08 April 2022

Moissac, home to deities and devils hiding everywhere in plain sight

So, I picked up this small book in the Aix market from a bookseller about 40 years ago. It’s one of those little French booklets that one doesn’t get around to reading until one actually goes to the place written about on the cover. And because I haven’t been to Moissac I haven’t read the booklet either! Ha ha.

Sadly, I have neither spent too much time meandering around the rich region of Southwest France. Apparently though, this abbey first came into being in either the 6th or 7th century depending on whose account you believe. It was originally a Benedictine abbey. 

It sits squarely on the ‘route aux etoiles' de Compostelle. The Tympanum alone is one of the most revered of all Romanesque churches in France.

         The prophet Jeremiah on the South portal

So, I haven’t read this booklet but its cover has always been visible to me because I always found a place for it between other books so the cover was prominently displayed in my every home over the years. The head of the prophet Jeremiah (above) is so compelling that I have wanted it close by me at all times. 

But Jeremiah is just one jewel because there are many sculpted portraits around this abbey which endear one. Being Romanesque, it is full of devils and dragon-like creatures, saints and sinners, drunkards and farmers, all drinking up the earth's wares. There are all sorts of animals hanging off columns and holding up arches, and flying from ceilings. With a pair of binoculars, the Romanesque Church is a cornucopia of bestiary delight for the energetic traveler.

Sadly, through sheer obstinate prejudice against religion in this Post-Modernist world many people cannot see the formal and humanist beauty in churches like this. I have known one or two painters, and many people, who fastidiously avoid angels like vampires avoid garlic and mirrors. But being an artist of another type (and with another education altogether) I do not judge Art framed by contextual constraints. My visual education allowed me to see (and feel) an Art unrestrained by contextual content. For me, Beauty became the guide, and as a painter, it was achieved through means of both light and form. Ultimately though, for me, Beauty is Truth, and Truth Beauty, as John Keats alluded to in his famous poem Ode to a Grecian Urn. And that certainly does not preclude Beauty from what a layman might think of as Ugly, for it is certainly not the opposite of verisimilitude in the world of Painting. When something is truthful it is beautiful like when something's beautiful it is truthful regardless of any contextual housing. 

But because a Tympanum is Christian, it doesn't exclude a similarity to a Tympanum on a wing of a Temple in Southern India. Beauty in Art hides out in the open, everywhere, just like the human heart of Humanity. It is ever-present, discoverable like a mouse on the desktop, but only if one is not blinded by too many ideas, religious or otherwise.

But I didn't want to get into all that! I know  I seem to have developed my own personal rant regarding this subject of the Post-Modern influence upon students of Art. But Hey! I was simply moved by the spirit of this head on the cover of the booklet. And one can ask oneself continually as a creator; How was this done? What hand made this? And what kind of mind created this? What we do know is that these were anonymous craftsmen, stone carvers whose lives and those of their families, moved about rural Europe looking for work. And, they carried not only the tools of trade but also a rich artistic sensibility honed by tradition around in their rucksacks. Whole communities were born around the construction of an abbey as large as the one at Moissac. For instance, it took 500 years to complete Chartres Cathedral through all the wars, pestilence and political upheavals. How many generations? Maybe fifty? Give or take a few family men? Imagine the cohesive vision entailed in this long project?                   

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