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Ladder of Shadows

Ladder of Shadows: Reflecting on Medieval Vestige in Provence and Languedoc

Gustaf Sobin
Foreword by Michael Ignatieff
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Ladder of Shadows
    Book Description:

    Bits of late Roman coinage, the mutilated torso of a marble Venus, blue debris from an early medieval glassworks, and the powder rasped from the reputed tomb of Mary Magdalene-these tantalizing mementos of human history found scattered throughout the landscape of southeastern France are the points of departure for Gustaf Sobin's lyrical narrative. A companion volume to his acclaimedLuminous Debris, Ladder of Shadowspicks up where the former left off: with late antiquity, covering a period from roughly the third to the thirteenth century. Here Sobin offers brilliant readings of late Roman and early Christian ruins in his adopted region of Provence, sifting through iconographic, architectural, and sacramental vestiges to shed light on nothing less than the existential itself.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94241-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-xxii)
    Michael Ignatieff

    Ladder of Shadowsis an interconnected meditation on the history of Provence from the decline of the Roman Empire to the birth of Romanesque Christian civilization a thousand years later. It is a story of collapse and destruction, rebirth and renewal. It is the story of how Europe was reborn from the Dark Ages. It is also a study of how mosaics and sarcophagi, statues and pillars—the fragments of art left behind—reflect and transmit the experience of a civilization’s collapse and rebirth.

    The narrative is told as a tale of fragments. Sometimes the fragment is a light blue...

    (pp. 1-4)

    Ladder of Shadowsis about matter and immateriality: about the unabated attempt on the part of medieval societies to surmount the often dire circumstances of their day-to-day lives by the conjuration of invisible forces. In the twenty-five essays that follow, I have tried to give as much attention to one as to the other; as much, that is, to the underlying conditions of those societies, as to whatever traces—be they iconographic, architectural, or sacramental—testify to that incessant, seemingly inherent, appeal. The former, of course, prefigures the latter; the circumstantial, the supplicatory. It’s only out of so much rubble,...

  5. Apt: Reading an Antique City as Palimpsest
    (pp. 5-14)

    Lying buried like some deep, richly endowed level of human consciousness, the vaulted cellars and subterranean passageways of an antique city often preserve the memory of an otherwise obliterated existence. Such is the case with Apt. Roman to its roots, medieval to modern in its every outward manifestation, Apt exists in an inherent dichotomy of its own. The modern city as if floats—perfectly oblivious—over the antique. Indeed, much of the city’s population, today, is scarcely aware that just beneath the level of its bakeries and newsstands, its workshops and toolsheds, lie the eloquent voids of another age, another...

  6. Desolate Treasure
    (pp. 15-19)

    Bronze coins, dating from late antiquity, still occasionally come trickling out of the mouths of caves, grottoes, rock overhangs. Worn, often obliterated, they’re found only a few meters from the very places in which—nearly two thousand years earlier—they’d been hastily buried. Scarcely bigger than chickpeas and no thicker, for the most part, than the head of a thumbtack, they bear singular witness to a violent moment in human history. They constitute—one comes to learn—the scattered remains of some personal treasure, buried against the first waves of barbaric invasion that would decimate, eventually, all of Gaul, setting...

  7. Crypto-Christianity: The Sarcophagi of Arles, I
    (pp. 20-28)

    While the Gallo-Roman countryside found itself repeatedly ravished by barbaric invasion from the third century onward, cities such as Arles remained relatively unscathed, having hastily surrounded themselves in ramparts, watchtowers, fortifications. As a bastion of late antiquity, Arles not only resisted, it continued to flourish as an epicenter of socioeconomic and cultural activity. This “little Rome,” as it was often called, became the emperor’s part-time residence at the outset of the fourth century and began minting its own money soon after, before being named—418—the praetorian prefecture of all Gaul. In the midst of bustling malls, public baths, and...

  8. Terra Sigillata
    (pp. 29-34)

    Once again, one finds oneself reading the ground, scanning the earth’s surface for some residual trace, some fortuitous sign. If, the furrows of a recently plowed wheat field, one happens upon scattered bits of gray ceramic, stamped occasionally with a distinct geometric pattern, one might well be reading early Christian artifact. Called “DS.P” by the specialists (sigillata-derived early Christian pottery), this slipware—local in facture and dating from the fourth to fifth century—constitutes a “text” unto itself. In consulting the appropriate documentation, one learns, for instance, that this particular ceramic marked an altogether abrupt departure from that of its...

