The most anticipated part of Christmas for me when growing up was not the exchange of gifts, nor the sumptuous dinner my mother always prepared for wandering relatives and friends, but the annual airing of a TV show. I know it sounds geeky, but in those very early days of television, NBC’s decision to commission and air an opera, in English, on Christmas, was a major event for the still infant medium. Eagerly watched via live broadcast from NBC’s famed Studio 8H, Jean-Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors attracted over 5 million viewers, at the time a stunning number. That first December 24, 1951 telecast went on to become an annual event; the opera transcended all cultural barriers of clichéd spear-chucking Valkyries and became one of the most beloved traditions in television history. It also gave a human face and personality to the three characters of Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior, the eponymous Night Visitors, also know as the Three Kings or Magi.
Images of the Magi first appeared in Christian art in the fourth century as catacomb paintings and on sarcophagi reliefs. They were at first represented in Eastern dress: distant visitors come to give tribute to the new king of the West. The visit of the Three Kings quickly became a central motif in Christian iconography, foretelling the triumph of this new religion. In an email that Raymond Cauchetier sent me accompanying his photos of sculptures of the Three Kings (celebrated by Christians on Jan. 6 as the Epiphany), he said that the dominance of this story in Christian lore is all the more amazing as the only mention of it in the canonical gospels is Matthew, 2:1-11.
For this week’s essay I have chosen a small group from the dozens of photographs of the Adoration of the Magi that he sent me. Along with the photos came a detailed Excel record for each image. The entire body of work of his Romanesque sculpture photos consists of more than 30,000 images that he and Kaoru made in churches, monasteries and museums throughout the European Christian world. His personal library contains one of the largest private collection of books and articles on sculpture of the Romanesque period.
Raymond emphasizes that the Romanesque reached its apex in the first half of the 12th century; many of the sculptures he photographed date from that time. Much of this style of ecclesiastical art was later subsumed into the Gothic, as at Notre Dame in Paris, but there are remoter enclaves where the earliest and simplest examples remained pure. Several of them are in the Gotland region of Sweden; they represent the most direct and “artless” images of that era.
Perhaps because of its inherent intimacy, sculptures of the Magi’s visit are often found not on the grand exterior tympani and arches, but on capitals atop the interior pillars. A beautiful case in point is this one from Tarragona in Spain.
This rendering is wrapped around two sides of the capital, exploiting the rounded stone to great effect. The Magus closest to the Virgin spills across two panels, bisected by a sculpted pillar. This 3-D effect, coupled with deep carving across the tableau, gives it great presence. Cauchetier’s nuanced single source light adds a dramatic sweep from lower right to upper left, a veritable counterpoint to the dynamic left to right motion of the figures. Each of his photos (and I now have seen hundreds) is executed with meticulous care. The love that he has for this lesser-know era of art history is manifest throughout his work. Here are two more examples from capitals in French churches.
In both Chauvigny and Lacommande the guiding star appears, the beacon that led the Magi to the humble Bethlehem stable. The choir capitals of the ambulatory at Chauvigny’s Church of St. Pierre display demons, manticores, sirens, and even animals devouring humans. But there are also four Biblical scenes among this bestial menagerie, including the Magi, two of whom are looking not at the Christ Child but out at the viewer. The Latin legend above the scene reads, “Gofridus made me.” This is one of the few (along with Gislebertus at Autun) attributed sculptures in all of Romanesque art. The capital from Lacommande, near the Spanish border, is also deeply incised and more neutral in tone. The texture of the stone resembles film grain.
The most distressed of all the examples comes from Anzy-le-Duc in Burgundy. It has a lateral frieze-like presentation similar to several of the sculptures from Italy. The weathered texture emphasizes the plain garments of the Magi, here dressed more like commoners than kings.
The capital from St. Genou has a modern feel, the figures almost merged with the stone. The figures look embossed, repoussé, rather than carved. One thinks of the 20th century German sculptor of monks in wood, Ernst Barlach. The Phrygian caps on the Magi, rather than crowns, evoke the Near East region of Anatolia.
The Magi on a capital at Castelnau are one of the few polychrome sculptures in Cauchetier’s photographs. Like Classical Greek sculpture, much Romanesque work was originally painted. Time erased most of it, but in mid-nineteenth century there was a great revival of interest in the Romanesque, and Napoleon III’s restorer,Viollet-le-Duc, had many pieces painted. Coupled with cruder carving, the Castelnau pieces have a doll-like mien that precludes any feeling of spiritual gravitas.
Two of my favorite sculptures display the Magi in close ranks. The bas-relief quality of this one from Hohenzollern in Germany is sensuously carved as a serial image, the offerings presented to the Virgin, who seems to react with her upraised hand like an impassive Buddha. It is quite enigmatic, its mystery enhanced by Cauchetier’s dramatic light.
