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Ilene H. Forsyth

French Romanesque collegiate church in Burgundy. Despite unfortunate over-restoration of its once elegant façade, enlargement of its interior by several Gothic chapels and an 18th-century choir, and the fact that no document allows a close dating, the well-preserved nave of this 12th-century collegiate church still presents a Romanesque masterpiece. The nave’s three-part elevation evokes the architectural paradigm of the lost abbey at Cluny while its carved capitals rival those at nearby St Lazare, Autun. Its 14th-century choir-stalls have also survived.

The narratives of its justly famous capitals have been carved with novel, uniquely humanized interpretations of both religious themes, such as the Prophet Balaam, the Flight into Egypt, the First Temptation, the Visit to the Tomb, and the Suicide of Judas; and subjects that mix everyday life and fantasy, such as nude boys betting on cock-fighting, hybrid beasts, lush foliage metamorphosing into leaf-men, and human faces wearing flower bonnets. The use of the drill has allowed striking virtuosity in the carving, creating pools of dark against light for highly expressive purposes. Decorative devices (foliage, whorls, wheels) have been added to enhance narrative and theatrical effects. For example, irregular wheels suggest the donkey’s jerky, docile gait; stiff foliage and baulky legs mimic the obtuse Balaam. The angular thrust inherent in the shape of jutting corners of capitals has been subtly exploited: figures carved at these critical junctures project into the viewer’s space, for example, on the ...