The Maiestas Domini of Europe

Saint-George Church, Chassenard, Maiestas Domini. Photo: C. Hourihane (Ed.), Romanesque art and thought in the twelfth century Princeton University 2008.

The theme of Maiestas Domini, Christ seated on a throne surrounded by the four symbols of the evangelists (lion (Mark), eagle (John), ox (Luc) and angel (Matthew), refers to the Final Day of Judgement and the omnipresence and power of God. All people will be judged by the allmighty one day. The theme and depiction are as old as early Christian and medieval art, but its apogee was reached by the approach of the millennium in Northern Spain and France and afterwards in other parts of Europe.

The theme became popular throughout Europe at  the end of the eleventh century and beginning of the twelfth century. This bottom up art, which didn’t have its origin in monarchic or princely courts, was conceived as a manifestation of the presence of the Word (the Bible) in the universe. The mandorla of the Romanesque period, the oval frame covering the theme, replaced the round halo of light or almond from previous times. The Maiestas Domini was the dominant theme in the iconography of the apse and tympanum during the twelfth century.

The Maiestas Domini  occupies the center of the composition on many Romanesque altar frontals, framed by the apostles. This image has a direct relationship with the liturgy. It was the enthroned Majesty that offered hope for mankind. One of the most precious examples is the altar of the Notre-Dame in Avenas. The church is mentioned in the cartularium of the St. Vincentius Church of Mâcon in 878, the seat of the bishop. Mâcon and Avenas were located in the Duchy of Burgundy. The archbishopric of Lyon belonged to the Holy Roman Empire though. The vicinity of the abbey of Cluny was also of major relevance as well, since its cultural, religious and political influence was significant.

The south side of the altar shows the French King Louis, who offers the Church of Avenas to St. Vincentius, the patron of the Mâcon church. The inscription reads as follows “Rex ludovicus pius et virtutis amicus offert ecclesiam. Recipit Vincentius istam. Lampade bissena fluxurus Julius ibat. Mors fugat obpositum Regis ad interitum”. Which king is meant ? Louis VI or Louis VII, the altar dates from the period of Louis VI (1081-1137) or from Louis VII (1120-1180) ? The style, theme and craftsmanship could point to Cluny, “The new art created at Cluny spread quickly through Burgundy. The earliest extant imitation appears to the altar at Avenas”. The author thinks that  1100 is most likely. (A. Kingsley Porter, Romanesque Sculpture of the Pilgrim Roads, p. 118).

Another scholar refers to another period, around 1120-1130, “Careful archaeological analysis reveals new information about construction and building campaigns. Provincials did not copy Cluny in complete ‘vest pocket’editions, rather members of the same atelier travelled back and forth from one partially completed structure to another”(C. Edson Ami, Masons and Sculptors in Romanesque Burgundy. The new Aesthetic of Cluny, p. 15). Another scholar prefers the period of Louis VII, “nous croyons l’église d’Avenas contemporaine du monument qu’elle renferme, c’est à dire de la seconde moitié du XIIe siècle” (J. Virey, Les églises romanes de l’ancien diocese de Mâcon, p. 73.

There are historical, art historical and religious arguments for all periods. A recent discovery may shed some light in the darkness however. A recent discovery of a Maiestas Domini in the Departement of Allier shows Christ with the same cuts in his dress. The Avenas altar shows the same cuts, posture and iconography of apostles and symbols of the evangelists. This similar characteristic is a strong argument to vote for the 1120-1140 argument, the most probable date of the Christ figure in Chassenard, Saint-George Church. The sculptor comes from the region in Anzy-le-Duc, Fautrière and Neuilly-en-Donjon, close to Cluny.

Romanesque art was a European art, with regional differences and characteristics and ateliers and craftsmen travelling over large distances. (E. Vergnolle, ‘Maiestas Domini Portals of the Twelfth Century’ in C. Hourihane (Ed.), Romanesque art and thought in the twelfth century. Princeton University 2008, p.179-200).