-Victor is a good witness: “this whole universe, this sensible world, is like a book written with God’s finger, that is to say created by divine power (virtute divina), and all creatures are like figures […] established by God’s judgement to manifest and, as it were, signify in a certain way his invisible wisdom”. While Hugues de Saint-Victor remains naturally attached, like Romanesque art, to the 4 traditional meanings of Scripture extended to the Christian exegesis of history, in the treatise from which this quotation is taken he declares his admiration for plant and animal “nature”, in other words the world in the literal sense, whose beauty seems to him to be a manifest, i.e. direct or immanent, sensitive testimony to divine wisdom. The emergence, under the name of the “twelfth-century Renaissance”, of a new awareness of the world below, an awakening, it has been said, to “the consistency of nature, its rational coherence, its autonomy from divine causality” (D. Poirel), has often been highlighted. It is true that the philosophical physicists of the Chartres School (which one of the speakers will discuss) fit perfectly into this framework. But interest in the more naturalistic image of ‘nature’ would only manifest itself in certain forms of Gothic and especially Renaissance art.  It is therefore appropriate to put forward a few proposals on the ways in which the Romanesque image is represented.

II. The Romanesque image

The religious image (on which we will concentrate) is always attached to a support object – Bible, furniture, liturgical objects or books, capitals, church paving, etc. – to which it must show its material and symbolic attachment, without seeking to become independent of it. – (Bede says that images serve to “adorn and instruct”; I would say that ornamentation can also be a way of instructing not so much in their meaning as in the values of what they represent). Ornamentation, as I understand it, cannot be reduced to a genre of distinct motifs confined to the borders of images; it is a way of constructing shapes and distributing colours that serves both to exalt the sacredness of the support and to qualify the subject of the image in a positive but also negative or ambivalent way (which makes at least 3 possible valences).

Ornamentation adds aesthetic, graphic, plastic or chromatic added value that must show its artificiality (or rather its artificial character, to stay as close as possible to the meaning of ars in Latin) in the image with which it can be closely interwoven in order to simultaneously ensure the visual celebration of the object-support of the image and the spiritualising de-naturalisation of its subject. Ornamentality (Focillon calls it ‘ornamental thought‘) is a fundamental symbolic structure for the intensive qualification and re-sanctification of the medieval image of the world here below, and for attesting to the sacredness of the objects, places and people responsible for managing man’s relationship with the divine.

These over-simplified proposals will be illuminated by an analysis of the coloured line drawing and the intensive distribution of colours in a scene of the Annunciation to the shepherds (showing people, animals and plants) in a Romanesque Sacramentary from around 1100.

III. The different kinds of creatures

These are provided by the images of Creation. Those inspired by the stories of Genesis lead up to the Fall, after which the world is transformed.

On the one hand, the earth no longer spontaneously provides living beings with their food (which was entirely vegetable before the Fall), the forests become a hostile world and man has to clear them in order to work the land and derive the means to survive, as can be seen in the representations of the labours of the months, linked to the cyclical organisation of the cosmos. And a clever type of image shows that man is a microcosm, an analogical mirror of the macrocosm.

On the other hand, after the Fall, the living world was also transformed. The animals already distinguished before the Fall are now divided into 5 categories: the pecus, which are the domesticated animals, submissive to man, the bestiæ or wild beasts, some of which have become carnivorous and therefore aggressive (an ambivalent symbol of the positive, negative or ambivalent forces at work in the world), the birds, which are globally positive beings and mediators with the celestial world because they fly and are closer to the sky, the fish (representing the aquatic world), and finally the crawling beings (called vermin) that can be associated with the satanic world that has infused itself into Creation. But Creation is not only characterised by the opposition of Good and Evil in struggle within sinful man, it is also marked by the opposition between that which is beneficial (the fruits of labour) and that which is evil for man’s existence, such as catastrophes, scarcity, evil spells (which must be warded off), pain and death (with the fear of Judgement). It is this whole fallen Creation that needs to be resanctified, as the image should show

IV. The different modes of being of creatures and the animæ (souls) that animate them

In addition to the types of living beings and the way in which they appear, there is the question of their modes of being or their invisible nature, in other words the animæ that animate them, and the way in which their action is reflected in the Romanesque image.

A good encyclopaedist and populariser of theological thought in the first half of the 12th century, such as Honorius Augustodunensis, traditionally recognised four modes of being here below.

  • First, there is matter, which is made up of varying degrees of composition of the four elements, with man’s body presenting the best balance between the qualities of the four. This ancient doctrine was handed down by the Fathers of the Church, such as Isidore of Seville, who set it out in diagrams. These were taken up and amplified in the Romanesque period and constitute a type of abstract and theoretical image of the nature of creation, before the great Gothic diagrams.
  • Above matter, Honorius says that man has three vires animæ (animating powers of the soul), which Hugues de Saint-Victor, who will be associated with the subject, calls the “triplex animæ vis” (the triple power of the soul).

