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Devils of Moissac

The Devils of Moissac

An online exhibition of the demonological motifs in the Clunic Abbey Church of Saint-Pierre in Moissac, France, including portal sculptures and capital reliefs showing representations of sin, demons and the Devil.

Demonology in Art Series: The Abbey Church of Saint Pierre

Orientation

Plan of Moissac Abbey ChurchThe Abbey Church of Saint Pierre lies in the centre of Moissac, a town in the Département of Tarn-et-Garonne in the Midi-Pyrénées region of southern France. It is a small town of some 12,326 today (1999 census). Situated on the economic lifeline of the Tarn river and the spiritual artery of the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.

This exhibition focusses on particular aspects of the two most important features of the abbey church: the south porch of the narthex and the carved stone capitals of the cloister.

The Gateway to Hell

The south porch is the jewel of Moissac - a richly carved tableau of biblical scenes. The tympanum spanning the double entrance immediately catches the eye with its engaging depiction of a scene from the Last Judgement of Revelations. Here we see Christ in Majesty with the twenty-four elders. But it is the sculptural work on the left (west) side of the entrance that draws the attention of the demonologist. Here we see four panels filled with dynamic and diabolical figures - a vivid portrayal of the Christian Hell and the supernatural punishment of earthly sins.

Detail of HellTop left we see the Devil's kingdom, Hell, where damned souls are simultaneously roasted in the fires and torn by the claws of demons (see detail left). Top right we see the Death of Dives with the soul issuing from the unfortunate man and being seized by waiting devils. Bottom left the punishment of avarice and bottom right the punishment of lust are displayed as warnings to the worshippers entering God's precinct.

The Punishment of Avarice

In the bottom left panel we see a seated man clutching a bulging moneybag. A devil sits on his shoulders, his hands gripping the miser tightly round the head. The figure standing opposite and facing him has been interpreted as a beggar (Shapiro, 1985:113), but this badly damaged figure still clearly bears a snarling demonic countenance that argues against such an explanation.

The Punishment of Lust

Demon with ToadIn the bottom right panel we see a naked woman representing lust or Luxuria. Serpents have fastened their fangs onto her breasts and genitals, and a demon has a firm grasp of her wrist. This demon stands at a jaunty angle, potbelly thrust forward, clawed hand on hip. His eyes are fixed on the sinful woman as a large toad issues out of its mouth. What is immediately striking is this gendered depiction of sin: man hordes his wealth; woman spreads her favours.

The Death of Dives

In the top right panel we see a man stretched out on his death bed. A woman is kneeling by his side. An angel swoops down from above, but too late to prevent the waiting demons from snatching the man's soul as at issues from his mouth. This man has been identified as Dives. The story of Dives is related in Luke 16:

19 There was a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen; and feasted sumptuously every day.

20 And there was a certain beggar, named Lazarus, who lay at his gate, full of sores,

21 Desiring to be filled with the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table, and no one did give him; moreover the dogs came, and licked his sores.

22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom. And the rich man also died: and he was buried in hell.

23 And lifting up his eyes when he was in torments, he saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom:

24 And he cried, and said: Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, to cool my tongue: for I am tormented in this flame.

25 And Abraham said to him: Son, remember that thou didst receive good things in thy lifetime, and likewise Lazareth evil things, but now he is comforted; and thou art tormented.

Given the theological underpinning of this moral tale we might conclude that angel in the scene, far from trying to rescue the man's soul, is overseeing its hand over to the forces of darkness - forces that are, afterall, ultimately part of God's plan, if one believes the Christian view of the universe.

Hell

Despite being seriously damaged, the top left panel still conveys the sculptor's original intent: horror. The artist has worked his material into flames licking at the body of a screaming sinner. As the eye follows the flames up the sinner's body we find a giant claw pressing the unfortunate deeper into the furnace. Broken forms of giant demons dance around the damned. We spot another lost soul - a woman - staring straight out at us, her imploring look eroded by the centuries, but hauntingly undiminished.

The Devil in Chains

Devil in ChainsInside the Romanesque cloister of Saint Pierre we find more depictions of the Archfiend. Today the chatter of tourists has replaced the chanting of monks, but it remains a tranquil spot, at least off-season. The shaded cloister - cool in summer, sheltered in winter - beguiles the visitor with its charm, yet here we find more evocations of ultimate terror.

The capital that captures our attention with its winged serpent chained and being led by an angel is a vision straight out of Revelation 20:

1 And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.

2 And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,

3 And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.

7 And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison,

8 And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog, and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.

Conclusion

The centrality of the Devil, Hell and sin in the decorative stone carving of the abbey church of Saint Pierre demonstrates the fundmental importance of supernatural terror and the burning desire for the punishment of moral infringements on earth in the iconography and thought of Medieval Christianity. These nightmares in stone externalise both orthodox theology and deep-seated human fears concenring the afterlife, as well as a vicious streak of intolerance for those who live beyond the moral straight-jacket of the Faith.

Further Reading

  • Dixon, Susan Raglan, 'The Power of the Gate: The Sculptured Portal of St. Pierre, Moissac', Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Cornell University, 1987.
  • Rupin, Ernest, L'Abbaye et Les Cloitres de Moissac. Paris: 1897.
  • Schapiro, Meyer, The Romanesque Sculpture of Moissac. New York: Georges Braziller, 1985.

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