click to enlarge
Puente la Reina (Navarra), Spain
I had thought that the striking and puzzling but comparatively
rare motif which I dubbed the column-swallower
for lack of a better term (column-sucker, column-biter, column-spewer)
might have had some connection with the exhibitionist
theme - but later began to think that I was making a twentieth-century,
Freudian connection which was inappropriate. It might be seen
as a logical extension of the 'tongue-sticker' motif.
French observers have thought that column-swallowers represented
Gluttony - but they are too decorative to be sinful and there
are no accompanying agents of retribution such as are often
associated with representations and symbols of sin.
what could this motif mean, and where did it come from ? The
most likely general explanation of the motif is that it represents
the danger of the forces of evil damaging (eating away at) structure,
the fabric and the standing of the Church- which is why they
feature mainly on doorways and on the tops of important columns.
This does not exclude a secondary reference to auto-fellation,
because Romanesque sculptors delighted in double-ententes.
was only on reading Mercia MacDermott's excellent EXPLORE
GREEN MEN (Heart
of Albion Press, 2003) that I began to see that the image of
the column-swallower was closely allied to that of the Foliage-spewer
(one of the types of 'Green
Man'), to which Mercia MacDermott convincingly attributes
an Indian origin.
earliest known Western Christian example of column-swallowers/spewers
appear, like the male exhibitionist,
in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript (British Library Harley 76, f.8v,
click for a large
they are upside-down on two of four columns separating Canon
Tables (of New Testament concordance). They are spewing or swallowing
the groins of vaults. None that I have seen in stone do this:
they disgorge or engorge the columns, a more practical arrangement
and more satisfying to the eye. This strongly suggests that
the illuminator of the manuscript had not seen an example in
stone now lost or destroyed. The earlier or contemporaneous
Book of Kells
has an arch-biting beast extending from a canon-table column,
which may also be an inspiration - as of course are the beasts
which bite the ends of large initial letters on manuscript pages.
motif is unknown in Classical art - like the Foliage-spewer
whose earliest manifestations in stone are early or immediately
pre-Romanesque (e.g. a 10th century font at Guarbecque
in the Pas-de-Calais which has two beast-heads spewing foliage
on two of its corners). Foliate masks and heads are, of course
common in Classical art, the head of (or crowned by) leaves
being associated with deities, especially those associated with
woodland and forest. Although a head on the 4th or 5th century
sarcophagus of Saint Abre in Poitiers has tendrils of foliage
issuing from its nostrils via a small pair of cornucopiæ,
it is not really a foliage-spewer in the way that hundreds of
Romanesque and post-Romanesque carvings are. Apotropaic,
tongue-protruding Medusa or Gorgon
heads with writhing snakes were also common in classical times.
In the church of Saint-Hilaire
in Poitiers is an eleventh-century snake-spewer,
which might be a forerunner of the foliage-spewer and linked
to the pictures of evil people spewing toads in the 9th/10th
century Spanish "Beatus" commentary on the Book of
above example on a font in Lullington (Somerset) is one of a
band of linked foliage-spewers, while the example below from
the 12th century Winchester Bible shows a highly-decorative
feline head separating two Biblical scenes - one of which (on
the right) is the Harrowing of Hell or
the overthrow of Satan by Christ.
Abbey in county Mayo there is a fine, late development of
the motif in the form of a toothy, feline, Gorgon-like head
spewing linked snakes.
occur as frequently on roof-bosses as on capitals, and the example
below, also 12th century, can be seen under the entrance-archway
to the chapter house at the Abbey of St George, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville
(Seine-Maritime). It has a humanoid head, and apart from
the stylised foliage issuing from a jawless mouth, there is
also the upside-down-pine-cone or bunch-of-grapes motif which
Mercia MacDermott shows to have originally been the lotus bud
associated with kirttimukhas - demons which appear in
various different Hindu and Buddhist myths and legends - in
India and South-east Asia.
is not a pineapple, which is a South American bromeliad.)
