A Monstrous Centaur in Oxford?
In one of the tracery lights of the east window of the Lucy Chapel in the south transept of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, a strange figure rides forth. The white body of a hooved animal charges across a blue background of stick-work foliage. It is attached to the head and torso of a man. He is beating a drum with one hand and holds a pipe to his pursed lips with the other. This fantastical musician corresponds most closely in form to the animal-human hybrid known as the centaur. These creatures, with the upper body of a man attached to the body of a horse, appeared in medieval versions of classical texts, as well as in the encyclopaedic book of animals called the bestiary.
They also appeared as part of the zodiac. The constellation Sagittarius is depicted as a centaur with a drawn bow. It represents the ninth astrological sign of the zodiac, and is usually associated with the month of December in medieval calendars. Despite their non-Christian origins, zodiac symbols were incorporated into works of religious art. As a series, the cycle of the zodiac was easily aligned with the annual cycle of feasts of the Christian church. Signs of the zodiac paired with the labours of the months (a set of conventional activities and pursuits aligned with the seasons) routinely appeared on the same calendar pages that recorded the feasts days of particular saints in richly illuminated manuscripts. On a larger scale, zodiac imagery can be found in thirteenth-century stained glass at the cathedrals of Chartres and Lausanne.
However, this fourteenth-century stained glass centaur is no archer, and cannot be explained as an appropriation of the zodiacal sign of Sagittarius by the medieval church. What indeed, we might ask (in the words of Bernard of Clairvaux), is he doing here?
To what purpose are those unclean apes, those fierce lions, those monstrous centaurs, those half-men, those striped tigers, those fighting knights, those hunters winding their horns? Many bodies are there seen under one head, or again, many heads to a single body. Here is a four-footed beast with a serpent’s tail; there, a fish with a beast’s head. Here again the forepart of a horse trails half a goat behind it, or a horned beast bears the hinder quarters of a horse. In short, so many and so marvellous are the varieties of divers shapes on every hand, that we are more tempted to read in the marble than in our books, and to spend the whole day in wondering at these things rather than in meditating the law of God.
While it is unlikely that such imagery was intended to distract the pious from their practice of religion, Bernard was concerned that it was having this effect on people. His question was a rhetorical one. He did not see any use for this sort of art in the Christian faith. Yet his critique also reveals it was not only widespread, but also widely appreciated. Indeed, the taste for hybrid creatures was extraordinarily persistent in medieval art. What its purpose might have been, despite Bernard’s dismissive attitude, is an ongoing debate amongst art historians.
In her book on English roundels, Kerry Ayre has catalogued a number of representations of hybrid animals in stained glass. In fact, the earliest roundels in her catalogue depict hybrids and come from churches in Kent. At St Mary’s church in Chartham a bearded and horned creature with feathered wings and reptilian tail has been documented in one of the tracery lights [Fig. 1]. At St Mary’s, Sellindge, the heads are more clearly humanoid [Fig. 2]. The hybrids at All Saints, Westbere are archers, one of which is of the sagittarius type [Fig. 3]. Ayre also observes another area of concentration in Norfolk. In Norwich Cathedral, a man with shaggy hindquarters, tail and claws plays the bagpipes [Fig. 4]. At the church of St Peter, Ringland, a centaur with sprouting tail plays a stringed instrument [Fig. 5]. Yet despite their prevalence, she concludes that they are more fanciful than meaningful. ‘Clearly, the majority of grotesques found on stained glass roundels are simply creations of the artists’ fertile imaginations.’ In so doing, she follows Emile Mâle, who thought elaborate and sophisticated interpretations were inappropriate for what he judged to be the doodlings of craftsmen. Ayre herself equates the position of these hybrids in stained glass with those in the margins of illuminated manuscripts.
Many of these were too high to view clearly and required bold painting rather than subtle detail or shading. In the fourteenth century, the relationship between roundels and main-light panels, both positionally and in terms of their subject matter, is analogous to that between major and marginal manuscript illuminations. In both cases, the marginal subjects are wholly self-contained and may bear no obvious relation to the main image beyond that of simple contrast. Religious narrative scenes were frequently offset, for example, with vignettes of a distinctly secular nature. In both media these frequently involved hybrids (or ‘grotesques’) or amusing representations of animals engaged in human activities.
This comparison with marginal illumination is very useful. While there is always a danger of over-interpreting images, minor elements of major artistic commissions are still part of the larger composition and should not be mistaken as arbitrary. Lucy Freeman Sandler’s 1997 account of the state of research on manuscript marginalia summarizes the key issues and positions in the field. Over the course of the twentieth century, attitudes towards marginal imagery changed considerably. Sandler describes how the pendulum swung from perceptions of this art as degenerative to perceptions of it as a source of cultural regeneration. For example, Eric Millar is quoted on the Luttrell Psalter in 1932: ‘The mind of the man who deliberately set himself to ornament a book with such … hideous creatures … an hardly have been normal.’ While Mikhail Bakhtin is shown to have reinterpreted this element of culture positively, as the ‘lowering of all that is high, spiritual, abstract … to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body’, a process that would ‘bring forth something more and better’.