  9. Relics: Membra Martyrum as Living Current
    (pp. 35-43)

    More than any other single factor, it was the scattered bones of its earliest martyrs—the tibiae, clavicles, skull plates—that brought life to the nascent faith. Enveloped, quite often, in rich brocades, these skeletal sections, invested with a numinous existence, came to sanctify the first basilicas. Indeed, the least oratory, chapel, orecclesiarequired, for its consecration, some suchmembra martyrum. How, though, one might ask, could such a pathetic memento, often spurious in nature, serve to vivify that very faith, abolishing as it did the barriers between the “here” and “hereafter,” thus allowing—in Saint Victricius’s words—“the...

  10. Venus Disfigured
    (pp. 44-51)

    If in the first three centuries the new faith trickled into Gaul, touching only small elite circles of the ruling class, by the fourth century it had permeated the collective consciousness at virtually every level of society. By the end of that century, fully established as a state religion, it began erecting its first churches, baptisteries, and oratories. For building materials, it employed—quite often—whatever it could dismantle, if not simply pillage, from late classical monuments. Temples, theaters,thermae,became favorite targets. Often they were treated as little more than quarries for furnishing the new structures with so much...

  11. The Blossoming of Numbers: The Baptistery at Riez
    (pp. 52-58)

    It’s difficult to believe, today, that bathing in a river or in some natural spring could have once constituted a grave spiritual danger. As discussed, however, in “Laying the Dragon Low” (p. 76 below), certain such rivers and springs represented the last remaining enclaves of pagan mysticism in Gaul. In order to neutralize their thaumaturgic powers in the eyes of the population, the early Church issued a series of vehement anathemas, warning its congregations against the demonic forces at play wherever live water might be found. Yet hard as it tried, the Church couldn’t entirely efface such a deep-seated chthonic...

  12. The Deletion of Shadow: The Sarcophagi of Arles, II
    (pp. 59-64)

    One can trace the stylistic evolution of sarcophagi throughout the diacritical fourth and fifth centuries in any number of ways. The materials employed, the ateliers involved, and—most especially—the subject matter treated, all serve as indices in elaborating the history of that development. It is a period, one discovers, fraught with change, transformation. In considering subject matter alone, one goes from the tumultuous figuration of bodies depicted in deep relief—characteristic of late Greco-Roman classicism—to an ever-increasing sobriety in which the human form serves no longer to decorate but, rather, to instruct. Released from the “antique mêlée,” the...

  13. City of God
    (pp. 65-75)

    One always arrives, it would seem, too late. Even here, alongside a winding mountain road, reading a monumental Latin inscription carved upon an overhanging rock ledge, one is left far more puzzled than properly enlightened. Dating from the first third of the fifth century, the inscription commemorates nothing less than the founding of Theopolis, the City of God. Fortified by ramparts and gateways(muros et portas),according to this description, it would surely have left substantial proof of its existence. But where, exactly? Year after year, archeologists, historians, and the culturally curious such as myself comb these high, deserted plateaux...

  14. Laying the Dragon Low
    (pp. 76-84)

    Once, there were dragons. No more than three hundred meters from my home, a Romanesque chapel commemorates the site which one of those winged reptiles—the hard product of a collective hallucination—had been brought to bay by its captor: a young proselytizing miracle worker, Saint Véran. By a simple sign of the cross, Saint Véran managed to subdue and enchain the enormous creature, reducing it—by his very gesture—to a state of piety. For years, the dragon had been ravaging the countryside, slaughtering humans and devouring flocks, leaving in its wake thoroughly traumatized population. The mere sight of...

  15. The Dark Ages: A History of Omissions
    (pp. 85-91)

    A particular period in history is remembered, principally, by the vestige it leaves: those material deposits wherein it might, unmistakably, be recognized. From the end of the sixth century to the outset of the eleventh, however, Provençal history can be characterized by a dearth of vestige, not to mention an extreme paucity of recorded documentation. It’s a history that can be written—according to one of its finest specialists—in little more than a few pages. “Following a period of marked conservatism, a slow erosion gradually accelerates in an irreversible manner toward paroxysm. Historians can only begin to measure the...

