Sagittaire et Saint-Paul-de-Mausolle

Saint-Paul-de-Mausolle is located just about 100 km to the northwest of Lattes.  It is so named (Saint Paul of the Mausoleum) because of its proximity to a Roman monument, the mausoleum of Julius. The fields of lavender and olive trees around the church are even reminiscent of Italy (or so it seems form the pictures). Vincent van Gogh painted both of these scenes in his year spent confined in the church turned infirmary (where he painted many of his most famous paintings, including Starry Night).

Both its name and location attest to the Roman influences upon Saint-Paul-de-Mausolle. Its very name is not self-defining, but rather is defined by a Roman house of tombs. But this can’t be all together too odd – perhaps the mausoleum had lost its significance as being distinctly Roman and became a common landmark. But the incorporation and influence of pagan culture goes beyond Saint-Paul-de-Mausolle’s name.

Some of des chapiteaux – the cornices – of the cloister of Saint-Paul-de-Mausolle are ordained with foliage. But one of the more fascinating cornices displays Sagittarius shooting an arrow (and another shows a siren being struck by it). Yet, in the same cloister are engraved epitaphs of St. Paul. How are these two reconciled? Is Sagittarius re-appropriated in Christianity (I’m being less rhetorical with this question – I’d really like know if there’s some instance of it…)?

With minimal research (i.e. a few fruitless Google searches that yielded little more than horoscopes), I’ll propose two possibilities as to the reasons behind these pagan figures appearing in the cloister of Saint-Paul-de-Mausolle. The first is essentially ignorance. We saw the strong and deep influence Mediterranean culture had at Lattes. Such cultural flavor doesn’t fade easily from a region. It’s no stretch of the historical imagination to say that Saint-Rémy- de Provence (the town where Saint-Paul-de-Mausolle is located) absorbed much of the same Mediterranean culture. A few centuries down the line make Sagittarius and sirens not decidedly foreign or pagan, but just as “natural” carved anywhere (including a cloister) as flowers and leaves.

But I think this may be giving the people of the 12th Century too little credit. Perhaps they realized exactly what Sagittarius meant. This is why he, mermaids, and other such figures are not found in the sanctuary itself. But in the cloister – that which is open to and incorporates the Natural world (which is far more ancient than Sagittarius) – he’s present. He’s present as a testament to the place of the church in society. He’s carved as a lasting testament to translatio. Sagittarius stands, carved as if to show that the pagan is not a threat to the Christian. That it may live on, in a way. It need not be exorcised from the culture, because to remove it would leave little left. But it serves no threat. It may be happily incorporated, and the Church remains the Church despite it. Perhaps this is why the engravings are not at the base of the pillars. The church need not stand on the ancient paganism, but it does not fear it either.

Or there could be some other reason I just don’t know. Either way, I want to see the lavender of Saint-Paul-de-Mausolle.


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