Glencairn Museum News | Number 6, 2018
The people of the Middle Ages were as enthralled by their kings and queens as we are today—that much becomes clear upon exploring Glencairn’s collection of medieval art. Monarchs are depicted everywhere among the Museum’s stone sculptures and stained-glass panels. Examination of these works reveals that during the Middle Ages many different kinds of rulers were revered, whether current or past monarchs, canonized kings such as Louis IX of France, biblical rulers like David, Solomon, and Sheba, or mythical leaders such as Arthur. Yet regardless of who specifically they represented, images of rulers helped medieval people to understand what it meant to be a king or queen.
The key concept at the heart of medieval kingship was the profound connection between ruler and God. Though earthly leadership lies in the hands of humans, medieval kingship was rooted in divine sanction. Building upon this concept, portrayals of both sacred and secular kings and queens frequently were found among the wall paintings, stained-glass windows, and sculptures of medieval churches. Such images emphasized the bond between the Church as an institution and the Christian ruler as God’s anointed representative on earth. This was important because as part of its primary function as the center of Christian spiritual life, church was an important place for medieval people to learn about the world around them. Medieval church decorations depicted biblical subjects, saints, the end of time, and sometimes aspects of popular culture. Among many other things, these decorations communicated an ideal social order, with a ruler at the very top of the earthly hierarchy. Most medieval people never saw a king or queen in the flesh, but through pictures they could apprehend the core values of kingship and, in turn, understand their own role within both the earthly kingdom and the kingdom of God.
Ask anyone to imagine a medieval king, and an image of a crowned, enthroned figure in robes likely will come to mind. While we are fed such a stereotyped image on TV and in the movies, that image does have a precedent in medieval art. Western medieval visual artists created conventional images of rulers—not lifelike portraits revealing the unique likenesses of individual rulers. An example of such a representation is found in a panel of stained glass (Figure 1) now in Glencairn’s collection, originally displayed in the clerestory of the Gothic church of Saint-Yved in Braine, France (c. 1190-1200). This window speaks especially eloquently to the modern idea of what a medieval king should look like because it is in fact a composite of two windows from the same source that were grafted together by a modern restorer, though this does not detract from our reading of the image. We see a man seated on a throne with no back, framed tightly by two thin columns. The ruler’s rich garments conceal his body and cascade in generous swaths over his shoulders and forearms. He is bearded, wears a golden crown, and carries a long, slender scepter topped by a fleur-de-lis (the stylized lily symbolizing the French monarchy). The figure’s face is bisected by the leaden skeleton holding the individual sections of colored glass together, and though this is incidental to the structure of the window, the lead bar running from crown to chin emphasizes the highly symmetrical facial features, and especially the large, staring eyes.
This is a very stylized representation. It does not intend to capture this king as a living, breathing man. It is not possible to recognize the likeness of a particular person here—there was no human model upon which this panel was based. Instead, the generic representation was complemented by attributes—crown, scepter, robes, throne—to make its identity clear. As a result, the figure before us is an inert, remote, and perhaps even unsympathetic person. We see an idealized portrayal of a king, rather than a man as a king. This ideal portrayal shows the king to be effortlessly authoritative and impersonal. An image like this does a lot to feed the modern view of the medieval world as cold and rigidly hierarchical. Yet there were many reasons to depict this king and others like him in this manner.
Biblical and Apocalyptic Kings
The panel from Braine was probably part of a sequence of windows depicting the genealogy of Christ. The depiction of this genealogy, which recorded Jesus’ ancestry through Old Testament kings, became increasingly popular during the Middle Ages, especially as a subject for stained-glass windows. An example comparable to the king from Braine may be found in Glencairn’s panel with a half-length king from the Cathedral of Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais (Figure 2), Soissons, France (c. 1210-15). This image once formed part of a window that depicted the Tree of Jesse, a kind of “family tree” based on a prophecy of Isaiah that traced Jesus’ lineage from Jesse, the father of David. Here, the unidentified king resembles the example from Braine, a bearded man with wavy hair, although a halo clearly frames this crowned head. The figure holds himself erect and gazes assertively at the viewer, conveying an air of calm authority much like the Braine king. Yet here the figure also tugs on either his collar or a heavy chain falling over his chest, a seemingly informal gesture that nonetheless draws more attention to his regal robes. This staid, sagacious king invites the viewer’s confidence in his rule. At the same time, behind him, the branches of the “family tree” curl and splay outward, making it clear that this is but one in a long line of righteous leaders whose actions established the foundation for Jesus’ work on earth.
