Report from Paris
The 12th century Tomb Slab of Queen Frédégonde
As the monks of 12th century St-Germain-des-Prés attempted to distinguish themselves from the profusion of religious institutions in medieval Paris, they commissioned effigies of the Merovingian kings who had, according to tradition, founded their church. In similar fashion to a contemporary project at the abbey church of St-Denis, this production of a royal necropolis used figural effigies to craft a particular narrative of history, memory, and power in order to enhance the church’s prestige. Unlike St-Denis, however, the St-Germain-des-Prés ensemble included an effigy for a woman, the Merovingian Queen Frédégonde. My current research project examines both the unusual decision to introduce a female ruler into a 12th century royal necropolis, and the anomalous rendering of the queen’s image.
In December, 2011, I received an Undergraduate Research Grant to cover the costs of a research trip to Paris. I proposed to examine how the extensive sculptural and architectural activity at the abbey church of St-Denis in the mid-12th century turned on the problem of death. Historians of medieval art and thought have traditionally used the explosion of innovation at St-Denis to mark the onset of the ‘gothic.’ The demarcation of the church as a royal burial space at this seminal moment deserves further scholarly attention. In Paris, I surveyed a wealth of material evidence, focusing on the holdings of the Musée de Cluny and several medieval churches: the abbey church of St-Denis, St-Germain-des-Prés, and St-Étienne-du-Mont. I also traveled to England, where I surveyed the holdings of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and analyzed contemporary developments in tomb sculpture (the Temple Church in London) and pilgrimage architecture (Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford).
1. See Erwin Panofsky’s landmark publications Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1957) and Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St. Denis and its Art Treasures (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946).
My research suggests that the twelfth-century competition between St-Germain-des-Prés and St-Denis stimulated the commissioning of royal tomb programs in both churches, with the former emphasizing a connection with the Merovingian kings and the latter claiming ties to the Capetian rulers. Scholars have demonstrated that the two churches were in close dialogue during the mid-twelfth century. Why, then, did the monks of St-Germain-des-Prés take the unusual step of commissioning the effigy of a queen for their church, given that St-Denis commissioned no counterpart?
2. See William Clark, “Defining National Historical Memory in Parisian Architecture (1130-1160),” In Grégoire de Tours et l’espace gaulois: actes du congrés international, Tours, 3-5 novembre, 1994 (1997): 345-58.
Rendered in a hybrid of mosaic and enamel techniques (fig. 1), the tomb slab of Frédégonde baffles the few scholars who examine it. In marked contrast to the rest of the effigies in St-Germain-des-Prés and St-Denis, the effigy is two-dimensional. Although the slab is a cenotaph, commissioned by the monks for a long-dead queen, the tomb slabs of several contemporary queens suggest points of comparison. My research thus currently positions the anomalous effigy in a narrative of Capetian queenship. The slab material (precious stones and copper) resonates with propagandistic attempts to represent queens as saintly figures; in the theological rhetoric of the day, saints were metaphorically described as possessing bodies of “gold, silver, and precious gems.”
3. See Kathleen Nolan, “The Tomb of Adelaide of Maurienne and the Visual Imagery of Capetian Queenship,” in Capetian Women, ed. Nolan (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 45-76.
4. Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 142.
Frédégonde’s position as a polarizing figure in the dynastic history of the Merovingians makes this attempt all the more unusual. A palace maid and concubine, she overcame her lowly station to marry King Chilperic I around 568. The monks at St-Germain-des-Prés would have interpreted her legacy through historical accounts that figured her as a monstrous exemplar; Gregory of Tours, in his widely read account, described her as a murderous, adulterous woman who “showed no fear of God.” Significantly, however, chronicles such as the later Liber Historiae Francorum also emphasized Frédégonde’s role as the matriarch whose machinations ensured both the royal prestige of St-Germain-des-Prés and the survival of her children, who constituted the surviving line of the Merovingian kings. Her burial in St-Germain-des-Prés presented the 12th-century monks with an incentive to rehabilitate her legacy.
Ultimately, the tomb will offer significant insights into how scholars map questions of style and femininity onto the mid-12th century intersection of art and death. Even as the monks chose to render Frédégonde’s cenotaph in the anomalous format described above, they commissioned three-dimensional effigies for her husband and male counterparts. Clearly, the project of representing and rehabilitating a dead female queen suggested a new challenge for the monks; one they tackled in a highly distinctive way that can tell us much.
5. Gregory of Tours, The Merovingians, ed. and trans. Alexander Callander Murray (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2006), 149.