As excrement to sacrament: the dissimulated pagan idol of Ste-Marie d'Oloron.

Author:Brown, Peter Scott
Position:Art history research - Critical Essay

For if pagans ... dedicate temples and statues--more through excrements than through sacraments--to the demons who deceive them ... should we not therefore take still more trouble to dedicate to God our Saviour the churches and altars of our religion?...--Walafrid Strabo, Libellus de exordiis et incrementis quarundam in observationibus ecclesiasticis rerum (1) In the study of ancient and medieval art, the fateful losses and gaps in the visual record often may be as significant as the art that chances to survive, which has made the speculative reconstruction of lost exemplars a traditionally important endeavor in these fields. The underlying assumption of this pursuit is that we are only accidentally prevented from seeing an ultimately knowable work of art that may be glimpsed indirectly in the formal attributes of related survivals. These missing links in art history take on a deeper cast in the case that prompts this study. How can art history respond to the challenge of a vanished object that is not lost but instead effaced, an act of "representation" whose significance does not depend on visible form but instead is predicated on intentional absence and concealment? This unsettling possibility partly undermines the conventional project of a history of art and complicates the unfolding of the discipline. Such an unsuspected erasure came to light recently at the site of the early-twelfth-century cathedral Ste-Marie d'Oloron, located in the foothills of the Pyrenees in extreme southwestern France (Pyrenees-Atlantiques). (2)

The scene in 2001 in the Bearnais town of Oloron-Ste-Marie strangely recalled medieval images of the Resurrection, as a dead god arose with new life from his stone sepulchre to the wonder and surprise of the guardians of his tomb. Repairs undertaken to the structural masonry of Ste-Marie's portal (Fig. 1) resulted in this extraordinary discovery. (3) Stabilization of the portal's tympanum, which depicts Christ's Deposition, necessitated the temporary removal of one of the vertical marble slabs that compose the sculpture (Fig. 2). The slab in question depicts the Virgin Mary (Fig. 3), patron saint of the cathedral. On the reverse of this slab, hidden from view for the last nine hundred years, stands the depiction of a full-length Gallo-Roman nude (Figs. 4-6) framed by an arcade and identified by inscription as DEO MARTI, a votive "to the god, Mars." (4) In this reused ancient stone, we encounter both a literal and a symbolic confrontation of pagan and Christian sacred images, of idols and icons, so to speak--each with its own potencies. The chaste Virgin stands opposed to the virile, nude, pagan god. Female counters male in this piece of antique spolia. Saint counters Christian demon. When the two are compared, it is quite evident that the image of Mary responds physically, figurally, and even iconographically to the Mars. Although the significant and exciting opposition of the pagan god and patron saint are apparent now to us as they must have been to those responsible for the stone's reuse, installation of the finished sculpture in the portal erased the evidence of the ancient relief's very existence. Were the seemingly evident and meaningful relations between the figures not planned by the architects of this reuse? Or is it that the sculpture's secretive significance in the portal was not intended for a general audience of laymen, gawking pilgrims, and passersby?

The exciting, perhaps even astonishing, discovery of the confronted images of Mary and Mars in the reused antique stela may offer evidence of a previously undocumented role of spolia in medieval art, a surprising instance of veiled syncretism by which the cathedral's architects sought to utilize or foil whatever power lay in the pagan image. The idol itself was rendered invisible and forced to undergo a kind of sex change and religious conversion, from Mars into Mary. In its role in the portal of Ste-Marie d'Oloron, the Mars relief is neither spolia in re (spolia as reuse) nor spolia in re (spolia as imitation), typologies of reuse elaborated by Richard Brilliant. (5) It is perhaps an example of spolia in spe, a category in which Anthony Cutler places "things used in the anticipation that they will be seen to complete an object, or at least add to a new creation valences that are not communicated in their absence." (6) While this explanation seems to run into the problem of communication and reception in the case of the concealed Mars sculpture. Cutler envisions scenarios in which it may not be intended that the hermeneutic implications of spolia in spe be available to later audiences. "Given that they are objects whose hopes, as it were, are pinned on the future even while they are derived from the past, their meanings depend first upon interpretations applied at the moment of the decision to employ them and thereafter whenever such decisions are investigated." (7)

