Feature – The Raminagrobis Enigma

The Raminagrobis Enigma in a 16th-century Window beside the River Loire

By Laurence RIVIALE, lecturer at Clermont-Ferrand University, Corpus vitrearum France

The parish church of Saint-Vincent at Cour-sur-Loire, beside the River Loire between Blois and Orléans, dates mainly from the 16th century, and its glazing falls into two campaigns, each datable to shortly after a period of construction, the first in the first half, and the second of the second half of the century. Although no evidence has been found – unsurprising, given the complete loss of archives both public and private – the construction campaigns were probably the result of new interest taken in the parish by the local lord, Jacques Hurault, who was appointed trésorier de France, that is, principal treasurer to King Louis XII (whom he followed to Italy) and later to King François I. As one of the prominent officers in the royal and financial administrations, and therefore close to the king, Hurault was wealthy and, even if not personally interested in artistic matters, most probably aware of the artistic novelties brought to France after the wars in Italy.

His interest in the glazing of Saint-Vincent is demonstrated by the eastern Crucifixion window, which bears his personal coat of arms (with a shell of St James above the cross) and was originally intended for the axial bay, but was shifted to the north side of the apse during the 16th century, when a new Baroque altarpiece was installed. Going by its style, this window must have been one of the first to be installed after the construction of the apse. It bears witness to those numerous attempts in Berry, Touraine and Normandy to attempt to marry northern aesthetics and ornamental Italian vocabulary, similar to what can be found in the well-known Certosa of Pavia. The remnants of the other windows in the apse show portraits of Jacques and his son Raoul wearing their coats of arms, which enable the eastern glazing to be dated roughly to before 1528, the date of Raoul’s death.

Fig. 1. Cour-sur-Loire, window 5, legend of the pilgrims of St James, detail of scene number 1 (actually number 5 according to the legend): the miracle of the fowls.

Fig. 1. Cour-sur-Loire, window 5, legend of the pilgrims of St James, detail of scene number 1 (actually number 5 according to the legend): the miracle of the fowls.

The southern aisle of the church is clearly more recent, as is apparent from the tracery shapes and moulding profiles, and was accordingly glazed around the 1540s – 1550s with windows using Italian designs (or pourtraicts) by Giulio Romano taken from later Italian or Flemish engravings.[1] The southern windows were probably due to the generosity of other members of the Hurault family, as a panel with their coat of arms, seen in a black and white photograph from the end of the 19th century, shows.

However, it is the older north aisle, dating to 1490–1525, that is of special interest here, and its only surviving window. This deals with the well-known legend of the pilgrims of St James of Compostella, and was supposedly the gift of Jacques Hurault as well, as he was member of a confraternity of St James of Compostella, and most extant windows in France on the subject were offered by such confraternities.

The window (bay 5) is composed of two registers each divided into three separate units. The original contents of the tracery lights is not known. Each main-light unit is surrounded by a portico in the antique-Italian style from Lombardy widely adopted by the French after the Italian wars. A medallion bearing the profile of a Roman emperor is placed in each spandrel of the porticos. Most of the profiles, among which only three are original, bear names familiar from the Twelve Caesars series derived from Suetonius, such as Julius Caesar, but some are named after out-of-place or unknown characters, such as Raminagrobis (unit 5). To understand the meaning of this medallion, it is necessary to tell the story depicted in the six units of the window.

Reading and interpreting this window has nevertheless become a most delicate enterprise, for no photograph was taken before its restoration between 1884 and 1886 by Steinheil on cartoons by Bonnot. As it is now, the narrative proves incoherent, even if reference is made to the Legenda aurea by Jacopo da Varazze, who told the story as follows.[2]

A couple of pilgrims, father and son, spent a night in an inn, where the landlord, out of pure wickedness, hid a golden bowl in the young boy’s luggage so as to have him arrested the next day. According to 20th-century authors, writing after the restoration, these events would have been the subject of the first two units of the lower register. The boy was then arrested and sentenced to be hanged by the neck, and his father, keen not to cancel his pilgrimage to Compostella, continued on his way. But when he returned to the same place, he went to visit the gallows to see his son, whom he found alive, thanks to the help of St James. The landlord was accordingly hanged in his turn. These events would have been the subject of the last unit in the lower register and the whole of the upper register. But a number of inconsistencies prevent us from understanding the story solely on the basis of Jacopo da Varazze. For instance, if the first scene is the one on the far left in the lower register, in which the father and son are welcomed by the landlord of the inn, why is a lady present and the boy absent? Why is there a maidservant crouching near the fireplace? How can the unusual importance of the landlord’s character be accounted for?

Fig. 2. Cour-sur-Loire, window 5, legend of the pilgrims of St James, detail of scene number 1 (actually number 5 according to the legend): the miracle of the fowls, detail of the fireplace and the maidservant’s gesture.