The poetic term
kirttimukha means Face of Glory, and kirttimukhas
have monstrous (often feline) faces, with bulging eyes and
a wide mouth (usually jawless) swallowing foliage, flowers or
ribbons of beads - an attribute they borrowed from a much earlier
motif, the foliage- or lotus-spewing makara, a mythical
sea-monster with which they often appear.
jawless kirttimukha images swallowing or disgorging
The two motifs
are conflated and confused: the images above came from the Web
when I typed kirttimukha in the Google search-box.
Both were labelled makara. Explore Green Men,
however, provides a fifth-century example from Cave n° 1
at Ajanta which shows the two type of monster/demon engorging
and disgorging necklaces or beads, between which is a stylised
© Benoy B. Behl
Foliage-spewing beast (shown upside-down)
at Montmoreau (Charente)
Bearded seated figure flanked by two kirttimukha-like
lions at Neuvy-Saint-Sépulcre (Indre)
A bicorporeal dragon (symbolising Hell
) swallowing a damned soul at Civaux (Vienne)
Makaras and kirttimukhas can also be found amongst
a riot of sculptures on the famous 10th-11th century Khajuraho
temples in Madhya Pradesh.
demons known as kalas are frequent in Thailand, Cambodia
and Indonesia. They appear often over the doorways of entrance
pavilions as Guardians with disembodied head (compare the
Boscherville roof-boss above) and bulging eyes, a frightening
row of upper teeth, and (not always) ribbons of flowers, foliage
or pearls disappearing into their open mouths. The mythic kala
devours all in his path, serving as a reminder that everything
in the natural world - represented again by the foliage - is
eventually consumed by time. Thus, like kirttimukhas,
they are associated with eclipses and referred to as (amongst
other things) sun- or moon-eaters, and - intriguingly - Devourers
of Time. This one (below) at one of the many temples in the
astounding complex on the Plain of Bagan in Burma has foliage
(?) coming from the sides of its mouth in decorative arcs...
click on photos ©
the Kala above grips the tendrils snaking out of the sides of
his mouth from behind amazing teeth with very human hands.
Details of doorway, Saint-Hilaire-la-Croix
Kalas are associated with Shiva, for one legend attributes the
birth of an original Kala to Shiva's masturbation into the sea,
where his semen was swallowed by a huge fish which gave birth
to the sea-monster. Attempts by the gods to destroy Kala are
unsuccessful until Shiva finally conquers him, as illustrated
in the sculptures below at Prasat Narai in Thailand, and at
Banteay Srei in Cambodia
It is not difficult to see similarities between the Southern
Asian demons and the monsters
that decorate Romanesque churches: the mouths, the teeth, the
eyes, the manes or crests. (Similar toothy monsters occur in
12th century Persian illustrations of Hell, where sinners are
attacked by snakes and scorpions.) The three examples above
are roughly contemporaneous with or only slightly earlier than
the Romanesque period, and dervive from a common Indian source,
such as Ajanta.
it is important to realise that Hindu art is as symbolic as
Romanesque Christian art, though the symbolism is, necessarily,
different. Motifs travel very easily from one symbolic art to
another, though the interpretations may be diametrically opposed.
This accounts to some extent for the pervasive ambiguities of
Detail of doorway, Chadenac (Charente-Maritime)
Detail of doorway, Civray (Vienne)
click for another
Detail of doorway, Périgné
Nave-capitals, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire)
The last picture (above) returns
us to the original subject of this essay: the column-swallower.
Tempting though it is to see it as Sin Devouring Time (as well
as substance and support), it is safer to see it as an extension
of the foliage-spewer or -swallower - as in another page from
the Winchester Bible, separating two scenes from the life of
David (murdering bear and lion).
