The tympanum at Pitsford, Northamptonshire

Mary Curtis Webb identified the carving on the tympanum of All Saints Church as one of a group of rare 12th-century English sculptures depicting Christ’s redemption of mankind. The scene is Christ’s descent into Hades to destroy Death, here personified by Behemoth, the twin figure of Leviathan. 

 

The main literary source of these carvings, in Webb's interpretation, is Gregory's Moralia in Job. Another source is the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, known in England since the days of of Bede (Webb, p179). 

 

The iconography has puzzled many scholars. Pevsner suggests "St George and the Dragon, or perhaps Faith fighting Evil."¹ The pair of discarded wings, unique to this carving, has defied interpretation. The framing rope, with its square blocks featuring nine bosses, has also eluded explanation. 

According to Webb, all can be explained by reference to Moralia. On the right stands Christ, who has flown down from heaven and has now discarded his wings.  His back is turned towards the observer while he swings the weapon in his right hand to deliver a blow at his enemy.  This is Behemoth, the counterpart of Leviathan from the Book of Job. 

 

Christ’s weapon is not a sword but a traditional single-bladed butcher’s knife. The carver has shown Behemoth raised upon birds, in contrast with the humble stance of the Christ. The features of Behemoth correspond closely with those of Leviathan on the Dinton lintel. His foliated tail, ‘raised like a cedar’ (Job 40:17) is beaded all along its length.

 

In the background is a leafless palm tree with three small circles (referring to the Trinity) carved at the root.  This is the Tree of Life.  Its trunk is being attacked by one of the evil birds supporting Behemoth. The sculptor shows the left hand of Christ thrust into the very jaws of Death, for he is ‘binding the tongue of Leviathan with a cord’ (Moralia XXXIII:18). The three-fold cord attached to the under-seam of his garment and its tasselled ends swirl beside him in the stress of the battle.  The whole of this sculptured scene is enclosed within a framing rope. This is threaded through fourteen rectangular blocks, on each side of which are nine small bosses in a three-by-three square. The full details are explicable only by reference to Moralia in Job.

 

The three evil birds which support Behemoth 

 

The three forms of temptation, in the shape of three evil birds, uphold the body of Behemoth in his self deception and pride. One of these birds is pecking at the upright and leafless Life-Tree of the Righteous Man.

 

Wilt thou play with him as with a bird?  (Job 41:5)

 

Gregory writes:

Why is it that the adversary is first called Behemoth and afterwards Leviathan but is now compared to a bird…? … We learn more quickly the meaning of his names if we examine the craft of his cunning. …Sometimes because through his indomitable pride he feigns to be an angel of light, he is a bird.  For though he harasses mankind through his inexplicable skill in wickedness yet he especially tempts by three sins in order to subdue to himself some by lust and some by pride.  …When it (the bird) saw our Redeemer was mortal in the flesh it was puffed up with greater haughtiness of pride but where it raised itself up against its Maker with the wings of pride there it found the snare of its own death…For the Lord in truth played with him as a bird when in the passion of his only begotten Son he showed him the bait but concealed the snare… Moralia XXXIII: 22, 26.

 

The pair of discarded wings

 

The winged figure is popularly considered to be St. Michael. However, in the Middle Ages, it was not uncommon for holy souls, even Christ, to be depicted with wings. We see this at Dinton, Flax Bourton, Hoveringham and elsewhere.  The scene appears to depict the furious battle in Hades between Christ, who has flown down from heaven like a vulture, and Behemoth.  Here, Christ has discarded his wings and is fighting Behemoth as a mortal man, standing with both feet on the ground. 

 

 

The butcher’s knife in the hand of Christ

 

His friends shall cut him in pieces, the merchants shall divide him.  (Job 41.6 ).

 

Thou hast broken the head of Leviathan in pieces and hast given him to be meat for the people of Ethiopia. (Psalm 74.14)

 

In Rabbinical texts the snaring of Leviathan was expected of the Messiah:

The holy one, blessed be he, will in time to come make a banquet of the flesh of Leviathan…. Leviathan will be distributed and sold in the markets of Jerusalem (BT Baba Dathra 75a).

