The Master of Cabestany

I love good historical fiction, the kind written by historians with a knack for spinning a tale. The trouble is, the good ones are few and exceedingly far between. For every Name of the Rose, there are thousands of cliched imitations, where the history is just part of the decor. The few great ones keep me wading (selectively) through the dross, because even bad books beat television in my snooty worldview. Not long ago I read one that was so bad, I couldn’t put it down. I kept reading, taking pleasure in how awful it was; the terribly contrived plot, the villain who defied space, time, and any other constraints of mere realism, plot twists that weren’t. In all that schadenfreude, I’d missed that one of the characters was not a historical pastiche, but a presumed real person, or persons. I won’t dignify the book by naming it, but that great guy of history is known as the Master of Cabestany, an unknown itinerant sculptor of the later half of the 12th century.

I discovered his non-fictionhood at an abbey we stopped at while exploring the Cathar region of France around Carcassonne (side note: go to Carcassonne if you haven’t. You’re welcome.) The stop was a random one. We were looking for something else to see on our way back to home base, and the name Saint Papoul was too good to pass up. (Saint Papoul? Who was Saint Papoul? Can I adopt him as the patron saint of words that are fun to say? Papoul Papoul…) There, lo’ and behold, I discovered the Master. The abbey is dotted with small sculptures by him and had a exhibition with plaster copies of his work from other churches. I was instantly smitten. Nothing is known about him, the Master, that is, not Saint Papoul. The idea of him took shape in the 1930s when attentive art historians noted the exceptional and usual quality of a Romanesque tympanum discovered during the restoration of a church in Cabestany, hence his name. Other stylistically similar works have been attributed to him or at least to his workshop, 121 in all so far, in southwestern France, northeastern Spain, and Italy. His human figures are marked by triangular heads, large, almond eyes, and large hands with long fingers. Compositionally, his works have a lot of movement and depth; animals and people swoop though the scene and loom out of the background.

Saint Papoul was our “in” to this discovery. Saint Hilaire is where one of his masterworks lies, the reliquary of Saint Saturnin, he who was martyred by being tied to a wild bull.

This one is not by my man the Master, I just find it amusing.

Not everything is high-minded at Saint Papoul. This is from the abbot’s (ahem) private quarters.

I hope I’m not the only one thinking this is crying out for a pilgrimage route: the Master of Cabestany trail. The itinerary of an unknown itinerant.

Cheers! (Or should I say bottoms up?)