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St.-Lazare, Autun

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Cathedral St-Lazare

For Romanesque, head to the Cathedral St-Lazare in Autun where you can see some of the finest masterpieces of medieval sculpture in Burgundy. The tympanum over the west portal and the capitals by Gislebertus are particularly highly prized.

Medieval man believed in the cult of relics, bones, clothing and the objects of the saints, and pilgrimages were set up to venerate and pray in the presence of these relics.
At the time, the Bishop of Autun could see the pilgrims flocking to nearby Vézelay on their way to Santiago de Compostela and embarking on the Crusades to the Holy Land. Autun had the relics of St-Lazarus, Mary Magdalene’s brother in the church of St Nazaire, so the Bishop decided to build a new cathedral to house the relics and so attract pilgrims to the town.

Cathedral St-Lazare

The cathedral was finished in 1146, (with the exception of the porch which was added a few years later). Abbé Grivot writing in his excellent guide to the cathedral explains that the interior of the building is not Gothic, as there are no crossed diagonal ribs, but Roman vaulting as was used at Cluny.

The exterior is a mixture of periods; the belfry was destroyed by fire and the spire was reconstructed in the late 15thC on the instruction of Cardinal Rolin. The Rolin family had much influence in Autun. Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor under who instigated the Hospices de Beaune, was born and died in the house next to the cathedral, which is now the Musée Rolin. His son Cardinal Rolin became Bishop of Autun and brought great prosperity to the town. During his reign the ramparts to the south and many of the private merchants houses were built. Climb up the belltower to get a bird’s eye view into the medieval courtyards.

During the French Revolution, the rood screen, the tympanum over the north doorway and the tomb of St Lazarus were destroyed. The remains, including the famous ‘Temptation of Eve’ are in the Musée Rolin.


Sculpture of Avarice

Little is known about the sculptor Gislebertus, except that he worked in Vézelay where many of the sculptures bear his signature.

The tympanum in Autun is also signed by the sculptor. The work is stylised and, in the words of Abbé Grivot, ‘contemptuous of anatomy’, it is ‘a composite canvas of the medieval mind.’. The scene depicts The Last Judgement. On the right of the work the ‘Resurrection of the Damned’ shows the two hands of the devil seizing a sinner by the throat. Impurity is symbolised by a female figure whose breasts are devoured by two serpents, and Avarice is shown as a man whose fortune is hung from his neck.

Not everyone held Gislebertus’ work in such high esteem. In 1766 the canons decided that the carvings were mediocre and childish and had the tympanum filled with a layer of plaster. It did however, have the fortunate result of saving the work or art from vandalism during the French Revolution. In 1837 another priest scratched away the plaster and found the tympanum in a perfect state of conservation, only the head of Christ was missing. It jutted out and had hindered the work of the plasterers and so they simply hacked it off. It finished up in the Rolin Museum and was finally replaced in its original position in 1948.

The Chapter House

Sculpture of Hanging of Judas
Hanging of Judas

The sculpting on the capitals at the top of the columns, also mostly by Gislebertus, would not in a normal way be easy to see clearly without binoculars. But go into the Chapter House and climb the 50 stairs. Originally these capitals were located in the transept and in the choir but became unsafe. They were replaced by copies and the originals were installed in the Chapter House where you can see the Hanging of Judas between two devils, the Magi asleep and the Adoration of the Magi.

Also visit the Musée Rolin in the square.

See: Roman and Romain

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