Fig. 2. Cour-sur-Loire, window 5, legend of the pilgrims of St James, detail of scene number 1 (actually number 5 according to the legend): the miracle of the fowls, detail of the fireplace and the maidservant’s gesture.

A thorough examination proves however that all extant works of art on the subject follow another version, much more widely known, told in various plays, texts and songs, mainly of 15th-century date, and in a kind of pilgrimage guide written by Nompar de Caumont and dated 1417.[3] In this more relevant and appropriate version, it is the maidservant who hides the golden cup among the boy’s belongings, not out of pure wickedness, but out of humiliation and jealousy, because the son prefers God and St James to her feminine charms. When the parents come back, they hurry to the judge to announce the good news of their son’s perfect health thanks to St James. But the judge derides them, declaring that he will believe such a story only when the fowls roasting in the fireplace fly and sing, which they promptly do, causing the judge to commit blasphemy. The servant is then punished and burnt at the stake.

If we try to understand the Cour-sur-Loire window in the light of this second version, we find that everything fits, but only if we accept the so-called first scene as one of the last, or rather, as the turning point of the story and the most important one. Indeed, the exaggerated importance of the ‘landlord’ is explained if he is actually the judge. The absence of the son in its turn is easily explained if the story told in this unit is none other than the indispensable miracle of the fowls itself. And close scrutiny reveals that the maidservant near the unaccountably empty fireplace is pointing to something above that has fled, and which she seems to look at [Figs 1 and 2].

Steinheil and Bonnot must therefore have replaced the various units of the window in an incorrect order, following Jacopo da Varazze’s version. Moreover, further examination shows that the glass above the chimney piece is a 19th-century replacement, as is the maidservant’s head in the second scene. Lost singing and flying fowls may therefore once have been over the chimney piece.

No more evidence is needed here to establish that the Cour-sur-Loire window is definitely nothing other than another instance of the very popular miracle of the fowls, and not at all an unicum. What matters much more here is the reason for which the painter in charge of this window added emperors’ profiles in the spandrels of each portico [Fig. 3]. Such medallions are to be found in various places in Blois and many other location in the Loire valley, Bourges, and in Normandy – all places related to royal or ecclesiastical power as well as of special interest for the new style learnt in Italy. Examples may be found in several houses in Blois built for the nobility, as well as in ornaments made for Cardinal Georges d’Amboise in Gaillon. Manuscripts also bear testimony of the interest in Roman emperors, such as the Twelve Caesars series (actually sixteen) beautifully painted for King François I by Jean Bourdichon around 1520, currently in process of being acquired by the Bibliothèque nationale de France.[4]

That this very manuscript was for certain in the royal library at Blois at the time of the completion of the window must be taken into account, as the supposed donor, Jacques Hurault, was closely associated with the royal court and could have admired Bourdichon’s ‘art of limning’. Minute examination has made it possible to prove that another window in the same parish church, namely the Tree of Jesse, as well as a window in Saint-Secondin at Molineuf, which was probably given by the wealthy and prominent Robertet family, were painted by the same workshop. I have argued elsewhere, on the basis of a manuscript of Flavius Josephus’s Antiquités judaïques, that this workshop could have been that of Jehan Fouquet after his death, as it was probably taken over by his sons. The art of Bourdichon is stylistically very close to that of Fouquet, or at least to that of his workshop.[5]

Fig. 3. Cour-sur-Loire, window 5, legend of the pilgrims of St James, detail of scene number 5 (actually number 3 according to the legend): the young pilgrim is hanged by the neck, with medallions of Roman emperors.

Fig. 3. Cour-sur-Loire, window 5, legend of the pilgrims of St James, detail of scene number 5 (actually number 3 according to the legend): the young pilgrim is hanged by the neck, with medallions of Roman emperors.

Yet if the existence of series of the Twelve Caesars in a royal library manuscript illuminated by Bourdichon helps to explain the choice of such medallions in the window as well as its style, it does not explain the incongruous presence of Raminagrobis. Raminagrobis is indeed a well-known character in La Fontaine’s fable Le chat, la belette et le petit lapin (‘The cat, the weasel and the young rabbit’), where he is described as a greedy and cruel sort of fat cat whom the innocent victims unwisely elect as judge of their litigious property affairs. Raminagrobis brutally puts an end to the trial by eating the poor innocents up. But this is 17th-century moral fable, and it is necessary to trace the origins of the name back.

Earlier evidence of Raminagrobis is to be found in Rabelais’s Tiers livre,[6] in which Panurge seeks advice in the delicate case of deciding whether or not he should get married. Among the learned authorities to which he applies, in hope of receiving the wisest advice, is a ‘un vieil poëte françois’ (‘an old French poet’) whose name is Raminagrobis, and who assumes here the role of the judge. His wisdom proves of no use eventually, as he delivers a Sibylline oracle. But the important point is that Panurge comes with a very singular gift: a white fowl that bursts into song and shakes his feathers as soon as he crosses the threshold. Most scholars have argued that a singing white cockerel can only allude to Plato’s gift to Aesculapius, quoted in Rabelais. But knowledge of the very popular miracle of the fowls enables one to propose another, albeit not exclusive, interpretation, providing us with the missing link essential for understanding the motive for chosing Raminagrobis in the window [Fig. 4].