  16. The Blue Tears of Sainte-Marthe per far veyre
    (pp. 92-98)

    Situated at the base of a cliff, Sainte-Marthe is the place-name, thelieu-dit,of an area terraced in orchards, vineyards, and, occasionally, long rectangles of ground gone fallow. On one such rectangle, on a dry summer day, one can find by simply scuffing the earth with the edge of a sandal any number of blue, tear-shaped beads. They’re drops, droplets, really: the debris of a small earlymedieval glassworks. I’d come upon this area, as one comes upon most things, quite by accident. It covers no more than thirty or forty square meters of uncultivated soil, and constitutes, I’d learn, a...

  17. The Blind Arcade: Reflections on a Carolingian Sarcophagus
    (pp. 99-106)

    Occasionally, a nondescript work of little apparent interest, either aesthetically or historically, can take on unexpected significance when considered in context: relative, that is, to the unraveling of the full cultural fabric. Such is the case with a roughly executed Provençal sarcophagus dating, most likely, from the tenth century. Indeed, its carved decor—a frail, unconvincing set of archways bereft of all human figuration—speaks not only for its own moment in time but for its place within the running continuum. For this “Sarcophagus with the Arcade Decor” (fig. 9), as it’s called—a limestone parallelepiped 1.8 meters long, 63...

  18. Celestial Paradigms
    (pp. 107-112)

    Nothing remains of the ephemeral wood-framed Carolingian churches in Provence if not, occasionally, an ornamental stone screen. These chancel barriers, as they’re traditionally called, once served to separate the choir from the nave immediately beneath, and constituted, in that “civilization of wood,” the only durable structural element in the entire edifice.¹ Outlasting their original function, these chancel barriers can only be found—in Provence, at least—out of all architectural context. Reemployed on the walls, buttresses, crypts, and belfries of Romanesque churches, or—at an even greater remove—displayed in museums or on public monuments, they no longer serve as...

  19. Vaulting the Nave
    (pp. 113-119)

    Nothing more fully marks the arrival of the Romanesque in southeastern France than the construction of stone churches, in particular their crowning achievement: the vaulted nave. At that auroral moment in Western civilization, the resuscitation of the vault might well be considered—in architectural terms—its “principal innovation.”¹ Such construction, however, was slow in coming, characterized, at first, by trial and error. For springing a vault required not merely a knowledge of basic masonry—keying stone to stone against the framed truss of a temporary scaffold—but the ability to determine the stress that that overlying vault would exert on...

  20. The Dome: Architecture as Antecedent
    (pp. 120-125)

    If the fully vaulted nave might well be considered the principal innovation of early Romanesque architecture in southeastern France, the dome or cupola might be seen as its ultimate achievement. Coming as it did, grosso modo, half a century later (toward the end of the eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century), it capped one basilica after another in a simulacrum of the celestial vault. In the transfigurative spirit of the age, the dome managed to echo, even replicate—by the bias of metaphor—those otherwise inaccessible reaches. In bringing the eyes to rise, it raised the spirit. So doing,...

  21. Classical Roots, Evangelical Branches
    (pp. 126-135)

    Antique ruins, lying for centuries in the fallow, windblasted landscapes of southeastern France, became—by the early twelfth century—sumptuous object lessons for architects bent on resuscitating classical traditions. Roman arenas, theaters, temples, and aqueducts—often in a pitiful state of dilapidation—underwent meticulous examination on the part of those architects. The ruins served as a kind of academy, according to one art historian, diffusing—a silencio—the otherwise lost doctrines of monumental construction. “Provençal Romanesque didn’t so much submit to the influence of antique art as deliberately, methodically, explore each and every element it might possibly adopt for the...

  22. Vanished Scaffolds and the Structures Thereof
    (pp. 136-142)

    Every Romanesque edifice had its double: its ephemeral counterpart. Rising at exactly the same rate as the edifice, the scaffolding—a makeshift arrangement of boards, tie-beams, and matted branches—would vanish once the structure itself reached completion. Indispensable to its edification, the scaffolding became—at that very moment—obsolete. It left nothing as memento but, occasionally, a smattering of small, usually square, sockets embedded within the completed structure. Called putlog holes, these sockets or slots served to anchor the putlog—a short horizontal timber on which the scaffold rested—fast to the wall under construction. They were, indeed, the point...

