Racial Tolerance Engraved in Stone

Image of the Week: Two figures represent a growing acceptance of otherness in the medieval world.

Two crouching figures, one a wild man, circa 1250. Right jamb of north portal.
Two crouching figures, one a wild man, circa 1250. Right jamb of north portal. Nortre-Dame, Semur-en-Auxois

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. From a position firmly fixed between the mundane and the sacred, two stone figures look down on all who pass below. The curious gesture linking these closely perched forms bears a mute but powerful witness to changing perceptions of otherness in the medieval world.

The figures belong to the sculptural decoration of the Church of Notre-Dame, one of the outstanding monuments in the picturesque French town of Semur. Built along one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the church was founded about 1225 on the site of a more modest structure. Its graceful aspect constitutes a truly intimate example of high-Gothic architecture.

Carved in high relief by an unknown sculptor, the figures crown the right jamb of an imposing portal situated on the north side of the church. In a corresponding position on the opposite side of the portal, a single figure, now headless, is seen from the back, clutching the side of the jamb. Above the jambs, a pointed arch contains a large carved relief depicting the nonbiblical story of St. Thomas and his evangelical mission to India.

The precise meaning of this pair of jamb figures has long remained obscure. The seated man on the left has been variously identified as a peasant or a monk. He wears a carefully tailored garment with broad seams at the shoulder. His hair falls neatly in a pattern radiating out from his crown and ends in a pronounced upward fringe framing his face. He sits cross-legged with shod feet and is attentively engaged in a meticulous activity, perhaps placing coins in a purse. The overall effect of this figure is one of civilized routine, conveyed as much by his studied concentration as by his dress. His usually assumed identity as peasant or cleric may, in fact, be somewhat more urbane in nature, along the lines of a public official or merchant.

The figure directly beside him, however, could not differ more from this image of societal inclusion. His ungainly posture is expressed by the awkward, scissorlike position of his legs and a large head seemingly emerging from the upper part of his chest. His entire body is covered with overlapping pointed leaves. He looks out from the jamb into the world beyond, as opposed to the self-absorbed, downward gaze of the other figure.

From these observations, it seems that the sculptor was intent on rendering a study in contrasts between civilized behavior and something incomprehensibly wild, the unfamiliar “Other.” The difference between the two is accentuated by the pronounced black facial features of the leaf-dressed figure. The sylvan state so distanced from civilization is further nuanced to encompass the awareness of race.

This clear statement of difference is made all the more intriguing by the surprisingly intimate engagement of the rustic figure with his neighbor. He firmly clutches the upper arm of the other man, who seems unaware of the proximity of his companion. From the point of view of our own time, the gesture may seem impulsively personal, but the medieval mindset characteristically envisioned a broader, often truly encyclopedic meaning when formulating visual imagery. It is more likely that these two figures were intended to represent the yoked opposites of human nature, broadly analogous to the ancient Chinese principle of yin and yang.

The coarse, leaf-covered figure on the jamb can be identified with one of the most persistent tropes of the Middle Ages: the alienated type of the wild man. The powerful hold of this enigmatic creature on the Western imagination gives further insight into the employment of this device to represent the “civilized” man’s opposite number.

One of the major undercurrents of medieval theology wrestled with the nature of God’s creation, especially the redemption of humanity from its sinful state. The place of the wild man in general, and the jamb figure in particular, in this scheme reveals a great deal about the attempt to address the varied nature of human existence at the dawn of the modern age.

Since ancient times, the idea of man in a primitive state of savagery had often been associated with the existence of monstrous races of humans, such as the Cynocephali, or dog-headed people, and the Cyclopes, believed to live on the fringes of the known world.  From at least the fourth century B.C., it was believed that a wild race of men lived in distant India. The great early medieval church scholar Isidore of Seville discussed the salient issues pertaining to the wild men, seeing in them true descendants of Adam who therefore possessed souls capable of redemption.