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Doorjamb Fragment with a Thornpuller, from the Abbey Church of Saint Martin

Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion

Doorjamb Fragment with a Thornpuller, from the Abbey Church of Saint Martin

Culture Group: French
Culture: French
Date: 1100–1125
Medium: Limestone
16 1/4 x 27 1/4 x 16 inches (41.3 x 69.2 x 40.6 cm)
Classification: Sculpture
Credit Line: The Brummer Collection
Label Text:An anguished youth crouches over his upraised foot to remove a thorn with a grotesquely oversized implement. His expressively contorted posture is due as much to the unusual subject as to the rectilinear confines of the block of stone. This work exemplifies a medieval adaptation of a Classical sculptural subject, the "thornpuller" [spinario]. Although this type could have been known from Antique miniature replicas, a full-scale version was displayed in medieval Rome and even attracted the comment of the English writer Magister Gregorius (c. 200). In his tourist guide to the marvels of Rome, Gregorius relates the contemporary belief that the sculpture depicted Priapus (probably due to the exposed genitals of the nude youth). The Greco-Roman examples portray a seated and self-absorbed youth calmly examining his foot after picking out a thorn with his fingers. In this medieval version, however, we see a fully-clothed youth and a gruesome exaggeration of the thornpuller's activity. The youth now looks outward to engage and involve the viewer in his ordeal by displaying an unusual grimace. His anguished expression stems from more than just physical pain since medieval Christians believed that sickness was caused by sin; Gregory of Tours describes illness as "incursio diaboli", an invasion of the body by the Devil. The youth's grimace resembles the hideous expressions of demons and the sinners that they torment in Burgundian sculptures, as at Autun and Vézelay, perhaps as an object lesson to sick pilgrims on the efficacy of faith and miraculous cures.

Medieval examples of this theme became part of major architectural programs: on French and Italian portal sculptures the thornpuller often appears in Zodiac and Labors of the Months cycles where he personifies March which rules the feet. He was also associated more generally with medical ailments and the loss of blood, as illustrated by a thornpuller in an archivolt "compartment" of the portal at nearby Vézelay. The Nasher thornpuller not only relates to Burgundian iconographic themes, but also resembles Burgundian sculptures in its carving techniques and architectural function. The figure's elongated proportions, the slat-like drapery folds, and the fluttering hem recalls sculptures from the Abbey church of Cluny and its offshoots, Vézelay and Savigny. The strong resemblance to a figural fragment from Savigny, now in the Musée Coquard, and recent petrographic analysis of Savigny and Nasher stone samples have confirmed this attribution. The Nasher thornpuller comprised the upper section of the left doorjamb [piedroit], similar to the format of a carved doorjamb at Vézelay.

Object number: 1966.203.1
In Collection(s)