The capitals




Some capitals

Moses and the Golden Calf

While Moses was on the mountain with God to receive the Tablets of the Law, the people  grew impatient and, under the authority of Aaron, both priest and brother of Moses, they created an idol, a golden calf, with their jewels. When Moses came back, he was furious and he threw the tablets on the idol.

On the capital a demon dominates the idol, presented as an altar on which a goat has just been sacrificed.

The scene anticipates another scene in which Christ  overturns the tables of the money lenders to let them know that worship must be founded on the Word of God  and that it must be practiced in spirit and in truth.

The sculpture is one of the works of the master craftsman who sculpted the Mystic Mill.

Noah builds the Ark (upper clerestory of vessel of nave)

God is not satisfied with the behaviour of men, He therefore decides to send a great flood to purify the Earth. He invites Noah to go and build an ark to provide shelter for a pair of each animal species in order to preserve the reproduction of species. Noah is seen here cutting branches with his hatchet for the construction of the ark while his son (?) who is inside the ark looks through the window. The ark is represented here as an wicker aviary.

The ark sometimes symbolizes the Church, whose mission it is to protect creation, and sometimes the soul of the faithful who, after purification, becomes the seat of a new life.

The sculpture is also one of the works of the master craftsman who sculpted the Mystic Mill.

Daniel among the lions

The subject matter of “Daniel among the lions” is to be found on two different capitals in Vézelay. One of them is an example of a theme being re-used. Its style is to be compared with that of the capitals of the Brionnais (Anzy-le-Duc, Charlieu). The other one is specific to Vézelay.

Daniel is a young Jew, in exile with his people. His faith in God is indefectible. His great wisdom draws the attention of the king but also the jealousy of the king’s counsellors who try to bring about his downfall. They convince the king to promulgate a law condemning those who refuse to worship him. Daniel is thrown to the lions but the lions leave him intact.(the scene is represented on the capital).

The following day, the king, seeing the miracle, orders Daniel to be freed and the bad counsellors to replace him in the den . They are devoured by the lions.

The conclusion is that God supports those who trust Him. As for the wicked, they are doomed by their own actions.

Daniel prefigures the quintessential Just, i.e. Christ. The Fathers of the Church see in Daniel’s story the victory of the weaker over the stronger, thanks solely to his faith in God and not in his weapons.

David and Goliath

The capital can be read like a comic strip in three episodes that must be read from left to right.

Armed solely with a slingshot, little David defies the giant Goliath, a Philistine, an enemy of Israel feared by all (on the left side of the capital).

Using his slingshot he hurls a stone that hits the giant’s forehead. The giant falls flat on the ground (on the front face of the capital)). David climbs on his body and , using the sword of his adversary , he cuts off   his head and walks off with the giant’s head slung over his shoulder as a trophy (on the right side of the capital).

Traditionally again, the Fathers of the Church see in David’s story the victory of the weaker over the stronger, thanks solely to his faith in God and not in his weapons.

The Feast of Dives or the Parable of Lazarus and the bad rich man

The parable of Lazarus and the rich man, told in the Gospels, has one particularity in Vézelay: it is illustrated on two different capitals which are not situated next to each other. The beginning of the story is to be found in the north aisle facing the south wall, the next part is to be found in the south aisle facing the south wall.
On the first capital a rich man is sitting at a table with a man and a woman to whom he is offering a good meal. A servant brings dishes, coming from the right where a pot can be seen hanging from the chimney hook.

On the left, at the door, stands a beggar. He leans on a stick and his ulcerous sores are being licked by dogs. The guest draws the rich man’s attention to the presence of the poor man, pointing a finger at him through the door but the rich man refuses to see him.

On the second capital the rich man is dying. He lies on a bed, attended by two women, one at his head and one at his feet. His moneybags, full of coins, are already being devoured by a worm. Demons with an evil grin are trying to extirpate the small soul of the rich man, one of them using pliers and the other his bare hands.
On the other side of the capital the poor man is also dying but his soul, represented by a small figure in a mandorla, is raised to Heaven by an angel. He will join the elect to be welcomed into the bosom of Abraham who is represented on the other side of the capital.

Abraham, pointing a finger at the central scene, seems to warn all rich men. The absence of attention to the poor is at all times a relevant theme and it has often been denounced by the prophets and later by Jesus. 

The mystic mill

Two different worlds coexist in the Mystic Mill. The scene has been described by Suger who had it represented on a stained-glass window in Saint-Denis.

The figure on the left, pouring grain into a mill, is Moses, a figure from the Old Testament; the figure on the right is Saint Paul, representing the New Testament. One is in the shadow, the other is in the light. What is above all remarkable is that the wheel of the mill, the perfect form that gives it motion, is the element that is placed in full light. The sculptor has turned it slightly so that, all day long, it can take full advantage of the light coming from the south. The mill represents Christ, the Light of the World, who has come to draw the substance of the ancient law and renew it through the message of the Gospels. 

Saint Martin and the pine tree

St. Martin was the apostle who evangelised Gaul. He was a monk. He had to fight hard against idolatry which is here represented by a pine tree.

The pine tree was venerated as a symbol of fertility ( because of its pine cones).

As can be seen on the capital, St. Martin orders peasants to fell it. But the peasants plot against him and join efforts to have the tree fall on him. Martin, however, by his prayer and a gesture of blessing, obtains from God that the tree should turn and fall, not on himself  but on his enemies.

The episode shows that humility and trust in prayer can obtain the expected help from God, so that His glory is shown.

The conversion of Saint Eustace (or Saint Hubert)

St. Eustace, according to the “Golden legend” (a collection of hagiographies written by Jacobus de Voragine around 1260) was a nobleman and a hunter Right in the middle of his favourite pastime the noble hunter is approached by God: he encounters a stag whose  antlers are suddenly illuminated by a cross of light while his dog is pointing and his horse rears up. The main structural element of the scene – a scene that is particularly lively and full of action – is the dog leash which divides the capital into two zones: a zone of darkness where the rider finds himself and the zone where the stag appears, which is permanently under the light coming from a lateral window.

The conversion of Saint Eustace is thus concretely represented as being a passage from darkness to light, from one world into another.