  23. Incastellamento: Perching the Village, I
    (pp. 143-152)

    In the foothills of southeastern France, one can readily interpret history—the history of human habitat, at least—on altitude alone. One can go, for instance, from Paleolithic caves and rock overhangs to the earliest open-air sites of the Neolithic, immediately below. In dropping, say, forty, fifty meters, one may climb down out of the desolate shelters of an ice age culture, based essentially on predation, and arrive at the faint but unmistakable traces of first food-producing societies in the richly tilled plains beneath. Indeed, bits of their thatched-roof, cobbed-wall dwellings are still detectable today, embossed in negative upon the...

  24. Incastellamento: Perching the Village, II (The Circulades of Languedoc)
    (pp. 153-162)

    Ideally, one should be able to read passages in history at an accelerated rate: watch them evolve before one’s eyes, as one might, say, a blossom bursting forth from its calyx in stop-motion cinematography. Only then, perhaps, could one begin to apprehend history as a single, singular organism, developing, flourishing, degenerating—despite the complexity of its parts—in obedience to a perfectly coherent set of causal factors.

    Such would be the case, for instance, in examining the emergence of certain medieval villages in the Languedoc. For they virtually bud out of their own deep-seated historic determinants at more or less...

  25. Faja Oscura
    (pp. 163-168)

    The historian, scurrying after the charged particles of history that lie scattered across landscape, has become the avid collector of an ever-expanding wealth of residue, vestige, and substantiating evidence. As modern methods of detection grow more and more refined, that very evidence dramatically increases. Whole medieval forests, for example, have come to light through the minuscule eyepiece of some palynologist’s microscope. Not only pollen fossil but wood charcoal—called “the memory of the forest” by one specialist—undergoes exacting analysis.¹ These two indices, extracted from their own vestigial milieu, help modern-day historians reconstitute—with stunning accuracy—the life of those...

  26. Psalmodi
    (pp. 169-174)

    No sooner is the name of that ruined Benedictine abbey,Psalmodi,mentioned than an image of monks chanting psalms in the coolness of some barrel-vaulted choir comes to mind. Sancta Maria Psalmodiensis, however, owes the origin of its name to something far different. Founded in the fifth century on an isolated mound (aninsula,according to Church records) in the pestilent Languedocian marshlands, it had but one raison d’être: the extraction of salt from the immensely rich surrounding salt beds. It lay, indeed, as if aureoled in that most indispensable of minerals. If in Latin “salt” translates assal,serving...

  27. The Fifth Element: From Manna to Exaction
    (pp. 175-183)

    “In the absence of ceramic containers,” wrote Fernand Benoît, “it’s difficult to trace the exact routes taken by the salt trade.”¹ Ponderous, ungainly, salt was transported in bulk for the most part—on barges, flatbed wagons—or, once retailed, bundled in canvas sacks and dispatched on pack animals to its final destination. As testimonials to its passage, it wouldn’t leave the kind of recipients—the ceramic jars and wooden kegs—as would wine and olive oil. To the contrary, it dissolved all too readily within the digestive tracts of humans and livestock alike, or it went to pickle meat and...

  28. Mary Magdalene the Odoriferous
    (pp. 184-195)

    Myths exist because they must. Gratifying deep-seated human necessities, they come to illustrate otherwise obscure or suppressed regions of the psyche, and—so doing—provide those regions with a face, a figure, a scenography of their own. For centuries, for instance, the myth of Mary Magdalene’s presence in Provence brought solace to generations of miracle-seekers. Even more than the memory of the thirty-seven years Mary Magdalene was reputed to have spent doing penitence in La Grotte de Sainte-Baume, her face lacquered in an unremitting cataract of tears and her naked body clothed in nothing more than her long flowing hair,...

  29. The Death of Genesis
    (pp. 196-210)

    The fingers cross. Or, more exactly, the three fingers of one hand, pinching the narrow shaft of a scalpel or spatula, come to meet—at right angles—the index of the other. The index, here, serves as support, as cantilever, for the delicate operation in progress: lifting, prying free no fewer than five distinct layers of obliterating whitewash from a parish wall. Beneath, we know, lies the fresco: lies, dormant, the suppressed life of so much sacred, medieval iconography. The instrument—insistent—glitters. According to the angle or the pressure exerted on the blade, a nearly imperceptible segment of dry...

  30. NOTES
    (pp. 211-224)
  31. INDEX
    (pp. 225-236)
  32. Back Matter
    (pp. 237-237)