Part of a large, double capital, this sculpture was originally in the upper narthex (vestibule) of Sainte Madeleine at Vézelay in Burgundy. The nineteenth-century architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc removed it when he restored and reconstructed the Romanesque structure, which was threatened by collapse, and a copy now occupies its place.
As is usual in Romanesque buildings, the carving is allied with a structural element rather than existing on its own. Also characteristic of French Romanesque architectural sculpture is the adaptation and abstraction of foliate capitals from ancient Roman monuments. Caught in decorative, spiraling vines, known by the French term rinceaux, the lion and the eagle may be symbolic of the evangelists Mark and John, or they may be purely ornamental. It is difficult to reconstruct the meaning or role of the subject in the series of capitals in the basilica’s upper narthex since the nineteenth-century copy now in situ may not accurately reflect the original appearance of the capital’s missing portions. The carving is powerfully conceived: crisply outlined vines resemble metalwork, with a beaded vein adding texture and richness. Overlapping layers of animals and vines carved in high relief create patterns of light and shade, so the forms are easy to read from a distance.
Vézelay was an important medieval pilgrimage site, where the relics of Mary Magdalene were venerated. The location of Vézelay in the duchy of Burgundy made the church (the nave of which was completed in the 1130s, and the narthex in the 1140s) a central location for preaching the Second Crusade in 1146.
Originally part of a large double capital, this sculptural fragment was once installed as part of a series of columns with sculpted capitals above the narthex (porch) of the abbey church of Sainte-Madeleine (Saint Mary Magdalene) in Vézelay. The carving is powerfully conceived; a lioness and eagle are shown caught amongst crisply outlined vines that resemble metalwork, with a beaded vein adding texture and richness. The imagery of the other half of the capital is damaged and the meaning of the ensemble remains ambiguous.
Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collections, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 2013).
Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collection, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).
Selections from The Art Museum, Princeton University, (Princeton, NJ: The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1986).
Walter Cahn, "Romanesque Sculpture in American Collections, VII. New York and New Jersey," Gesta 10, no. 1 (1971).
Robert A. Koch, "A Gothic sculpture of the Ascending Christ", Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 19, no. 1 (1960): p. 37-43.
Parke-Bernet Galleries. 1949. Part II of the notable art collection belonging to the estate of the late Joseph Brummer, sale code 1069. 11-15 May 1949, New York.
An Educated Eye: The Princeton University Art Museum Collection (Friday, February 22, 2008 - Sunday, June 15, 2008)