 

On the Pitsford Tympanum, the Christ is shown wielding the traditional form of a butcher’s knife, the handle of which is half the length of the blade.  This is comparable with the knife wielded by Christ on the font at Stone, Buckinghamshire.  

  

The quilted garment worn by the Christ

 

The garment worn by the battling Christ is the gambeson, the sole protective covering worn by the lowest ranks of Norman foot-soldiers. This garment was often made of padded and quilted linen. The carver has taken care to show the trellis pattern of the quilted garment and even the under-arm seam into which the loose end of the three-fold cord is inserted.

 

Guillaume le Breton described the troops of Duke William preparing for the fight: “Plusors orent vestu gambais”. Illustrations in contemporary manuscripts frequently show the trellis pattern covering the gambeson, indicating the quilting.

 

The large eye of Behemoth

 

In his eyes he will take him as with a hook (Job 40.19).

 

Gregory  comments:

The Lord teaches in what way Behemoth is to be destroyed….saying, ‘In his eyes He will take him with a hook’….The Ancient Enemy of mankind saw placed before him our Redeemer whom he confessed to know saying, ‘ What have we to do with Thee , thou Son of God?  Art thou come to destroy us …?’ He was therefore taken with a hook because he first knew whom to fear; yet afterwards feared not when he hungered for the death of His flesh as it were his bait. Moralia XXXIII:14

 

Despite the enormity of his wicked eye, Behemoth is deceived as to the divine nature of his antagonist.  The incarnate Christ has laid aside the wings of his heavenly descent, hiding them behind his mortal body as he fights on the earth as a mortal man. 

 

The beaded decoration on the tail of Behemoth and on the tail of one of the supporting birds

 

He raiseth his tail like a cedar (Job 40:17)

A path will shine after him (Job 41:32)

 

Gregory comments:

The name Cedar means the lofty excellence of heavenly glory[...] But what is meant by the tail of this Behemoth except the latter end of the Ancient Enemy, that ruined man called AntiChrist? [...] for as the cedar leaves behind all other trees, in its increasing height so AntiChrist [...] in secular glory.

 

Christ binds the tongue of Behemoth with the three-fold girdle

 

Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fish hook or press down his tongue with a cord? Canst thou put a rope in to his nose or pierce his jaw through with a hook? (Job 41:1, 2)

A three-fold cord is not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4.12)

 

Gregory comments:

Our Lord bound the tongue of Leviathan with a cord because He appeared in the likeness of sinful flesh and condemned all his erroneous preaching […] He bound his tongue with a cord because […] He swept away all the deceitful arguments from the hearts of His enemies.  For when the Lord appears in the flesh the tongue of Leviathan is bound because when His Truth had become known those doctrines of falsehood were silenced.  The Lord bound the tongue of Leviathan with the cord of His Incarnation. A three-fold cord is not easily broken because faith in Truth which is woven by the mouth of the preachers from a knowledge of the Trinity, remains firm in the Elect. Moralia XXXIII:18.

 

The carver has shown the left hand of Christ thrust upwards into the open jaws of Behemoth.  Owing to the flaking of the surface of the stone at this point, it is not possible to see whether he is actually binding the tongue with a cord.  Nevertheless one end of the girdle attached to the gambeson seems to be entering the jaws. The three-fold nature of the cord is emphasised by the carver.

 

The leafless Tree of Life

 

For there is hope of a tree if it be cut down, that it will be green again and that the tender branches thereof will sprout forth. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth and the stock die in the ground , yet through the scent of water it will bud and bring forth foliage as when it was first planted.

(Job 14: 7-10)

 

The rope which frames the Pitsford tympanum

                 

In this carefully carved fisherman’s trawl line with floats for the support of nets, the sculptor is evidently concerned with three themes.

 

THE FIRST CONCERN

 

The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a net cast into the sea and gathering every kind of fishes. (Matthew 13:47)

 

Gregory commented on the teaching of the Church about entry into the Kingdom of Heaven:

 

What is designed by nets, or a cabin of fishes, except the churches of the faithful, which makes one Catholic Church? […] The Church is rightly compared to a net cast into the sea gathering every kind of fishes because when cast into this gentile world it rejected no one but caught the wicked and the good, the proud with the humble, the angry with the gentle and the foolish with the wise.  But by the skin of this Leviathan we understand the foolish and by his head the wise ones of his body. Moralia XXXIV.

