The Cluny Capital of the Three-Headed Bird

Carol S. Pendergast

in 27:1/2 (Current Studies on Cluny)Gesta, 1988, 31-38

Digital resource PDF file available

"A lost capital from Cluny, documented in a sketch by F. van Riesamburgh in 1814, depicts a half-naked warrior with shield, helmet and hair skirt. The warrior confronts a three-headed bird to defend a cringing human victim. The capital belongs to a series of Burgundian sculptures of the same theme, most of which also include a siren. Several aspects of the iconography pose methodological and interpretive problems. The figures appear to be paired haphazardly; to be transformed, sometimes radically; and one or more may be omitted. On this basis, scholars dismiss the imagery as either confused or only meaningful in a general way, or focus only on the warrior and siren. But the persistent juxtaposition of the protagonists in portal or sanctuary settings suggests they operated as a unit. Based on St. Jerome's Vulgate text of Isaiah 13:21-22, the Physiologus pairs the siren with the onocentaur, half-man and half-goat. The armed figure in our series conforms in part to this type. Exegesis on both creatures identifies them with carnality and hypocrisy. However, the evil attributes of the onocentaur coexist here with those indicating his role as the hero who wars against a monstrous fowl. The familiar device of battle adds a complementary motif. Although no exact parallel for the three-headed bird is known to me, heroes battling dragon-like fiends proliferate in Romanesque art. The partial nudity, the helmet and shield of the warrior, and the presence of siren and victim raise the possibility that a reference to Ulysses defending his men against Scylla was intended. This multi-cephalous monster also held connotations of Lust. It is suggested here that the sculptures of this group exhibit an overlay of pictorial and exegetical themes which voice a warning against the lust of the flesh and false doctrines, topical concerns in Romanesque Burgundy." - abstract

Language: English


Last update December 6, 2021