Built in 1030, the Romanesque church in Chauvigny, Poitiers seems unusually tall and vaulting in the interior, perhaps suggesting the coming development of the Gothic style, where buttresses and other structural elements are introduced to support the vaulting style that develops. In addition to this, the church has a very impressive feel to it, which is not surprising, given that it was built in the position of a fortress on a rocky outcrop.
The interior of the church is well lit because of the presence of tall stained glass windows that illuminate that vast white vaults of the nave and transept. In contrast to some of the smaller Romanesque churches, Chauvigny has few wall frescoes. This is understandable, given the height of the ceiling, and the emphasis placed on glass windows. The ceiling and walls appear mostly white, with some ornamentation, and the windows are stained, but they are sparsely colored. But the builders did not leave the church without any artistic imagery or ornamentation; the capitals that crown the many columns that support this vaulting structure are full of interesting Christian and mythological images.
The images that represent scenes from the gospels focus primarily on the first coming of Christ. There are portrayals of the Annunciation to the Virgin, the Angelic Host visiting the shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi, and the Presentation of Christ in the temple. In the transept, there are images of human heads gazing down upon the pilgrim. These figures seem to suggest a reminder of the true body of Christ, the church that extends throughout different ages and places. At the same time, however, there are many mythological and eastern pagan images portrayed in the capitals. There are womanly lions, sphinxes, devouring dragons and “raptors,” along with the Babylonian prostitute and images of sirens. Not the usual spread of Christian iconography!
Because the siren in particular also features prominently in many other Romanesque churches, I looked more into some interpretations of the iconography of the siren in Romanesque art. In many different texts, St. Ambrose employs the image of the siren, suggesting that the image is only superficially a heathen creature. In his Commentary on Luke, Ambrose likens the Christian life allegorically to the Odyssey, where the sea is the world, the reefs represent the perils of life, and the sirens represent the ever-present voluptas or desire for pleasure that tempts and effeminates man (see Travis, below). In De Tobia, St. Ambrose speaks out against usury, and similarly likens money to a perilous sea that shipwrecks the soul, which is faced with tempting sirens singing on the shore. Finally, in On Faith, he writes that Christians can overcome carnal desire by “avoiding the sirens.”
Given these writings, it is not so strange to see such an image lurking on the capitals in the church. It does not seem that the builders meant to desecrate the holy space of the church by adorning its columns with pagan imagery. Just as St. Ambrose adopted the literal allegory of Odysseus and the sirens many times in his writings, so too in art we see these themes adopted, like St. Augustine’s “Egyptian Gold.” They are pagan themes translated into a Christian context to warn against sin, to warn against the temptations of the flesh, and not to defile God’s house of worship. At the same time, these images of the siren and other eastern mythological images may suggest the growing threat of evil forces in the world, pointing to the second coming of Christ, which would parallel all the Christian images of His first coming.
For William J. Travis’ article on Sirens in Romanesque art, see http://www.jstor.org/stable/1483681.