 

 

Wilt thou fill the nets with his skin and the cabin of fishes with his head? ( Job 41:7)

 

As if in answer to Job, Gregory confirms that all persons, regardless of the quality of the lives they led, will be gathered into one fishing net (upheld by the floats). The parish priest, using the carved tympanum as a preaching station, would explain (possibly with reference to1 Corinthians 1:27) that the despised, lowly and humble of this world will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, whereas those who were expecting to enter will be humiliated.  

 

THE SECOND CONCERN

 

Fourteen rectangular blocks, reminiscent of floats on a trawl net, appear to be highly symbolic. On each block the sculptor has carved a series of nine small bosses in relief, arranged as three rows of three. The labour involved in the production of such insignificant details must have been out of all proportion to the decorative results and can only have been justified if some further symbolic reference was required. It would appear the carver has epitomised with remarkable ingenuity the explanation provided by Gregory:

 

The Lord was moved at the penitence of Job when he prayed for his friends and the Lord added all that had been lost to Job two-fold [...] And he had seven sons and three daughters […] In all the land there were no women found as fair as the daughters of Job.  And their father gave them their inheritance among their brethren. (Job 42: 10, 13-17)

 

Those things that were lost were now restored to Job two-fold. But as many children were restored as he had lost (for he had seven sons and three daughters). But he is now described as having seven sons and three daughters  in order that those who had been destroyed may be shown to be alive[...] For God added to Job double the number of children,  to whom  he afterwards restored ten in the flesh but he reserved the ten that had been lost in the hidden abode of souls. If anyone wishes as an intellectual being to put aside the chaff of history and feed on the grain of the mysteries, it is necessary for him to learn our opinion […] Moralia XXXV

 

One may agree that the stamina of even intellectual beings might excusably falter at this point! Gregory appears to suggest that God restored to life Job’s original seven sons and three daughters, but retained them in the abode of souls. At the same time God gave to Job twice the number of his original children, namely fourteen new sons and six new daughters. 

 

The last verses of the Book of Job are concerned only with the beauty and virtue of the three original daughters, and the equality of their patrimony among their brethren. The seven original sons are not mentioned again: since they were retained in the abode of souls, they could not have followed the virile example of their fourteen new brethren who became great-grandfathers in the course of time.

 

Gregory now gives a long and detailed interpretation of the virtues and names of the three original daughters. Their perfection was implicit in their names, Dies, Casia and Stibii, which Gregory interpreted as ‘The Light of Innocent Day’, ‘The Sweet Odour of Sanctity’ and ‘The Song of Them that Rejoice’ - and with names like that no man could be expected to ignore them. 

 

The Pitsford carver took the hint. With the six new daughters of Job, there are now nine in total. Webb suggests that the carver has represented their perfection in terms of the current Pythagorean mathematics, specifically the geometric properties of number. The ever-growing series of square numbers was typically represented by Pythagoreans as rows of pebbles in the sand. Numbers with such special properties were called "perfect". The carver has displayed the perfection of the daughters by the arrangement of nine carefully-raised bosses as a square. The square is repeated on each of the fourteen floats which support the encircling rope of the fishing net.

 

THE THIRD CONCERN

 

The sculptor shows that he has now reached the end of his sermon in stone. Webb discovered that, for technical reasons, the carving of the framing rope was almost certainly done after the scene which it surrounds. It appears that the carver intended to summarize the meaning of all that had gone before, by encircling it within the rope with its symbolic floats.

 

Wilt thou fill the nets with his skin and the cabin of fishes with his head? Remember the battle and speak no more. Job  41:7

The sculptor has indeed made us is remember the battle, but with the completion of the framing rope, his task is done; therefore he will “speak no more”, for he has come to the end of his sermon in stone.

 

 

N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Northamptonshire, Harmondsworth, 1961, rev.  B. Cherry 1973, 374.

The Thought of Gregory the Great  G. R. Evans, 1988 p65

© 2015 by Dr Helen M Smith

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