Glencairn Museum News | Number 5, 2013
The inner conflicts of the soul have long preoccupied philosophers and poets, but the art of the medieval period particularly excelled at addressing spiritual turmoil. Its images offered guidance to all Christians seeking to navigate the way to salvation—a path riddled with temptations and pitfalls. Painting and sculpture vividly portrayed the tribulations and triumphs of biblical and legendary figures, while the demon-infested Hells and safe, tranquil Heavens of countless works of medieval art made clear the consequences of all life choices. At Glencairn, a mid-twelfth-century limestone capital depicting Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus—one of the Museum’s most moving sculptures—focuses on the afterlife to celebrate the sublimity of charity in the face of greed.
Related in Luke 19:19-25, this parable tells of how a certain wealthy man, comfortable in his opulent home, ignored the sufferings of an infirm beggar, Lazarus, languishing out in the street. When Lazarus died, he was welcomed into the bosom of Abraham—a poetic description of the afterlife that came to be associated with Heaven. The rich man, who is not named in the Gospel, but was in later tradition called “Dives” (the Latin word for “rich”), descended into Hell. Suffering in flames of hellfire, the rich man called to Abraham and asked him to send Lazarus with cool water. Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.”
Drawing from the biblical text, the Glencairn capital depicts the deaths and afterlives of Lazarus and Dives across its three carved sides. Beginning with the left-hand face of the capital, a visibly suffering man—Lazarus—reclines against the sloping ground with his eyes closed, resting his left hand on his chest. He is dying, but during his misery he is visited by an angel, at left, who receives a small figure (now badly damaged) in his arms. This child-like being represents Lazarus’ soul leaving his body and ascending heavenward. Above, the hand of God reaches through the undulating cloud cover to bless the dying beggar. At the upper right, another angel similarly extends a gesture of benediction to Lazarus.
A parallel event, the death of Dives, echoes on the capital’s right-hand face, though its particulars are quite different. Lying rigid on a bed, Dives is clearly sheltered, as the upper edge of the capital depicts a shingled roof and tower over his head. Unlike Lazarus, Dives is comforted in his home as he dies, attended by his wife, who is visible by the foot of the bed. Above, a winged devil accepts the rich man’s soul—again depicted as a small figure—as it floats from his mouth.
The central face of the capital portrays the two characters after death. Seated at left, Abraham cradles Lazarus’ tiny soul (now missing its head) in a draped cloth crossing his chest. At right a grotesque demon torments Dives (now half-devoured by a monstrous mouth), yanking his hair and tugging at his arm. Dives nonetheless manages to point to his mouth, indicating his thirst in the flames of Hell, though Abraham, holding out his left hand, clearly denies his request for water. Heavenly and Hellish realms are divided by a curving tree, a common technique for visually dividing spaces in medieval tradition.
The parable’s implications are clear: while Dives had great comfort in his life, he was also consumed by avarice, and paid no heed to Lazarus’ suffering on earth. His failure to give charity—and to feel compassion—resulted in the worst of punishments. Not only did he suffer the heat of the flames, but also, as the sculptor took liberty to show, the physical abuse of demons and the jaws of a ferocious beast. In contrast Lazarus, having lived a humble and wretched life on earth, finds solace in Heaven. The capital’s exhortation to give charity and solace to the poor and suffering, while resisting the temptations of wealth, would have resonated in the minds of viewers, who took away with them a clear mental image inspired by the carving.
Perhaps this sculpture would have been accompanied by another depicting the first half of the parable. The image of Dives at a banquet table, contrasted with Lazarus suffering nearby, was a fairly popular one during the early and mid-twelfth centuries, when the Glencairn example was carved. The original configuration of the capital remains difficult to pinpoint, however, and we do not know if it was once paired with a companion image.
Art historians have long sought to determine the Glencairn capital’s original location. Like many of the Museum’s stone carvings, it is an example of architectural sculpture, originally constituting an integral part of a building’s fabric. One way in which scholars attempt to determine a work’s origin is to look at how it was carved, noting the distinctive ways in which figures are rendered, how they are clothed, and what peculiar features they may have. These features may be compared to other examples from monuments in situ in order to determine the region in which its sculptors may have been trained. They may also look to subject matter, if a particular theme is especially popular in a given area. In certain cases, old pictures might help to determine if a sculpture initially formed part of a monument that has since disappeared.
In the case of the Glencairn sculpture, all of these methods have been used. The style of carving reflects that of artists active in the French region of Burgundy around the mid-twelfth century, following a period of intense artistic creation in the important centers of Cluny, Autun and Vézelay. Images of Dives and Lazarus also appear in these centers, suggesting its local popularity. Finally, the evidence of an eighteenth-century print has led scholars to locate the capital’s origin even more specifically in the region, to the Benedictine monastery of Moutiers-Saint-Jean. An ancient institution, its monks rebuilt the monastery and church substantially during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Though the church is no longer standing, it was still reasonably intact in 1793, when an engraving showing the building’s mid-twelfth-century façade was created. Examining the picture closely, the outlines of one capital in particular bear close resemblance to the Glencairn carving, strongly suggesting it originally came from the powerful abbey church.
How did this sculpture make its way to Bryn Athyn? The monastery of Moutiers-Saint-Jean, like many medieval institutions, gradually fell into decline. By the late eighteenth century, the abbey’s buildings were partially ruined. The structures of the monastery complex were sold in 1797—despite local protest—and their stones were used to construct new buildings. The dispersal of the church’s sculptures must have occurred shortly thereafter, and many specimens surfaced on the art market during the early twentieth century. Apart from the Glencairn example, other, earlier carved fragments from the interior of Moutiers-Saint-Jean’s church have ended up at the Louvre, as well as Harvard University’s Fogg Museum of Art.
Though the church of Moutiers-Saint-Jean can never be fully reconstructed, we now have enough context to gain a sense of how the capital depicting the deaths of Dives and Lazarus may have been received. Though the vice of greed may not seem to have been particularly relevant to a community of monks who had given up all of their worldly goods upon joining the monastery, the importance of charity was certainly paramount to Moutiers-Saint-Jean as an institution. Endowed with land and other riches, the monastery had a responsibility to use its assets wisely and generously in connection with local communities, especially in caring for the sick and needy. Beyond communicating the monastery’s charitable responsibilities, the possibility that the parable capital was on the exterior of the church, and hence part of the larger, more unwieldy world, suggests well-to-do laypeople would also have absorbed its message. Regardless of its viewership, Dives and Lazarus’ reversal of fortunes must have resonated deeply with all who saw this image.
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