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Romanesque capitals and the Bible, by Anne Marijke Spijkerboer

Romanesque capitals and the Bible

by Anne Marijke Spijkerboer

Ouderlingenblad nr. 903. March 2001

Look at the capital (Basilica of St. Andoche in France; 12th cent.) How do we know that the woman in the capital is Mary Magdalen? We recognise her because the stone cutter has put an oil flask in her hand.

Tradition has it that the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet ( the other Mary) is the same as the woman who was a bit slow to recognise Jesus in the gardener at the tomb. In the Bible (John 12 and 20) it is not certain that the story is about the same person. Mark does indeed tell us that Mary Magdalen came to the tomb carrying spices, and so three stories are woven into one. Here we see Mary at the moment she is about to touch Jesus’ robe (like the woman did who suffered from haemorrhoids). We see the beautifully supple lines of her own dress. The pleats around her feet are blown towards the Lord. Jesus’ mantle too bears evidence that he is moving. Near the seam at the bottom we can see that He has just taken a step.

According to me we observe two things from his stance: his head and his feet are turned towards Mary. His legs and his feet are already turned the other way. Maybe He is already leaving. Does He want to make contact or not, or does He want to do both at the same moment? His arms and his hands show the same remarkable ambiguity. The way He holds them may be explained in two directions: is this a blessing or does he ward her off? Or, again, does he do both? We are no longer able to ask the stone cutter what he wanted to show, the one or the other. That is why I take it that we should observe two things at the same time: the warding off and the blessing, the wish to leave and the wish to move towards Mary.

Jesus does indeed say: ‘Do not hold me’, but He does so in loving kindness. The words ‘Do not touch me’ have not yet become the biting order ‘Keep away’, which we notice in later pictures. This stone cutter did not want Mary to feel lost and rejected. Mary’s first thought of his being a gardener is not yet visible in this capital. At a later time Rembrandt will picture Jesus as a gardener with hat and spade. The present picture is about the one moment of nearly touching but not really touching. Jesus is not to be touched offhand.

translation Theresia Saers

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