This rare 14th-century statue depicts a little-known saint from Christian history: St. Leonard, the patron saint of prisoners. It comes from the private collection of antique dealer Fernand Reppert, who practiced in Nancy in the first half of the 20th century.
The life of St Leonard is quite special. He was born towards the end of the 5th century and his godfather was Clovis. He remained close to royalty, and had the privilege of pardoning prisoners he considered repentant enough of their actions to be released. His new role as deacon led him to found a hermitage in the Limousin region, in the middle of the forest.
The story goes that during a visit by the king and queen of Aquitaine, the saint prayed for the queen when she was in bed. In gratitude, the king offered Leonardo the portion of forest that his donkey would mark out in 24 hours. From that day on, the saint took in freed prisoners and performed the miracle of creating an inexhaustible spring. He also built a chapel called “Notre Dame de sous les arbres”. He ended his life peacefully, and some would even say that “in death, he worked wonders”.
Romanesque art can be seen in the architecture of the churches, mainly in the tympanums. This was followed by the development of columnar statues, which gradually led to statuary being detached from the walls. However, the general shape of statuary in the round will remain fairly rectilinear in the early Gothic period, as we can see from the one on display in the gallery. The characters’ faces will become more human and distinctive. It’s thanks to their faces and attributes that we can tell the holy figures apart.
We can compare our work with that on display at the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame in Normandy. This limestone statue, nearly 1m high, features Saint Francis (patron saint of deacons) or St. Laurent (a 3rd-century martyr who is said to have been burned alive on a metal grate). It also dates from the 14th century, and traces of polychromy remain. The folds of the garment fall straight down and stop above the foot, as was customary in late 14th-century France. On his left hand we can see a manipule, a strip of cloth worn by priests, deacons and subdeacons from the 9th century onwards, also known as a sudarium in the Middle Ages.
As for our work, made in France, it combines elements typical of the period. First of all, it’s the size of statues made to adorn churches or chapels. His face is typical of the period, with almond-shaped eyes with slightly prominent black pupils, eyebrows marked by polychrome, a straight, aquiline nose and a small, closed mouth covered in red polychrome.
Since he’s a member of the clergy, he’s tonsured and his remaining hair is styled vertically with very slight waves. On the right-hand side, between his hair and his collar, we can see the trace of a drill bit. This small drill was used to reach into difficult-to-reach recesses in order to clear them. We can also see a few wrinkles around his lips, as well as prominent ears – faces were very figurative in those days. In the 14th century, as life became more difficult, artists began to depict emotions on the faces of characters, so that the faithful would not feel alone in their suffering.
St Leonard was a deacon, from the Greek “diakonos” meaning servant, and was in charge of distributing alms. He wears the typical medieval deacon’s vestment, i.e. an alb with collar, a diaconal stole and a dalmatic on top. The stole has a slit on each side and protrudes slightly at the front, so we can see the bangs protruding. The folds of the garment fall straight, not in a V as was customary in the 15th century.
The attributes that make it possible to confirm that this is indeed St. Leonard are first and foremost the chains in his right hand, which are of rare precision and highly openwork both inside the rings and along his coat. As the patron saint of prisoners, he freed a number of them in his lifetime, which is why he wears their chains.
In his other hand, like many saints, he carries the Bible. What’s special is that it’s not in his hand, but rests on the top of his fingers, held in place only by his thumb. The artist took the time to carve different pages on the top to make the object more realistic. The book has a fleur-de-lis clasp on the front cover, enabling it to be closed. Symbolizing the importance of relying on Divine Providence in times of sorrow, the Song of Songs speaks of a flower that grows among the brambles: “A lily among the brambles” 2:1, and doesn’t care what’s around it to grow.
His feet are pointed, as was customary in the 14th century, and his right foot protrudes slightly from the base of the sculpture.
The polychromy is original and we can see remnants in various places, mainly on the saint’s face. Numerous tool marks are also visible all over the statue, whether on its head, clothing or back. An old collector’s label, probably stuck on by Mr Reppert, remains on his back. The inscription reads “St Léonard, Normandy, 13th century”. However, on closer examination, we can confirm that this work dates from the 14th century.
Finally, the sculpture may appear simplistic at first glance, but many details are revealed to the viewer. The artist was keen to make his work as realistic as possible, while keeping it as uncluttered as possible, in keeping with the early Gothic tradition of going straight to the point and impressing the beholder. In the Gothic age, statuary will be the link between the demands of the architectural setting and the natural model brought to a climax during the Renaissance.