Gislebertus: The Dream of the Three Kings
Gislebertus: An Angel Appears to the Three Kings in a Dream
by Richard Harries
This charming carving appears on a capital in Autun Cathedral, in the centre of France. It was carved by a man named Gislebertus, the greatest sculptor of his period and one of the few whose name we know. We know his name because on one of his carvings he put the words 'Gislebertus hoc fecit' – 'Gislebertus made this' – a sign of the great esteem in which he was held by his contemporaries. He carried out the work in Autun between 1125 and 1135.
Many people today have come to appreciate the art of the Romanesque period because of its expressive nature and stylized form. One of the advantages of modern art is that it has enabled us to appreciate this kind of art more than our predecessors, who tended to prefer art that was either more naturalistic or classical.
Gislebertus carved four scenes from Matthew's Gospel on the capitals at Autun: the Wise Men before Herod, the Adoration of the Wise Men, the Dream of the Wise Men, shown here, and the Flight into Egypt. Here he adopts a Romanesque convention of showing the three kings in bed together under the one blanket. It must have been uncomfortable in the bed, wearing their crowns, but this was of course the only way of indicating that they really were kings. The embroidered blanket seems to move in harmony with the face, halo, sleeves and wing of the angel in one graceful, circular movement. It is as though the angel has slipped suddenly and silently in. With one hand he points to the star which will guide them safely home. With the other he touches one of the kings, who opens his eyes. The angel, despite his broken nose, still conveys a wonderful sense of gentleness.
This carving, like the story on which it is based, wanted to convey two truths. First, God cares for each one of us. Having guided the three kings to the Christ child, he did not then abandon them. On the contrary, they are to be seen safely home, away from the angry plotting of Herod. Secondly, in caring for us, God guides us. This is symbolized by a star in the heavens. But for us it may be a light within. People in the ancient world had no problem about believing that God, through his angels, spoke to us in dreams. During the twentieth century we have rediscovered the importance of dreams in showing us more about ourselves. Moreover, as the Holy Spirit works through the whole of us, he works also through our unconscious, including our dreams. In understanding our dreams we may be able to understand more about ourselves and therefore more about the direction in which our lives should go. But God guides us in many different ways, not just through dreams.
What Gislebertus conveys so beautifully is the gentle touch of the angel. The flight barely disturbs the air. Suddenly he is there, a sweet and silent presence. The guidance of God is rarely loud and overwhelming. It is usually the slightest touch, the nudge, the hint.
Taken from: Richard Harries: A Gallery of Reflections. The Nativity of Christ, Lion Publishing – Oxford, 1995.
Gislebertus: An Angel Appears to the Three Kings in a Dream,1125-1135, Cathedral Saint-Lazare, Autun, Frankrijk.
Gislebertus, Giselbertus or Ghiselbertus, sometimes ‘of Autun’, was a French Romanesque sculptor, whose decoration (about 1120-1135) of the Cathedral of Saint Lazare at Autun, France - consisting of numerous doorways, tympanums and capitals - represents some of the most original work of the period. His sculpture is expressive and imaginative: from the terrifying Last Judgment (West Tympanum), with its strikingly elongated figures, to the Eve (North Portal). His influence can be traced to other French church sculpture and his techniques helped pave the way for the Gothic style.
Richard Harries was Bishop of Oxford from 1987 to 2006. He was previously the Dean of King's College London, where he is now a Fellow and an Honorary Professor of Theology. Professor Harries is greatly concerned with social, political and inter-faith issues. As Bishop of Oxford he was the Chairman of the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility between 1996 and 2001, and the Chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews between 1992 and 2001. He has published 26 books and numerous articles, covering a wide range of interests, including: Art and the Beauty of God (Mowbrays, 1993), C.S. Lewis: The Man and his God (Collins, 1987).
* Richard Harries also wrote The Passion in Art, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2004. Jesus was not depicted on the cross until the early fifth century. Since then this scene has been painted or carved in sharply differing ways. With the aid of over thirty full-page plates, The Passion in Art explores the historical contexts and theologies that led to such differing depictions. This is the first book to consider the Passion as portrayed in the whole sweep of Christian history. Each picture is considered both from the point of view of its context and its theological standpoint. Highly recommended!
* In his review of Richard Harries’ Art and the Beauty of God Iain Mc Killop writes, ‘This is a fascinating book, beautifully written by a bishop who knows how to communicate his ideas. It is not a treatise on the nature either of God or of art, but discusses how the arts affect us and how a perception of beauty has influenced the understanding of God through various church traditions.’ Read more
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