More recent studies have considered the utility of marginal imagery. Ruth Mellinkoff maintains that all grotesque imagery had an apotropaic function, averting evil forces from sacred objects and places. Mary Caruthers has focused on the mnemonic potential of some marginal imagery. Michael Camille has explored the margins in terms of the opportunities they presented for social commentary, critical response, and even subversion. Sandler herself has contributed to our understanding of the different relationships that are possible between marginal images and the texts they accompany. Ultimately, she concludes that no interpretation yet proposed has succeeded in providing an overarching framework for understanding marginal imagery: ‘All generalizations about the meaning of marginal imagery may seem inadequate when we confront a particular manuscript.’
The main difference between our representation of a centaur in stained glass and the marginal imagery of illuminated manuscripts is that it does not accompany a written text [see the main picture]. However, as Kerry Ayre has observed, the main lights of a window can be understood as occupying the space of the text and the tracery as that of the margins. In this particular case, it is only the margin that survives: only the tracery lights are still extant in this window. Yet it is still possible to draw some basic conclusions from what does survive.
A number of other hybrids occupy lights in the tracery of this window in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. In fact, this zone of the tracery is replete with the most peculiar composite forms. Immediately adjacent are a set of winged serpents with human head. [Figs 6, 7 and 8] Two human figures are shown in almost simian poses, one of which appears to have a tail. [Figs 9 and 10] Other hybrids are composed of only animal body parts. [Figs 11 and 12] The configurations of animal and human forms are extraordinarily diverse and exceedingly curious. Yet they share the tracery with extremely conventional imagery. Directly beneath these lights are St Augustine, St Thomas of Canterbury, and St Martin [Figs 13, 14 and 15], with two standing bishops in the lights below [Figs 16 and 17]. Above the hybrid creatures are two heraldic shields [Figs 18 and 19], two tonsured clerics kneeling in prayer [Figs 20 and 21], two angels swinging thuribles aginst a background of foliage that issues from the mouth of dog-headed creatures [Figs 22 and 23], and finally, at the apex, Christ the Judge displaying his wounds [Fig. 24]. The ‘grotesque’ figures are at the centre of the assemblage of images in the tracery of this window, and even intrude into the space of the conventional and divine subjects (with the sprouting dogs’ mouths in the same lights as the angels). This last point in particular makes it highly unlikely that they play a negative or subversive role in the window.
The best interpretation available is that of Ruth Mellinkoff. Perhaps these hybrids offer protection for the sacred imagery in the other lights? Mellinkoff suggests that certain images averted demons by either distracting, confusing or frightening them, and explores in great detail the different types of imagery that could have fulfilled these functions. Most relevant to our case here, she devotes an entire section to hybrids with distinctive headgear. Perhaps the most bizarre feature of the centaur at Oxford is his tail [see main picture]. Rather than a whisk of hair, it terminates in another human head. This is not just any head. The particular headgear worn here is a bishop’s mitre. Hybrids with distinctive headgear abound in manuscript marginalia. A notable example that closely resembles the episcopal tail of our hybrid is the fourteenth-century East Anglian manuscript known as the Gorleston Psalter (London, British Library, Add. MS 49622). Mellinkoff reasons that the wide distribution of this type of imagery counts against it being subversive.
Given the repetition of this hybrid type, through long periods of time and across vast geographical spaces, it does not make sense to interpret them as criticism of bishops, or as satirical comment, or as comedy. The same can be said of hybrids with crowns, hybrids with pope’s headgear, heads with a monk’s tonsure, and others with special heads or headgear, but the examples I have mentioned are enough to demonstrate the tenacity of these unusual hybrids?
Whether or not one accepts the head on the tail of a musician centaur was intended to avert the evil eye, the fact that it is part of a much larger tradition means it should be impossible to dismiss as merely a capricious flight of fancy.
•M. Archer, S.Crewe and P. Cormack, English Heritage in Stained Glass, Oxford, 1988
•K. Ayers, Medieval English Figurative Roundels, Oxford, 2002
•M. Camille, Image on the Edge, Reaktion Books, 1992
•R. Marks, The Medieval Stained Glass of Northamptonshire, Oxford, 1998
•R. Mellinkoff, Averting Demons, Los Angeles, 2004
•L. Freeman Sandler, ‘The Study of Marginal Imagery: Past, Present, and Future’, Studies in Iconography, xviii, 1997, 1–49