This image represents a biblical personage, although the subject is dressed not in ancient garb but in regalia of the early thirteenth century. Medieval artists were not generally concerned with “historical accuracy” in their depictions of the biblical past. Frequently, they used the clothing and accoutrements of their own time in order to make depictions of sacred people more easily understandable. It is therefore quite likely that images of biblical kings, such as those found in genealogies of Christ, were meant to allude visually to contemporary, living rulers as well. Many medieval images seem to have been capable of referring to more than one idea, depicted with deliberate ambiguity in order to create analogies between disparate things. An image of David or Solomon, for example, could also recall the current king of France, under the right circumstances.
This may have been less true of other regal images found in medieval churches—for example, in apocalyptic subjects. The Elders of the Apocalypse described in the vision of the throne of God take on a royal appearance according to their description in Revelation 4:4: “And round about the throne were four and twenty seats; and upon the seats, four and twenty ancients sitting, clothed in white garments, and on their heads were crowns of gold” (Douay-Reims Bible Online). Three sculptures of Elders in Glencairn’s collection (see Figure 3 for one example), probably from the Béarn region of southwestern France (c. 1125-50), seem to have come from a complete group of Elders framing the doorway of an unknown church, in a manner similar to the still-intact Abbaye-aux-Dames in Saintes, France (Figure 4). One shows a seated, crowned figure playing a fiddle, a vial perched on his shoulder (both typical identifying attributes of the Elders). This king is one of many, a lively figure with an awestruck expression on his face. Another example from Glencairn treats the same subject in a very different style. The limestone bust of an Apocalyptic Elder from the French town of Parthenay (Figure 5), possibly from the town’s grand twelfth-century church of Notre-Dame de la Couldre (c. 1150), may represent a figure from the church’s façade. The haloed, crowned king is much eroded, but it was clearly sculpted with great sensitivity and attention to detail. This figure calmly, patiently attends the throne of God, his demeanor fitting for such a sacred setting. The proximity of the Elders to the throne as described in Revelation is significant because the Elders, through their kingly appearances, suggest the close links between earthly kings and God the Father.
Setting an Example
Sacred stories could further explain the idea of kingship to medieval people. Glencairn’s tiny, early medieval ivory box (Figures 6 and 7), probably made in Spain, provides a positive example of a strong ruler. The box depicts on one side the Judgement of Solomon, in which the king presides over the case of two women both claiming to be the mother of a single baby. Known for his wisdom, Solomon’s pronouncements offered a clear model for leaders of all rank to follow. The suggestion that this box held the chrism used for anointing kings would make this imagery all the more appropriate. Of course, images of kings from sacred history could also set terrible examples. For instance, King Herod, already vilified for authorizing the massacre of infant children following the birth of Jesus, demonstrates further his corruption in ordering the beheading of John the Baptist and giving the saint’s head to his stepdaughter Salome. A roundel from the church of St. Martin at Breuil-le-Vert, France (c. 1235) shows Salome Dancing at the Feast of Herod (see lead photo and Figure 8), the event that precipitated the saint’s beheading. Included in the scene are Herod at right and Herodias, his queen, at left, seated at table, flanked by a servant and another figure, while Salome bends over backwards below the table (a popular pose in medieval representations of lewd dancing). Certainly not models of royal wisdom and piety, Herod and Herodias’ behavior was meant to be condemned.
Church and Crown at Saint-Denis
Medieval images of kings also sought to engage with recent history and politics. This is exemplified by a pair of stained-glass roundels (c. 1150; Figures 9-12) in Glencairn’s collection originating in the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, a monastery located just outside of Paris. Both clearly illustrate the close relationship maintained between the French monarchy and the Church. The kings of France pledged to protect the abbey, and in turn the monks of Saint-Denis dedicated their prayers to safeguarding their sovereign. The abbey became the burial place for generations of kings, whose graves still fill the church interior (Figure 13). In addition, the abbey served as a kind of safe deposit, storing the royal crowns and battle standards until needed by the king and his armies. Because of this close relationship, much of the church decoration addresses kingship, either through the lens of biblical or apocalyptic kingship, or in recounting the deeds of historical kings. Glencairn’s glass roundels address directly Saint-Denis’ historical relationship with the French monarchy.
