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Old Screeds

Liontaurs, Sagittaries, and Lion-Centaurs perched atop medieval church columns

Just as medieval scribes were doodling animals, plants, drolleries, grotesques, and fantastical beasts -- including wemics -- in the margins of prayer books, so too were medieval sculptors carving the same -- also including wemics -- into the nooks and crannies of the churches, cathedrals, and abbeys on which they labored. Check out this page with three dozen photos of medieval and ancient centaurs of all kinds atop columns. Here are four examples of the art that are clearly lion-centaurs. Click each photo to see larger versions.

1) Charlieu - L’abbaye Saint-Fortuné: The Abbey of St. Fortunatus at Charlieu is home to many wonderful sculptures, and you can check them out here. The page is in French, but the pictures are the best, and you can use google translate if you like. Here's a Wikipedia article (in English) about the abbey. And of course, it is home to these two lion-centaurs (with a dog) perched at the pediment of a column and pulling each other's beards.

Evidently, "beard-pulling" was a thing back in the Dark Ages, as a kind of euphemism for the act of pleasuring one's own self. Please feel free to check out this entire page on medieval beard-pulling statuary.

Look at the forepaws of the liontaur on the left. That's no hoof! That's why I feel confident calling this a lion-centaur and not the equine kind. If you look closely at the feet of the one on the right, you can see three toes clearly -- also not a hoof.

The photo above is actually from the beard-puller page; I also found a couple other photos of these same lion-centaurs, Here's one from the French page for the abbey, and here's another, from Flickr photographer Martin.

2) Palencia, Northern Spain, 1175-1200: Flickr photographer Lacey Jo took a photo of this handsome leonine sagittary, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

You can check out this wemic in another photo at the Met's website. He's a "sagittary" because he is an archer, of course. And look at those paws -- those are not hooves!

3) Monastery at Conques-Sainte-Foy, South Central France, around 1175: Flickr photographer Martin took this photo of two lion centaurs carrying a mermaid.

4) Eglise Saint Pierre de Béssuejouls, near Verierres, 1100-1200: Here's another photo by Flickr photographer Martin of two lion centaurs carrying a mermaid, but in a different church! In English, that's The Church of St Peter in Bessuéjouls. See more at this tourism site in English (including the two liontaurs and mermaid from a different angle), and check out the church's page in the French wikipedia.

I was a little more than somewhat amazed to see the exact same scene carved onto two different column tops -- two liontaurs carrying a mermaid by her bifurcated tail as she attends to her hair! The two locations are just under 45 km (25 miles) away from each other. I wondered if these scenes illustrated some local legend or had some common basis ... so I did some poking around. Now, I admit that my mastery of Medieval French is quite poor, so there may be some major translation errors in my version, Google Translate notwithstanding. But here is the tale as I was able to understand it:

Once upon a time there was a mermaid who wanted to open a salon. She swam to the shore and called out for help. Two passing sagittaries stopped and offered their assistance. "Please carry me ashore, and I will make you partners in my business," she offered. They agreed, but they could not decide who would carry the mermaid, so they both did. Each one grabbed a tail, and off they went. Unfortunately, the two liontaurs kept making fun of the way the mermaid tugged at her own hair. "Oh! Pulling at your hair!" they snickered. "Well, since you do not have a beard, I guess that's the next best thing! Wink, wink!" This annoyed the mermaid no end, and she bade the liontaurs farewell. "I'll go found my own salon, thank you very much," she said. So she swam and travelled north and west untill she found the perfect spot. Her salon was a big success.

Here's a picture I found online of the mermaid after she ditched the liontaurs and founded her salon:

"I can hold my own damn tail and still be a successful independent business owner!"

Photo credit, with thanks: Yuppie Traveler.

Home | This content created 10 Jan 2018 and updated 08 Apr 2018