Christ salvation

Medieval torture and salute at Autun Cathedral in France

Not all French cities owe their current cultural glory to three Latin words. Yet the inscription Gislebertus hoc fecit (Gislebertus did it) above the main entrance to Saint-Lazare Cathedral is the hook on which thousands of tourists visit the Burgundian town of Autun each year.

But why this fuss over a name? Artists working in medieval times often remained anonymous, recognition by God being the only reward they sought.

The signature of Gislebertus, engraved in the 12th century, therefore goes against the trend of medieval anonymity. Gislebertus boldly claimed ownership of the virtuoso sculpture above the cathedral’s main entrance, and even now in the 21st century, the Romanesque carvings for which Autun Cathedral is so famous will forever be linked to his name.

Yet the architectural and sculptural splendors of the city have not always been the main attraction for visitors. In the first centuries of the last millennium, people came to Autun to venerate the relics of a canonized Provençal bishop of the 5th century called Lazare d’Aix.

The Saint-Nazaire church had served as a central place of worship in the city from the 5th century until the arrival of these relics around the year 1000.

The relics of Lazarus were so popular that there simply wasn’t enough room in the church of Saint-Nazaire to accommodate all the pilgrims. Around 1120, the bishop of Autun, Etienne de Bâgé, therefore undertook the construction of a new, larger cathedral, just next to the existing church. The bishop was clearly a shrewd businessman, as a larger church meant more pilgrims, and therefore more money, for both the cathedral and the city.

Perhaps for this reason, Lazarus of Aix quickly turned into a cult of a different saint, who bore the same name but possessed a much higher star quality in the hierarchy of saints.

Thus, the relics of the 5th-century bishop Lazarus were renamed those of Lazarus of Bethany, the brother of Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus raised from the dead.

The transformation of worship attracts more and more pilgrims. Work on the new cathedral is progressing at a brisk pace to accommodate them. By all accounts, the construction was sufficiently advanced to allow the installation of the holy relics of Lazarus in the new cathedral in 1146.

Pilgrims seeking to venerate the relics of Jesus’ death-defying friend in the new cathedral made their solemn entrance through a main entrance designed to shock and amaze.

The main portal at the west end through which they passed told the carved stone story of the Last Judgment. Christ sits in majesty in the center of the tympanum (the semi-circular area above the doors), surrounded by angels or demons who accompany humans to heaven or hell.

The lintel below this frenzied scene shows the dead rising from their graves on Judgment Day, with a no-nonsense inscription: “Let this terror frighten those who are bound by the error of the world.”

This will be true as the horror of these images indicates. And, under the feet of Christ, the word that has led countless modern pilgrims to cross this threshold: Gislebertus hoc fecit.

The famous sculpture of the tympanum of the Last Judgment of Autun, made by or in memory of Gislebertus. Photo : Nigel Jarvis / Shutterstock

But are the historians right? Was Gislebertus really the sculptor? A book by Linda Seidel on the history of Autun Cathedral offered another theory.

She argued that Gislebertus was more likely to have been a powerful 10th-century count who played a key role in securing the relics of Saint Lazarus. The inscription therefore does not commemorate the artist but the patron. The language itself points to this theory.

In medieval times, artists claiming authorship of a work through an inscription used the words “me fecit” (made me), not “hoc fecit” (done this), which was a term more frequently applied to donors and patrons.

Given the crucial role the relics of Lazarus played in expanding the cathedral’s wealth, an inscription commemorating the person who acquired them is compelling. It therefore seems that the sculptor of these incredible works, like many others of his time, could be another “anonymous”.

Despite challenges to identifying Autun’s master sculptor, visitors continue to marvel at the scenes of medieval torture and salvation.

If traveling to Autun is too difficult, however, wheelchair pilgrims can visit the cathedral website to enjoy his high resolution photo of the tympanum sculpture. Here you can zoom in on all the little details so easily missed when viewing from the ground.

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