The first roundel depicts a rather unusual gathering in which three clusters of three men each sit on three thrones (Figure 9). The trios of men at left (Figure 10) and right already wear crowns, while the hand of God places crowns on the three at center. (While only the heads of the three kings at left are original, the modern replacement heads follow their lost originals.) The subject has caused much debate—who are all of these kings, and why are they shown all together? Historical documents suggest this roundel was once part of a large window devoted to the French king Charlemagne (who also had been canonized as a saint). A powerful early medieval ruler known as much for his spiritually learned court as for his conquests of land, Charlemagne sought to align himself closely with the Church. In 751, Charlemagne, his brother, Carloman, and his father, Pepin III, were crowned by Pope Stephen II in the Abbey of Saint-Denis, and in the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor. The scene in the roundel may refer to the 751 triple coronation, especially since the event took place at Saint-Denis. Yet this is a very complex image that appears to be doing so much more than commemorating an event. Perhaps it also celebrates or comments upon kingship in some way by playing upon the symbolism of the number three so central to Christian belief. Whatever theme or event this image of crowned and crowning may specifically represent, the underlying concept is clear: the earthly power of kings is sanctioned by God, who effectively reaches down from Heaven to place crowns on the heads of worthy men.
The second panel in Glencairn’s collection that addresses Saint-Denis’ relationship to the French monarchy comes from a window dedicated to the First Crusade (1095-99), which saw western European Christians traveling to the Holy Land to claim control of its many sacred biblical sites. At the center of this roundel, armored soldiers on horseback flank a crowned king astride a war horse (Figures 11 and 12). Above the group of three soldiers at right, a slender, snake-like dragon floats in the air, looking curiously like a battle standard (a kind of flag). The figure of the king in this panel was restored heavily during the modern period, but the composition is nonetheless well preserved and the subject accurate. That said, the person and event being depicted is unclear, since no French monarch participated in the battles of the First Crusade. It has been suggested that this scene is in fact based on a legend recorded in 1112, which told of the mighty Charlemagne rising from the dead to lead Christian soldiers in the Holy Land. Given Charlemagne’s history of patronage of Saint-Denis, his inclusion in this window, as well as the separate window dedicated to him, would have been fitting. This is especially so because Saint-Denis housed relics of the Passion said to have been brought by Charlemagne from the Holy Land during his lifetime.
Moreover, even though no French monarch participated in the First Crusade, the depictions of its events in this window were highly relevant at the time it was created around the year 1150. In 1147, King Louis VII, getting ready to embark on the Second Crusade, had stopped at Saint-Denis to obtain the royal battle standard for his campaigns in the Holy Land. In commemorating the First Crusade, the window also anticipates the next series of battles, optimistically (but erroneously) predicting another victorious outcome for the Christians. In so doing, it celebrates the crown’s dedication to the preservation of the Church as an institution at the same time as it appeals for divine guidance—requested in the prayers of the monks at Saint-Denis, and exemplified in the triple coronation panel. Together, the Charlemagne and Crusade window panels reveal the interdependence of Church and crown.
The Afterlives of Medieval Royals
Images of kings, though prevalent during the Middle Ages and popular once more today, were not always appreciated. Vandalism of church decorations occurred a number of times over the course of history. During the French Revolution, medieval images of kings fared especially badly. The revolutionary government’s strong anti-Church stance ignited the zeal of many revolutionaries, who, mistaking the images of biblical rulers for actual historical rulers of France, decapitated many medieval statues of kings and queens, expressing their opposition to both the monarchy and the Catholic Church with a single blow. Revolutionary iconoclasm, or image destruction, was particularly directed at sculptures like Glencairn’s “Slim Princess” (Figures 14 and 15), a statue column of a haloed queen that came from the church of Saint-Thibaut in Provins, France (1160s), although this particular example happily escaped decapitation.
Glencairn’s tiny crowned head from the Church of Saint-Lazare in Autun (Figure 16), on the other hand, may have been a casualty of an eighteenth-century restoration of the church. Restoration is an act that, while generally well intentioned, can dramatically transform works of medieval art. The head’s intricately drilled crown tells us this represents a king, but the lack of any other revealing detail makes it difficult to say which king this was supposed to be—perhaps an Elder of the Apocalypse, or perhaps another kind of king. Once sculptures such as this one are removed from their original context, they may all too easily lose some of their meaning. Nonetheless, this undifferentiated representation of a king reveals to us the visual values of the Middle Ages—that figures be easily recognizable, but not lifelike. Their identity lies more in their role in society than in their individuality.
Julia Perratore, PhD
Lecturer, Fordham University
Photography by Edwin Herder unless otherwise indicated.
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