If we need to dwell on this point, it is because one of the functions of what I have called the Romanesque ornamentalisation of the image is to contribute to the figuration, which I would call both analogical (from a cognitive point of view) and animic (from a vitalist point of view), of the powers of the soul. Hugues de Saint-Victor refers to the first as animæ vis in vegetandis (which philosophers, like Guillaume de Conches, would soon call anima vegetalis), which “provides the body with life so that, once born, it grows and, by nourishing itself, subsists“. Honorius put it this way: “Life is the power of the soul that vivifies the body, and this we have in common with plants and trees“. Before meaning vegetation, which is the exemplary form because it is naked, the word vegetatio and words of the same family mean the germinative power of life, just as natura is related to nasci, which means to be born. This is a very important point if we are to understand how Romanesque imagery would entrust the artificiality of ornamental vegetation with the power to allegorise and animate the underlying life-giving power of life – what we might call the vis animæ vegetalis qui est vita – as well as its relationship (analogical and substantial) with the deeper spiritual, holy, diabolical or ambivalent forces at work in creation, which man must confront within himself. We will illustrate this theme with Romanesque images, positive, negative or ambivalent, of man inscribed (or caught?) in a vegetal rinceau (and grappling with animals).

  • Above the life-giving, plant-forming soul, there is the sensory anima, the anima of the five senses that enables us to judge what is sensible. Unlike Honorius, Hugues grants animals imagination and memory. Honorius is content to say “Feeling is a power of the soul which confers sensibility on the body (Sensus est vis animæ quæ corpus sensificat)” and he adds, “we have it in common with beasts and all animate beings (cum bestiæ et omnibus animantibus)“. Honorius does not say “animals“, but he names two categories: bestiae, i.e. beasts that have become wild, and animantes, a word (animans) in the family of animal or animalis, neither of which means “animal” or defines, as we understand it, a category of beings different from men, but “animate or living being“.
  • Before turning to man’s relationship with other living beings, particularly bestiæ, we should add that man also possesses a soul that is entirely or at least more spiritual than the preceding ones, which God “breathed” into him (but undoubtedly with all the others) at creation and which can be broadly defined as ratio. It has different forms or degrees, the highest of which is called the “intellect“, which is also a vis animæ, but with access to the intelligence of incorporeal realities.

To these powers of the soul or these multiple souls (sometimes called anima, sometimes spiritus) with elusive and fluctuating limits between the spiritual (deemed incorporeal) and the quasi-corporeality necessary for its activity in the world, To these souls, in or between which theologians multiply distinctions (which we don’t need to know about here), corresponds in the images the extreme permeability or osmosis between the spiritual and the material, through the infusion of occult, quasi-magical forces into the visible, which extend far into the universe.
This is confirmed by the Romanesque image of bestiæ, to which we need to return, as well as, more broadly, the extension of the scope of living creatures other than man.

We will not go into the question of bestiaries or herbiaries, as these will be dealt with in other presentations. Unlike the usual Romanesque images, which, with a few exceptions, require only very generic representations of animals and plants, these works list a considerable number of species, defining their medical or other properties when they do not moralise them.

We cannot dwell on hybrids, such as the mermaid, the centaur or the griffin, or on unknown or little-known distant peoples with monstrous characteristics, because they are unusual, always more or less animalised, which are held to be either very real or imaginary, entirely possible in a Creation whose limits we do not know. In any case, these beings had to be susceptible to a certain exegesis (at the very least, they had to be ornamental witnesses, in the precise qualifying sense mentioned above, to the diversity and otherness of creatures). We will only mention the case of the Ethiopian (who has two pairs of eyes).

We’ll be looking more closely at some of the major Romanesque images of the power relations between man and beast, wild or monstrous beasts whose images evoke violent disorder, the domination of beasts over man (devouring) or conversely man’s hold over beasts. These confrontations are seen as an image of the struggle of Good against the diabolical or dark forces of evil, which only exceptional men can overcome, and/or as images of the inner struggle against man’s baser tendencies and carnal impulses. But the strength of these bestiæ, however evil, can be harnessed and placed at the service of the Word by bending to the forms of the letter, which is a way of sanctifying strength (fortitudo), a vital virtue in a violent feudal world.

The most intimate links between animality, plant-forming and humanity are seen in the plant-forming of beneficial or malefic parts of animals, such as their tails, and above all in the omnipresent image in Romanesque art of a human or animal mask emitting plant matter or having it pass through it. These hybridizations are the image of a continuity of life that is indissociably sensitive and spiritual, that we would call animic rather than animistic, because the animæ, divine creations, are not, for the ecclesiastical world at least, autonomous entities, even if the superstitious belief in quasi-animistic powers acting within creation has had currency in popular culture.

But Romanesque Christianity, by relying on what Hugues de Saint-Victor might call “the spirit that is the occult force of nature (hic spiritus, id est, occulta naturæ vis)“, the divine activity or autonomy of which theologians themselves were beginning to dispute, did it not open the door to the possibility or temptation of relating the immensity of the uncontrollable in creation to occult entities such as new avatars acculturated by Roman society of mythological deities of Antiquity.

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