Two Fragments of a Relief with the Temptation of Christ

Glencairn Museum News | Number 7, 2013


Two twelfth-century marble reliefs depicting the Temptation of Christ.


Figure 1: Glencairn Museum's Cloister.


Imagine walking along the shaded perimeter of a medieval cloister, admiring the decorated capitals of its arcade—if you’ve ever visited Glencairn’s cloister, this should be easy to picture. Now imagine you arrive at a shadowy corner of the arcade, marked by a thick, square pier. Suddenly, you freeze. A staring, grinning devil is at your side—less than half your size, certainly, but seeming to walk along with you, and about to turn the corner, just like you. Perhaps your eyes are playing tricks on you—the light in this part of the cloister is not strong—but still, a gruesome figure with pointed ears and a snake-headed tail appears to move on the surface of the pier. Turning the corner quickly, a second figure confronts you. This, however, is a very different vision, capable of quelling any previous alarm. An image of Christ, framed by a halo, inscribed with a cross, confronts the devil face-to-face.

During the Middle Ages, the drama of such an encounter would have been a familiar occurrence for the canons of the Collegiate Church of Saint-Gaudens, located in the French Pyrenees. Members of this religious community regularly found themselves before a carved confrontation between Christ and the devil that wrapped around a corner of their cloister’s arcade. Their movements within the cloister enhanced their experience of viewing the two linked reliefs, turning it into an interactive event.

Today, these two images from Saint-Gaudens reside in Glencairn’s Medieval Gallery. Though originally carved on two sides of the same block of stone, sometime around the mid-twelfth century the reliefs were separated. Now they are displayed side-by-side to approximate their original arrangement.

The reliefs evoke the temptations launched at Jesus during his forty days in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-15). The devil holds a stone in his left hand, while his serpent-like tail appears to drape over his arm (Figure 3). In this manner, he urges the fasting Jesus to turn a stone into bread—the first of the temptations. Opposite, Jesus merely raises his right hand (Figure 2), a gesture typically intended to represent speech in medieval art, to indicate his reply: “It is written that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Luke 4:4).


Figure 2: Christ raises his right hand.


Though chunks of stone are missing at the edges of each slab, and the figure of the devil is particularly eroded, the two carvings achieve striking psychological depth. Christ’s body is delineated in relatively shallow relief, with the folds of the garment summarily carved in thick rolls, but his expressive face emerges from much deeper carving. The clear, articulated eyes, their pupils punctuated with steep drilling, add gravity to the face, suggesting the tension between Jesus and the devil. At the same time, the prominent cheekbones and set, downturned mouth indicate Jesus’ quiet resolve. In contrast, the devil’s wild-eyed, hypnotic expression, carved into a flattened face, is enhanced by his wide mouth and large, drilled teeth. Christ remains contained within his decorative niche, his body language firmly anchoring him to the space, while the form of the devil seems to push outward through his gestures and upturned head, a contrast that sets the one against the other, while emphasizing Jesus’ triumph over evil.


Figure 3: The devil holds a stone in his left hand with his tail draped over his arm.


The imagery’s dramatic effects are heightened by the figures’ poses and placement. Their oppositional arrangement, together with their turned bodies, serves to create tension. When viewed from either side of the pier on which they were originally carved, each figure anticipated and announced the other, even if only one figure was visible based on the viewer’s location with respect to the pier. While there is no question that the figures were meant to refer to each other, the three-quarter turns of their bodies also engage the viewer. Because their faces turn outward as well as aside—to the viewer, as much as to each other—they must have appealed to each person passing through the cloister. Since the original placement of these reliefs (which are a little over three feet high) is not known, it is only possible to guess at their arrangement with respect to the average viewer’s eye level. In cloisters similarly decorated with pier sculptures like these, however, short slab reliefs are generally elevated above the ground level by a few feet. With this in mind, the Saint-Gaudens image designers may have invited the viewer to bear witness to the biblical story, or even participate in it somehow by moving around the pier. Perhaps the images played some role in processions enacted by the church’s community of clerics, though such a possibility must remain speculation at the moment.


Figure 4: Detail of the face of Christ.


The church at Saint-Gaudens was a collegiate church, meaning that it was served by a community of canons, or clergymen. These canons celebrated the Mass, performed the Divine Office (a regular recitation of prayers) and carried out other tasks related to the church and to pastoral care. Its community was established during the mid-eleventh century, and the current church was begun in the late eleventh century, with the cloister appearing around, or just past, the middle of the twelfth century. In general, the cloister was a multifunctional space that served as a transition from the sacred space of the church to structures related to the everyday functioning of the monastery, such as kitchens and dormitories. It was a place of quiet and contemplation, as well as for reading and teaching. Cloisters could also contain tombs, as Saint-Gaudens did, and so they were also sites of remembrance.


Figure 5: Double capital from the Collegiate Church of Saint-Gaudens.


The church of Saint-Gaudens still stands, as does a modified version of its original cloister, though many of its original sculptures have been replaced by modern reproductions. Incidentally, the Temptation reliefs are not the only works from Saint-Gaudens to have made it to Glencairn. Also on view in the Medieval Gallery is a double capital from the cloister (Figure 5; 09.SP.240). Completely covered in an intricate, irregular lattice pattern, in this example the stone has been carved to resemble rope or vine. It forms part of a larger group of similar carvings dispersed in American collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cincinnati Art Museum. The Temptation reliefs were purchased in 1924 from the art dealer Lucien Demotte, who together with his father sold many works of art to American collections.

Additionally, it has been suggested that two reliefs flanking the main entrance of Glencairn’s Great Hall came from Saint-Gaudens, though these are less securely placed by scholars. One, a man in ecclesiastic garb turned slightly to his left, has some formal similarities to the Temptation figures, while the other originally formed part of a bishop’s tomb.

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.