The Last Judgement of Autun, completed about 1145, speaks to us across the centuries. We may not see this great sculptural composition today with the same wonder as medieval pilgrims, many of whom were lepers come to venerate the relics of their patron saint Lazare and pray for a miraculous cure. But we can still feel a great impact from this mighty subject – Christ in judgement, the dead rising from their coffins and being gathered into Heaven or Hell according to their merits. And we can give ourselves time to experience the emotional power, or affect, of what we see. Partly, this is carried by individual episodes, like the horror-movie scenes of the damned being seized by giant hands, lifted bodily and thrust into strange containers by sneering demons; or the almost comical sight of the saved in the New Jerusalem opposite, looking contentedly out at the view below. But the expressive force of the Judgement is also a matter of its formal means: the power of Christ is communicated by his massive scale, his hands magisterially outstretched and his gaze concentrated ahead, as if it is we who are being appraised for eternity. The bold symmetry of the figure of Christ equates him with cosmic harmony, the order of the whole universe as represented by the sun and moon beside him. As we look, we feel Christ’s Majesty in the strain of the supporting angels, and we sense the subservience of the Apostles to his right in their strange, elongated bodies. Throughout, we get a sense, so frequent in Romanesque art, of teeming tumultuous action – look, for example, at the balletic bodies of the angels with their great summoning horns, loud enough to awaken the dead, as twisted and coiled with energy as any jazz trumpeter. Indeed, having mentioned jazz, we might also pick up a curiously modern visual drama: the stretched figures remind us of Giacommetti, the crouching, huddled, leaning and clinging bodies are what we’d see in a Pina Bausch dance work. After the five hundred year hiatus of perspectival naturalism, modern art gazes into the unconscious and picks up where medieval culture left off.
We could spend much longer taking in the formal qualities of the work. Indeed one approach to this art is to concentrate on our immediate response to line, curve, relationships of mass, formal patterns, the play of light. This is what an artist like Antoni Tàpies chiefly took away from this art, and used in his own work; Meyer Schapiro’s description of the Moissac tympanum is an example of patient, slow looking over every visual detail, relating part to whole and savouring its formal, plastic properties. What can we say of the style of Gislebertus (to take that for the moment as the name of the artist)? First, that he clearly let his imagination work on the subject he was given. Notice the differentiation in the risen, whom we see process along the lintel. The blocks of stone they stand on are their tombs, yanked open as God’s Second Coming pulls them back into the fierce, blinding light of Judgement. The divine mandorla in which He appears, presiding over the whole Cosmos, is an explosion of energy like a second Big Bang. Among the saved we notice a group of small figures – children! – gathered ecstatically around an angel, two bishops with croziers, a monk, and two pilgrims with bags bearing the symbols of the cross and the scallop, to show they have journeyed from Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela respectively. On the other side, the scene of the angel rejecting one of the damned evokes a strong compassion. It reminds me of Masaccio’s Expulsion in the Brancacci chapel. Some accounts of the history of art have it that Masaccio and his fellow Florentines rediscovered complex human emotion in art after centuries of rigid medieval poses and faces; but a good look at Autun makes clear that this neat narrative is, to say the least, simplified. The Autun Last Judgement is full of recognisable human psychology: the apostles crowd towards God like sports fans hoping for an autograph (are they pleading on behalf of the judged? ); the gracious, leaning figure of Mary on God’s right signifies her infinite grace; the demon and St Michael are intent on their battle for a soul, and the terrified figures cling to St Michael’s feet as they cower from the three-headed serpent. All these incidents are bursting with character and energy. Even the figures in the outer archivolt, which illustrates the times of the year with the zodiac, have a realistic feel to them. They seem intent on, and happy in, their work.
Symbols have a history. Scholarship has related many of the iconographic details of this Last Judgement to eastern influence; the arrival of Byzantine motifs, such as the appearance of Mary in a Judgement scene – this is the first example in the West – reminds us of the fruitful interaction of national styles that marks the Romanesque period. The whole scene, too, is a wonderful example of how medieval art takes Christian ideas so literally: weighing souls is not a metaphor, but a real weigh-up on a scale; and it seems from this sculpture that there is no way of getting into heaven except by being physically pulled up, or pushed and dragged in through a convenient window. The tymapanum takes our gaze to the hidden mysteries of heaven and hell; but it also brings those places vividly down to earth.
As well as its artistic qualities, The Autun Last Judgement is also a remarkable artistic feat. The central scene of Christ and the angels is carved onto 13 separate blocks of stone, and the upper and lower registers around them take up 16 more. To support this huge weight, the lintel is made from two parts and supported by central column. It seems likely that the main figures were carved at ground level and further work was done in situ, when the stones were in position, to make possible exact continuity across limbs and drapery, concealing the joins beneath. The point of the whole exercise was not to create a work of art to be admired, but to instruct and scare the populace. The various inscriptions make this clear: above the damned, for example. The Latin means ‘May terror cover those who are in bondage on account of earthly error and the horror of this scene shows them their lot’. And above Christ: ‘I alone dispose of all things and crown merit. Those who are led astray by crime will be judged and chastised by me’. In its time, then, this work had a powerful ideological function: for all its brilliance, we may say, it was a tool of control by the Church over the minds and imaginations of the faithful. It was there to scare, but also to comfort, as the poor and humble could imagine the bliss of being with God in paradise, wearing fine linen and living in a palace in the company of angels.
In later centuries, amazingly, this sculpture came to be seen as crude, and the church canons plastered over the whole tympanum in 1766, erasing the Virgin’s face and breaking off Christ’s nose to make an even surface. This act at any rate saved it from the attentions of post-revolutionary anti-clerical destruction (of which Cluny was a victim) and the work was discovered (literally, dis-covered) in 1837. It should be seen as a part of a greater whole, for the rest of Autun Church contains more superb stonework, among them a stunning capital carving of the hanging of Judas. Gislebertus, who ‘signs’ the work ‘Gislebertus hoc fecit’, is usually credited as the sculptor, though Linda Seidl argues that he was in fact a member of the ducal family responsible for the acquisition of the saint’s relics. Whoever he was, we may feel he occupied a very different world from us. Yet we too have our devils – think of the Joker in Batman, for example – and social media is energetically used every day to shame those who have strayed from the path of correct behaviour. Perhaps we are not so distant from our medieval forebears as we may think.
Don Denny, ‘The Last Judgement Tympanum at Autun: Its Sources and Meaning’, Speculum, 67:3 (July, 1982), 532-547.
Denis Grivot, Twelfth Century Sculpture in the Cathedral of Autun (Colmar-Ungersheim, 1980)
Meyer Schapiro, Romanesque Architectural Sculpture (University of Chicago Press, 2006)
Linda Seidel, Legends in Limestone: Lazarus, Gislebertus and the Cathedral of Autun (University of Chicago Press, 1999)