Reconstruction of the meaning of the Mars sculpture at the moment of the decision to reuse it in this deliberate and unusual manner is the goal of this study, and a variety of kinds of evidence aid this investigation, including other examples of reuse in the Middle Ages, medieval attitudes toward pagan images, and apparent pictorial and epigraphic responses to the concealed idol in the visible decoration of Ste-Marie's portal itself. The cathedral's twelfth-century sculptors appear to have selectively appropriated or responded to aspects of the Mars figure in the image of Mary and in other sculptures in the portal, but the deliberate act of hiding the relief conveys an anxiety about the pagan image and a deeper motive for the work's reuse. Reuse of Roman objects was not uncommon during the Middle Ages, although the discovery of ancient sculpture was usually a momentous event, and pagan images in particular provoked fearful responses. Such works often underwent processes of Christianization that negotiated their pagan threat. However, overtly pagan images, images resistant to Christianization, were disposed of, either by destroying them or, as in the case at Oloron, by burying or hiding them.


The suggestive relations between the Mars idol and Ste-Marie's Christian sculptures yield to specific interpretation. An inscription above the cathedral's portal that has so far eluded explanation, PAVETE AD SANCTCARIUM MEUM--an excerpt from the scriptural prohibition of graven images and idolatry--now appears to depend on the presence of the concealed pagan idol, although prior to the Mars figure's rediscovery, such a possibility would have seemed scarcely imaginable. Exegetical context reveals the inscription's connection to the liturgy of dedication, especially to the rededication of churches profaned by pagans and heretics. Muslim invaders and migrating pagan tribes from northern Europe destroyed the cathedral and city of Oloron during the early Middle Ages. Ste-Marie, the Romanesque cathedral, was erected on ancient foundations, perhaps those of the profaned early Christian cathedral, beginning in the late eleventh century. It is at this moment and in this context, the destruction and rebuilding of the cathedral, the loss and recovery of its consecration, that the reuse of the Mars sculpture possesses meaning as a kind of spolia in spe. The cathedral's architects appropriated the idol as the basis for a dedicatory program in the portal of Ste-Marie that signifies through the act of reuse itself.

Ste-Marie's bishops were preoccupied with the task of reviving the consecration of the profaned, ruined ancient cathedral, and the reuse of the Mars figure participated in an extraliturgical strategy for "undoing" the cathedral's loss of consecration. The Mars relief contains an inherent reference to the profaning agents of the cathedral's destruction. Its opposition to and conversion into the figure of Mary work to negate the threat of the "demonic" idol and perhaps convert its power to fuel the rites by which the cathedral's consecration was reaffirmed. The amuletic inscription, finally, reinforces the liturgical dedication and perhaps issues a divine imperative to the converted idol: "Reverence my sanctuary."

Ultimately, the two-sided sculpture, Christian and pagan, medieval and antique, is itself a symbolic type for the portal (janua) in which it stands, so called during antiquity and the Middle Ages for its relation to the two-faced god Janus. (8) In this case, the liminal space of the portal is a threshold, and not merely a symbolic one, between the demonic and the sacred, between the potent images of the Virgin and Mars.

Archaeology and History of Ste-Marie d'Oloron

By the time the Mars relief came into the possession of the bishops of Oloron, the city and its diocese were already many centuries old. The See of Oloron had been established by the early sixth century, but the impact of the pagan tribal migrations and the Norman and Saracen invasions led to the abandonment of the city some time prior to the year 1000. (9) The diocese of Oloron lapsed and was not reformed until 1056 at the Council of Toulouse by Pope Victor II. (10) Construction on Ste-Marie began shortly thereafter. (11) Work proceeded on the new cathedral more or less continuously over the next several centuries, as destructive fires in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries necessitated extensive reconstruction. (12) The increasing dilapidation of the church in modern times prompted a comprehensive restoration between 1856 and the 1880s. The structure that stands in Oloron today is a patchwork of Romanesque, Gothic, and modern construction, of which the western portal and porch are the most significant surviving Romanesque features.

Ste-Marie's richly decorated western portal dates from about 1115 to 1135, but its well-preserved current appearance is misleading. (13) The portal underwent extensive restoration during the nineteenth century. (14) Fortunately, this work was...

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