Even more dramatic is this much-loved, oft-reproduced sculpture from Autun, of the Sleeping Magi.
Such an intensely horizontal image is rare in Romanesque iconography and its lateral line is even more focused by the wing and pointed hand of the angel. The sweeping incisions defining the blanket also contribute to the strong left to right movement. Cauchtier’s normal single source light defines an even stronger sculptural depth, but here he has a second source coming from low left. Whether the angel is waking the sleeping kings to tell them to follow the star above them to the stable or to warn them on their return home not to report back to King Herod—has long been debated by scholars. Any guesses?
The Adoration of the Magi is not always a stand-alone scene. In Parma it is contained as a part of the tympanum, and it is polychromed. The exception here “proves the rule.”
In Arezzo, where Piero della Francesca will work several centuries later, the Magi are portrayed as diminutive figures, more supplicants than regal visitors. It echoes the style of trecento Italian painting called “hierarchical perspective.”
A scene from Pistoia executed in marble, with richly detailed drapery, suggests Classical Greek sculptures in its rank of horses, though it is unlikely that these medieval artists could have known of the Parthenon’s south frieze cavalcade. More than any of the other photos Raymond sent me, this one anticipates the neo-classical humanism of the Renaissance. Each figure is a true portrait.
I have long loved medieval art. Its sense of immediacy rendered in an elemental technique invites you into it in a way that the bravura technique from the Renaissance onward, does not. Its aesthetic values precede the emergence of the cult of the artist, and for me, as a craftsman working in cinema where our film cathedrals are made by the collaborative effort of hundreds of fellow workers, I find a compelling connection with the anonymous stonemasons and sculptors of these great buildings.
Whenever I go to Paris, my first museum stop is not the D’Orsay or the Louvre— but Cluny, more formally known as the Museum of the Middle Ages. It lies in the heart of the Latin Quarter at the intersection of the Blvds. Saint Germain des Pres and Saint-Michel. The site’s origins go back to the Roman era when it was a public bath or terme. Cluny’s dark draped rooms, inadequate ventilation and aged vitrines thrust your soul back into the 12th century. Raymond Cauchetier is clearly a true medievalist; I imagine he feels more at home in these environs than I do, trapped as I am in “cinema,” an art form that is a technological nightmare— a medium whose very tools of creation in a digital age are of an ever expanding obsolescence. For me as a visual person, I experience in looking at this near millennium old art the same sense of centeredness and equanimity that some get from listening to Gregorian chant. Chant had a highly visible revival several decades ago; Romanesque art has yet to have its moment in the popular culture.
Here is a stone tablet from Cividale, a city in Northern Italy so ancient that it is said to have been founded by Julius Caesar.
It reveals its Roman era roots and is in fact from the eighth century. While not strictly of the Romanesque era, it augurs many of the visual tropes that soon would come to full realization in the great medieval cathedrals. The rudimentary, almost stick-like rendering of the human figure captured in this photograph, with its wide-open eyes and figural flatness, conveys a child’s innocence. It is completely engaging, like a fabric doll.
It is unlikely that any of us, regardless of our ardor for art of any period, will ever be able to travel as widely in pursuit of that love as have Raymond and Kaoru in their impassioned study of Romanesque sculpture. Like many collectors who leave their art to museums for the benefit of us all, Cauchetier has scoured the great and not so great churches of Christendom. His dogged, dedicated labor over several decades is his legacy. Yet, as I visited him and Kaoru in the 5th floor walk-up apartment on the Rue Taine where he was born and still lives, there is not a tinge of the academic scholar or pedant in him—just a dedicated man racing against time to catalog and prepare his work for a hoped-for publication.
A few days before I had to return to Los Angeles to begin preparations for a new film, I had dinner with the Cauchetiers in their apartment, comfortably niched between voluminous bookcases. We watched the TV broadcast of the final game of the World Cup between Spain and the Netherlands. It was a dirty game, with 14 yellow cards given out. But nothing could dampen the euphoria I felt that night in the company of this charmed couple. On the metro ride back to the Hotel des Deux-Iles, I carried a battered orange cardboard box labeled “Agfacolor Positivfilm.” It contained the nine black and white signed photos that Raymond had given me—not of his beloved Romanesque sculpture (which still exist mainly as computer files) but iconic black and white images taken by him during the decade of his work on Truffaut and Godard films where he was “photographe de plateau”—a period that was a mere blip on the movie screen of his life.
Raymond, Kaoru and I wish all of you a prosperous and artistically Happy New Year.
Next week: a look at the history and musical structure of the most beloved movie song of all time.