In the canon of eleventh and twelfth century monumental sculpture Saint-Gilles du Gard on the Compostela Road is remarkable and stands significantly apart from its contemporaries. The façade of the abbey church is the largest sculptural ensemble of Romanesque art in the whole of the Languedoc region.
Stylistically, there is a strong affinity with the architecture of Antiquity, especially the Roman structures of the surrounding region. Its three portal design ressembles the backdrop of the Roman theatres found nearby at Orange and Arles. Furthermore the style of the sculpture of the lintel figures seems consciously to imitate that of the figures of the Arch of Constantine in Rome. Revered in medieval times as the first Christian emperor, the reference to Constantine would appear to be intentional.
Iconographically, Saint-Gilles is unique in Romanesque portal sculpture in two respects. It is the only church of any significance to feature a large scale Crucifixion scene and is the first to present the Last Supper over the main doorway.
Whereas most twelfth century church sculpture is haunted by Apocalyptic preoccupations, the subject matter at Saint Gilles appears more concerned with the here and now. The reasons for that would seem to lie in the turbulent nature of contemporary religious life of the period in Languedoc and Provence.
The most likely explanation for the exceptional nature of the iconography of the façade is that it stands as a testament to the medieval church’s first major encounter with heresy and it subject is a monumental treatise on orthodoxy.
This is achieved by a careful spatial juxtaposition of the imagery, particularly the linking of the themes presented on the tympana and the adjacent lintel frieze.
From left to right, the tympana feature the Incarnation as represented by the Virgin and Child, in the middle the Apocalypse represented by the Christ in Majesty surrounded by the Tetramorph and to the right side, the Crucifixion.
The Crucifixion tympanum is sited directly above the lintel frieze of the Empty Tomb, an iconographic manifestation of the Resurrection. Such an association presents the Passion as a theological necessity. Emphasising the point, whereas standard Crucifixion iconography would portray the Roman soldiers with the instruments of the Passion, at Saint-Gilles they are presented in attitudes of acclaim.
On the left of the crucified Christ the female figure of Ecclesia, the Church and on right Synagoga, struck down by an angel, seemingly the defeat of heresy because of its refusal to accept the true significance of the scene before it. The figures of the Roman soldiers to one side of Ecclesia and the Virgin and Saint John to the other, Jews and Gentiles implying the universality of the Christian doctrine
The Incarnation tympanum features the same composition as that of the Crucifixion and is compositionally linked. Again, one the left the Magi, the Gentiles and on the right Joseph, the Jews. The angel above instructing Joseph to flee Herod’s persecution a prefiguration of the Passion emphasizing the theological connection between the Crucifixion and the Incarnation which is reinforced by the adjacent lintel depiction of the Entry into Jerusalem.
The central tympanum of the Apocalypse surmounts the lintel frieze of the Last Supper, symbol of the Eucharist which by its spatial presentation is accorded equal centrality with the doctrine of the Second Coming.
This urge to present orthodox church doctrine in such a way appears to be a determined reaction to a very conspicuous attack on these beliefs and the power of the Church and the Cluniac Order, of which the abbey of Saint Gilles was the principal centre in the region.
At some time in the 1130’s the heretical preacher Pierre de Bruys desecrated a large number of crucifixes and destroyed them in a public bonfire before the church steps of the abbey of Saint-Gilles.
The religious establishment of Southern France during the twelfth century was troubled by the teachings of wandering preachers who were branded as heretical, a tendency which would erupt into the Cathar revolution at the start of the thirteenth century. In Languedoc and Provence Pierre de Bruys and his acolyte Henri de Lausanne were actively preaching a view of Christianity which prefigured Catharism. Their views were strongly and very actively condemned by leading lights of the church of the day, Bernard of Clairvaux and the abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable. De Bruys’ teachings were condemned in 1119 by Pope Calixtus II at the Council of Toulouse and again by Pope Innocent II at the Lateran council of 1139.
The heresy opposed the institutional church, arguing against the need for church buildings, the veneration of the Crucifix, the sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism and the cult of relics.
Pierre de Bruys was arrested and burnt at the stake at Saint Gilles before the very same church where he had desecrated the crucifixes After his execution, Henri de Lausanne having evaded the authorities, continued to preach the heresy.
The treatise Contra Petrobrusianos Hereticos was Peter the Venerable’s defence of orthodoxy, a text conceived in the aftermath of these events as was the façade of Saint-Gilles. De Bruy’s gesture had been a direct challenge to the power and authority not only of the medieval church, but in choosing to perform it at Saint-Gilles, against Cluny itself.
The three great portal sculptures at Saint-Gilles and the lintel frieze below them propose an emphatic repudiation of the Petrobrusian heresy by a demonstrative vindication of the Crucifixion and the sacraments, the Eucharist above all.
Saint-Gilles’ ultimate victory in the fight against heresy occurred in 1209. Raymond VI Count of Toulouse and native himself of Saint-Gilles had allied himself with the Cathars and was responsible for the assassination of the Papal Legate not far away from abbey. For this crime Raymond was excommunicated and was obliged to receive absolution by being stripped naked flogged on the church steps before being dragged down the nave in a show of obeisance.