Enemy Within: Visual Manifestations of Hidden Religious Polemic in Twelfth-Century Sculptural Marginalia

Auteur / Author: 
SILVERS, Holly R. (Indiana University, Indiana University Art Museum, USA)
Mardi 23 Août 2011 - 15:15


This paper explores polemical hermeneutics concealed behind profane motifs on sculpted corbels in the county of Saintonge in southwestern France. The use of metaphor and rhetoric to create a polemic of repulsion in order to stereotype or malign the “Other” was common in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. Women were arguably the most disenfranchised group in a society that, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, saw the growing persecution of marginalized people like Jews, Muslims, and heretics. The negative symbolism associated with Jews in particular was often relayed visually through concealed feminine traits on the corbels of Saintonge.

At face value, the megaphallic corbel figure holding a large wafer to his mouth on the twelfth-century church of St.-Pierre in Champagnolles might be interpreted as a simultaneous admonition against lust and gluttony as James Jerman and Anthony Weir have stated in their book about medieval sexual carvings. However, my investigation of religious polemical speech and texts contemporaneous with the figure’s creation reveals that the hermeneutics of this figure point towards an anti-Semitic (and by default, anti-feminine) interpretation. As a result of this polemical association, the underlying identity of the megaphallic figure is coded with concerns about Jewry, rather than the expected simple admonitions against lust and gluttony. Other profane corbel figures of Saintonge exhibit similar hidden interpretive revelations and concerns.

Traditional scholarship’s iconographically simplified interpretation of profane corbel motifs by use of the so-called “dictionary fallacy,” in which certain images are simply taken at face value, has marginalized and trivialized these already liminal figures to the point that their hermeneutics have been mostly undermined by their physical forms. By observing these figures through a textual lens, we can understand how implied words work through visual manifestation to embody polemical statements that have long been hidden behind superficial reading.