More graphic is this charming tympanum at Fritwell (Oxfordshire)
illustrated in Explore
Green Men, where foliage has been replaced with
palm-trees. These two
affronting beasts - which look only very slightly like makaras
- are, however, not mere foliage-spewers, but symbols of the
Grace of God triumphing over the beastly. Palm-trunks sprout
from their mouths in a manner not unlike the 'column-spewers'
in the Anglo-Saxon manuscript,
and between them is something very like a lotus bud on a column
or candlestick - symbolising divinity and eternal life.
the Fritwell tympanum is an iconographic confluence of all the
themes mentioned here, and we can now see the enigmatic column-swallower
in an iconographic context extending back to India in the third
for an article on variants of foliage-spewers/swallowers)
The column-swallower (below)
on a door-capital at Stanton-St-Quintin (Wiltshire) has a distinctly
oriental appearance with its strange head-dress and protuberant
© John Harding
the significant examples at Puente la
Reina (Navarra), Avington
(Gloucestershire), and in Cormac's Chapel, Rock of Cashel (Tipperary)
lack a lower jaw, just like a kirttimukha.
for a nearby foliage-spewer
While exhibitionists rarely appear on capitals, column-swallowers
(for obvious reasons) never appear on corbels. But a male and
megaphallic exhibitionist figure on a capital in the church
of St Peter's, Northampton
is being swallowed feet-first by a monster representing the
jaws of Hell, suggesting a visual (if not an iconographic) connection
between the motifs of column-swallower and exhibitionist.
one fine example of a column-swallower extends a disembodied
foliate arm with a hand into its ear in a gesture reminiscent
of some exhibitionists.
click to enlarge
Column-swallowers also occur in ornamental groups, one of the
finest examples of which graces the rose window of the very
French church of Barfreston in Kent.
click to see window
group form a roof-boss at Elkstone in Gloucestershire.
we might regret that we do not know what the column-swallower
"means", it is very exciting to notice and discover
the parallels and possible influences - which almost certainly
were not all known to the sculptors.
This capital at Javarzay (Deux-Sèvres)
illustrates an interesting parallel.
One of a pair of magnificent
triple transept-capitals, Colombiers (Vienne)
An equally-magnificent font at South Wootton
An extraordinary example
in a Carinthian cloister
Column-swallowers are amongst the most bizarre and exotic of
Romanesque motifs, and their Indian appearance - though not
provable - is an indication of the breadth and depth of the
images available to the sculptors of the time. Trade between
India and Europe had been continuous at least since Alexander
the Great's ill-fated expedition to India, and its products
- especially pepper - were greatly prized. Indian astronomy
received Greek ideas. Christian thought and practice owed as
much to monastic Buddhism as to neo-Platonic philosophy and
Mithraism. And as early as the 8th century, the Buddhist liturgy
for the dead had absorbed features from Christianity: Titsang
(Lord of The Underworld) was depicted as descending, Christ-like,
into Hell to redeem the damned.
A very Oriental variation on the theme
at Echebrune (Charente-Maritime);
compare with Chadenac
for a large picture of another at Saint-Hilaire-la-Croix
On the other hand,
the example at Saint-Marcel (below) is almost toothless, and
has very human ears.
One of several column-swallowers
on the high windows of the apse
at Saint-Marcel (Indre)
Saint-Mary-Redcliffe in Bristol there are three or more column-swallowers
without teeth, one of them feline but the others humanoid. This
should be considered a natural development of the motif and
a hint that perhaps a specific sin is illustrated.
click to enlarge
should anyone doubt the influence of India on Romanesque sculpture,
via the Muslim caliphates, they should consider the doorway
of the 12th century church at Sant Joan de les Abadesses in
Spain. Here, quite apart from very Indian looking masks and
foliage, the elephants
are depicted with amazing accuracy. As late as the 18th century,
few people in Europe knew what an elephant looked like, as witness
Dr Johnson's entry in his famous Dictionary. In 1960 the American
scholar Millard B. Rogers published a study of Indian influence
on the Romanesque sculpture of the Pilgrim
Roads between Poitiers and Santiago de Compostela. The curious
and enquiring travelled the ancient routes over the centuries
along with the merchants, monks and missionaries. And we should
not forget that Ireland, which had a brief but decisive cultural
influence in Western Europe way beyond its size and sophistication,
was more remote and inhospitable to the subjects of the Byzantine
Empire than was India.
mediæval house in Chinon (Indre-et-Loire)
Click to see column-swallowers
and the whole encrusted front of a Romanesque church in Saintonge
Another late adaptation of the motif.
Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 134, f. 98r (Lucifer accompanied
by lesser devils).
Livre de la Vigne nostre Seigneur. France, circa. 1450-1470