Two churches in northern France, one in Upper Normandy the other in Brittany and both rich with Gothic and Renaissance decoration, have an unusual exterior sculpture. The sculpture is a head with three, overlapping faces – sharing facial features. Various searches have not come up with any information about this motif, or other published examples.
Quite by chance I stumbled upon the church in the Seine riverside town of Caudebec-en-caux in June 2013. The finely decorated west portal is quite something (see a few photographs here). Walking around the outside of the church I happened to notice a small sculpture of a head slightly above head height, just below the window ledge running around the exterior of the church. I did not see any others, just the one.
Pictured above, what is unusual about the Caudebec-en-Caux sculpture is that it has three faces: one looking to the right, one to the left and one facing forward. The forward looking face is a full, frontal representation, while the two faces looking to the left and right are only half, lateral representations. Each face has its own nose (although the nose of the on the face looking forward is damaged) and mouth. Each of the three mouths is different, one is sticking its tongue out, one has upturned lips and the third has down-turned lips. What is especially clever is the way in which the faces share the sculptures only two eyes. The face looking forward has two eyes as we would expect a full face viewed from the front to have. This central face shares its eyes (and cheeks) with the two faces facing away, one each.Not that I have a vast experience with Medieval art, I have never seen a motif like this before. And a bit of research did not produce any further information about it, or any other examples.
Then in November while exploring the Medieval town of Vitré again I stumbled on another three-faced sculpture on the town’s thirteenth century church. Although the Caudebec head and the Vitré head are strikingly different, they are both similar in that the three faces share eyes.
The Notre Dame de Vitré has a fair amount of Gothic decoration. In particular, the southern façade has multiple gables and is quite ornate with Gothic and Renaissance elements and motifs. Along the façade there is a slightly flamboyant outdoor pulpit. And it is at the top of the central panel of the pulpit that this second example of three-faced motif can be seen. Each of the other four panels also have sculptured heads – otherwise life-like representations, a woman’s heads on two and a lion’s head on two others.It is probably safe to assume that the Caudebec head depicts men, whereas the Vitré head depicts women.
Despite sharing eyes and cheeks, the Vitré faces are a more life-like representations, whereas the Caudebec faces have a slightly comical look to them. In fact they do resemble much more recent cartoons than anything I have seen in Medieval art. At Vitré the two side faces are also more complete, not simple lateral views as at Caudebec. All three Vitré faces then have full chins and can be ‘seen’ with two eyes each. Unlike the three Caudebec faces and the differently set mouths, the Vitré faces are identical – as far as I could make out there is nothing that distinguishes them at all.
Also, although I did not carry out an exhaustive search of each church, I could not find other instances at both locations. And given I have not been lucky in finding any information about these two examples, or other examples, they will have to remain mysterious. At least I now have something new to look out for in other Gothic churches around France and Europe.
The two towns in which this enigmatic three-faced motif can be seen are well worth a visit in my opinion – albeit for different reasons. Vitré is said by French heritage experts to be one of the most well preserved Medieval towns in France. One that has retained much of its Medieval appearance. The commanding fort and the impressive ramparts, surrounding (and once protecting) quaint Medieval streets with many original buildings makes for a wonderful town to visit. This fortified town was also an important part of the Marches of Brittany, and is part of an organised route that explores other fortified towns from this period of France’s history.
Caudebec-en-Caux, on the other hand is a much smaller town in Upper Normandy, and is situated on the north bank of the Seine River roughly halfway between Rouen and Le Havre. The Seine River valley is an excellent area to explore Abbeys and other Medieval religious buildings. There might not be much to see in Caudebec itself (there is a great picnic spot on the banks of the river), but the church is a must!
If you know anything about this mysterious motif of three faces, or if you know of other examples, please leave a comment below. I would love to know more, and see others.