He lived in an age when artists were beginning to make names for themselves. The master-mason Hugues Libergier, whose funerary slab may be seen today in the cathedral of Reims, was his contemporary. Robert de Luzarches and Thomas de Cormont, the masters of the work at Amiens, were his collaborators. The century before, one who plied his trade chiseled Gislebertus hoc fecit into the tympanum above the central portal of Autun. Yet of the sculptor of the Beau Dieu, a work that John Ruskin considered “one of the noblest pieces of Christian sculpture in the world,” we know nothing at all.
The Beau Dieu (literally “handsome God”) is the image of Christ that occupies the top half of the pillar dividing the central portal to Notre-Dame of Amiens. He stands atop an image of Solomon, is flanked by the apostles, and is crowned by a magnificent tableau of the Last Judgment in the tympanum above his head. As a look at the whole west front of the cathedral shows, the image of Christ makes an impressive focal point as the building is approached. Well above the pilgrim’s head, the tall Christ is framed by the ascending arches and gables, whose lines point the eye up through the gallery of kings to the towers and the heavens above.
The note of nobility sounded by Ruskin may indeed be what first strikes the viewer of the Beau Dieu. Unmistakably priestly, with two fingers raised in blessing, he is also a teacher, garbed as a philosopher and holding an ornamented and clasped copy of the Scriptures. At the same time, he is a victorious conqueror, although the point is understated. It was customary in Gothic sculpture to portray martyrs standing upon the weapons of their murderers; here Christ treads upon “the lion and the adder,” (Ps 91:13) that is, the very devil himself. This conquest, the statue seems to suggest, was ultimately an easy one, the foreordained and necessary victory of the infinite Creator over the finite, wicked creature. This is not the suffering Christ of Calvary, but the calm and reassuring Risen Christ of the Road to Emmaus and the seaside in Galilee. And this is the heavenly bridegroom, welcomed by the wise virgins on the door jamb to his right, come to save his bride, the Church.
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The Beau Dieu is also the model of holiness for his chosen partners in the preaching of the Gospel, the apostles. Ruskin noted that the statue’s placement before the grand portal brings to mind Jesus’ declaration “I am the way.” (Jn 14:6) More recently, Stephen Murray has laid stress upon the “overwhelming degree of sameness” of the twelve apostles as a key to the teaching of the Beau Dieu. Their visages modeled upon the face of Christ, the Amiens apostles are a sign of the Gospel’s promise to transform the Christian by divine grace. They stand “foresquare, with equal weight on each foot and drapery falling, for the most part, in broad vertical folds,” and thus suggest the “rigidity and asceticism” of the Church militant. Although one may think “solidity” a more suitable term than “rigidity,” Murray’s interpretation seems exactly right. As St. Athanasius explained, “The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men.” The efficacy of Jesus’ preaching and example is, in the first place, to be seen in the lives and holy deaths of his closest friends and apprentices. From half-hearted, squabbling, doubting, and—for the most part—weak men, they were transformed to become the heroic bearers of the Good News to the ends of the earth.
It is customary to see in the Beau Dieu and in the Gothic sculpture of the first half of the thirteenth century a certain turn to the human, sometimes qualified as a rationalization or Hellenization associated with the rise of Aristotelian philosophy, sometimes, as by Ruskin, spoken of as a kind of “sculptured tenderness.” Certainly the apostles of the Sainte-Chapelle or the figure of Christ dividing the main portal of the south transept of Chartres Cathedral are, like the Beau Dieu, attractive and approachable images. Unlike the figures on the Royal Portal of Chartres—some hundred years older—and Romanesque sculpture generally, they are more lifelike, softer and more rounded, less hieratic or obviously sacred. And unlike late-Gothic sculpture, as for instance the Christs of Tilman Riemenschneider, these statues emphasize perfection rather than suffering and suggest the virtues of the active rather than the interior life. The key to appreciating the mood and emphasis of the Beau Dieu and sculpture like it may indeed be to see in it the first stages of the influence of mendicant spirituality. Murray, for one, points to Jean d’Abbéville, a canon of Amiens and scholar of Paris who knew the friars well, as a possible author of the iconographic plan of the cathedral’s west front. Certainly it is tempting to read the Beau Dieu in light of the spirituality of St. Thomas Aquinas and his fellow Dominicans, whose lives and preaching were so reminiscent of those of the apostles themselves.
Yet surely it is also worth recalling that the great Gothic cathedrals were expressions of a vibrant urban Christianity during the first flush of the revival of city life in the West. In Amiens, a city of some 20,000 inhabitants during the thirteenth century, there were plenty of occasions for the public display of solidarity in the Christian faith, from the nightly lighting of the lamp in front of the Vierge dorée who stood in the cathedral’s south transept portal to the annual recollection of the miraculous finding of the relics of St. Firmin, the local saint and martyr commemorated in the sculpture of the left portal on the west front. These were the years of continued zeal for the Crusades, of the founding of guilds and confraternities, and, yes, the preaching of the first zealous mendicants. It was, as Hilaire Belloc once suggested, the young manhood of Europe, an age of confidence and high purpose, aptly summed up in the resolute idealism of St. Louis IX.
At the heart of that impressive society was a theological vision captured masterfully by the anonymous master of the Beau Dieu, a faith in God’s promise to transform us in Christ. St. Paul told the Ephesians of his hope that they would attain “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” and “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (Eph 4:13, 15) St. Athanasius expressed this extraordinary hope with his typical concision: “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.” Amidst the sins and sorrows of our fallen state, it is easy to think of these sayings of St. Paul and St. Athanasius as mere metaphors and pious aspirations. It is not so much that our reason rebels against them. After all, if our all-powerful Creator wishes to re-create us on the pattern of Christ and to send his Holy Spirit to make good that purpose, who are we to say that he cannot? Rather, the soft clay of our wills shudders at the thought of our being formed—sculpted—into likenesses of Christ.
It is the great office of art to prompt us to desire—and even to love—those good things that we have difficulty imagining and are wont to think beyond our grasp. May it be said of the sculptor of the Beau Dieu that his gift to us is an image of the transformation that is promised to us by the Incarnation? The iconographic tradition and the Western painting and sculpture indebted to it open the heavens to us by giving us a glimpse of the eternal world that our eyes cannot see. The sculptor of the Beau Dieu, however, offers us what might be called a sacramental vision: the accidents remain the same, but point to a new reality within. If there is a realism, a rationalization, or an increased tenderness in his art, when it is compared to that of his Romanesque predecessors, it is not for its own sake, but inspired by a theological purpose. That we know nothing of him, not even his name, only underscores the fact that his was an art made in a spirit of Christian service, for he was an artist who sought to make the following of Christ more imaginable, and thus more attractive, to his fellow men.
Author’s note: On the Beau Dieu and the rest of the sculpture of Amiens Cathedral, see Stephen Murray’s A Gothic Sermon: Making a Contract with the Mother of God, Saint Mary of Amiens (University of California Press, 2004) and Notre-Dame, Cathedral of Amiens: The Power of Change in Gothic (Cambridge University Press, 1996). For a guided virtual tour visit the Amiens Cathedral Website of the Media Center for Art History at Columbia University.