The Soul of Genius (Dennis Aubrey)

Vezelay and Autun have a special place in my heart; I have yet to see Autun, but Vezelay is where I began my Camino de Santiago. Never will I forget walking into the silent nave on my first morning, alone with the sculptures that have been glazed by sunrise for almost a millennium.

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This article is not about the appreciation of a deep iconographic program of medieval historiated capitals, but rather an appreciation of the human imagination that created these sculptures. I am using some examples from the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay and the Cathédrale Saint Lazare in Autun. We must understand that these capitals were meant to be seen; in Vézelay they are only about twelve feet off the ground. And they were to be seen not only by the resident monks of the abbey, but by the myriads who came to venerate the relics of Mary Magdelene.

The historiated (or storied) capitals illustrate stories from the Old and New Testament, from classical stories and fables, and from various metaphorical lessons of the Church. The stories selected for illustration are filled with violence. In Vézelay alone we have four killings from the story of David; David and Goliath, the execution of…

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