As Michael Screech has demonstrated, the difficulty with Rabelais, as so often in the Renaissance, is the frequently cryptic meaning of the words, sentences and symbols.[7] According to most scholars, Raminagrobis, naively accused by Panurge of being a heretic, is nevertheless a most positive character, who is to be identified with Jean Lemaire de Belges, whom Rabelais particularly appreciated and admired. Yet given the traditional meaning found in medieval plays of the expression ‘faire du raminagrobis’ – to boast, be conceited and proud, (and even) to imitate judges – Raminagrobis should on the contrary be considered a negative character.

The key to this enigma can be found in Rabelais’s Pantagruel, where the very same Jean Lemaire de Belges, now dead and spending eternity in Inferno with other wise people like Diogenes, is allowed to judge popes and kings, in the same way that bad sovereigns and prelates judged good and innocent folk on earth. Jean Lemaire is indeed a Raminagrobis in Inferno, as everything, explains Rabelais, will be reversed there: the wicked will be ill treated and the good rewarded, as for instance Epictetus.[8]

Fig. 4. Cour-sur-Loire, window 5, detail of scene number 5 (actually number 3 according to the legend): detail of Raminagrobis.

Fig. 4. Cour-sur-Loire, window 5, detail of scene number 5 (actually number 3 according to the legend): detail of Raminagrobis.

Rabelais wrote his Tiers livre and Quart livre much later than Jacques Hurault and perhaps his fellow companions of St James offered their window. But the meaning of Raminagrobis is revealed to us by the French writer: so Raminagrobis in the window must simply be an aide-mémoire for the viewer of the wicked and blasphemous character of the judge in the legend, in the fashion of marginalia, or function as a kind of gloss.

Now why should Raminagrobis assume the character of a Roman emperor? The transposition of a traditional and heroic series of Roman emperors after Suetonius into a colloquial kind of visual langage relating to pilgrims’ songs and plays is very much in keeping with medieval culture, in which for instance, organa and sacred masses were composed on the melody of mundane songs. Such a tradition is not far from the Renaissance way of thinking and writing, as a close reading of Rabelais demonstrates.

Thus it seems that an emperor who assumes the role of a bad judge is simply one who usurps his imperium, precisely as Agrippa, the proconsul who ordered St James’s beheading, did; and the place chosen for Raminagrobis in the window is none other than the fifth one, where the young pilgrim is hanged by the neck.

It is through the few such rich instances of abundant cultural references as the window at Cour-sur-Loire that we can hope to get close to the most educated minds, as well as the most mundane, of the early 16th century.


1. See Laurence Riviale, ‘L’usage des modèles gravés dans l’atelier du peintre verrier : l’exemple de Giulio Romano’, Vitrail et arts graphiques, XVe-XVIe siècles, Cahiers de l’École nationale du Patrimoine, 4, 1999, pp. 83–99.
2. Jacques de Voragine, La légende dorée, Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1967, 2 vols, I, pp. 476–77.
3. Nompar de Caumont, Le voiatge à Saint-Jacques en Compostelle, in British Library, Egerton MS 890, fols 104v–112v; see especially fol. 107 r–v, quoted by J. Vieillard, in Le guide du pèlerin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, Mâcon, Protat frères, 1963, pp. 133–40. For exhaustive literature on the subject, see Laurence Riviale, ‘Les vitraux du XVIe siècle consacrés à la légende du « pendu-dépendu »: nouvelles informations iconographiques’, Histoire de l’art, 40, May 1998, pp. 113–25, nn. 4 and 5.
4. Description des douze Césars avec leurs figures, Tours, c.1520, illuminated by Jean Bourdichon for François I. For further information on this manuscript, see http://www.bnf.fr/fr/acces_dedies/mecenat_partenariat/s.mecenat_douze_cesars.html?first_Art=non (accessed 12 January 2015).
5. ‘Fouquet après Fouquet : “enluminure du Val de Loire” et peinture sur verre’, Revue de l’Art, 156, 2007-2, pp. 45–54.
6. François Rabelais, Le Tiers livre (critical edition of the text published in 1552 by Michel Fezandat), Paris, 1995, chapter XXII, p. 104.
7. Michael Screech, Rabelais, trans. Marie-Anne de Kisch, Paris, 1992, pp. 498–99 (English edition London, 1979).
8. Rabelais, Pantagruel, in Oeuvres complètes, Paris, 1994, p. 326. See also the Quart livre, ibid., p. 655: ‘Icy, de par tous les diables, ne sont ilz haerectiques comme feut Raminagrobis, et comme ilz sont parmy les Almaignes, et Angleterre.’

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