Images of Masons in the Cathedral of Lyon and the Tower of Philip the Good, Dijon.
“And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.”
On the 27th of April the fellows of the Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte visited the cathedral of Lyon and were given access to the passages around the triforium. One of the most memorable things we encountered there was two profile portraits engraved into the inside of the south wall. These were most likely representations of the masons who helped construct this wall. One could also find many other stones engraved with the masons’ marks. But whereas the masons’ marks indicated which particular masons were responsible for the stones that were cut, these profile-portraits do not identify any particular individual. They therefore may have been a way of the mason to communicate to one another their role in the construction of the cathedral as a whole, rather than their responsibility for a specific stone.
Like certain types of graffiti, these images may also have been intended for another audience, the passers-by of later years, even centuries. The passages in which they are carved are relatively inaccessible and obscure in comparison to the ground level of the cathedral, and yet they gave the most spectacular view of the rest of the cathedral’s architecture and ornaments. These spaces were considered both memorable and charismatic enough to encourage many visitors of later centuries to scratch their name or initials and year on the stain-glass windows that were here made accessible to the viewer’s hands. Messages like these are to an unknown future audience, a message simply stating ‘I was here’. The mason(s) who carved these profile-portraits image may also have felt the need to mark their presence in what was both a historic but also an intimate space. They tell us viewers of the future that he was in this passage.
This reading is speculative, but it might be supported by another image of masons in a passageway. The staircase of the main tower of the ducal palace in Dijon, completed in 1458, is decorated with a series of carved corbels. Three masons are represented upon one of them. More emphatically that the Lyon profiles, this image communicates the agency of these men in the construction of the tower. The mason on the left holds a pair of calipers and a set-square rests on a tool-rack above him. Such tools can also be seen on the tomb of the master-mason Hugues Libergier (†1263) in the cathedral of Reims, and their presence indicates that he, like the figure in the Dijon corbel, is a master-mason. These tools are also geometrical instruments, and indicate that the mason using them works with his intellect rather than his hands. The division between mind and hand in the image is further emphasised by the contrast between the mason on the left and the two others, who are evidently manual workers. They are strenuously carrying a piece of foliage-decorated masonry.
Unlike the profile portraits in Lyon, the Dijon image of masons is not a graffito. But it uses another means to communicate that the workers were within this tower. The foliage design the workers carry is very similar to the foliage designs on other corbels within the staircase, particularly in the capitals of the vaults that surmount it. Not only, then, does the corbel image mark the role of masons in the construction of this monument, it also, like the profile-portraits in Lyon, indicates that these workers were in the place where the viewer now stands, that they carved the works and constructed the building which the viewer now sees, and they looked at this building and such carvings as the viewers do themselves.