Monumental Brass Society

Olivier de la Chapelle and wifow Arthuse de Melun

Date of Brass:
1508/9 and 1526
La Chapelle-Rainsouin
Incised slab


May 2005

With May's brass of the month feature, it is a case of two for the price of one. These two fine incised effigial slabs, made from a white, fine-grained limestone (probably Caen stone) are currently mounted on the west wall of the north, seigneurial chapel of the church of Saint-Sixte, Chapelle-Rainsouin, in the department of Mayenne (53), France.

The earlier slab (2.2 x 1.1m approx) to Olivier de la Chapelle (d.1508/9) shows the figure of a man attired in armour of the period with a tabard bearing his arms (gules, a cross or) and with his feet on a hunting hound. By his knees are a plumed helmet and a pair of gauntlets.

The other slab (2.1 x 1.1m approx) is to Olivier’s widow, Arthuse de Melun (d.1526), which depicts her in the dress properly befitting her social status.

There are several features common to both monuments. Evidently, both figures are drawn within richly decorated, round-headed architectural recesses, each as a kind of deep niche, with an inscription on a semi-circular fillet above reading, ‘In sola misericordia dei mei spero salvari’. However, whilst in the case of Arthuse’s figure this design works reasonably well, as she is depicted within the niche, standing upon a platform which bows outwards towards the spectator and hemmed in by columns of weepers, then the same concept exemplified by Olivier’s slab is less successful. It demonstrates the classic paradox of depicting the traditional model of a gisant – a recumbent effigy, with the feet resting on a animal and the head on a cushion, and with the accoutrements of war laid down by his side - but effectively “standing” within a hugely elaborate Renaissance-style architectural compartment. The crude perspective of the base and its chequered flooring reveal the depth of the recess, emphasised equally by the scalloping effects of the semi-circular arch above his head.

Secondly, the engraved lines of both slabs are filled with original black pitch or a red mastic, emphasising the rich decoration in, for example, the columns and flooring. A further similarity is in the use of various inlays, whether stone or metal, which would have handsomely complemented the visual display; numerous indentations remain, the beds of which retain some pitch and demonstrate a few drill holes recording their original means of being secured into the slab. Both monuments most likely bore inscriptions on these thick marginal fillets of either marble or brass; Olivier’s head and hands, the roundels at the corners and heraldic devices halfway down the long sides were also of an inlaid material. Something of the effect can be realised even today, as the inlays for Arthuse’s face, wimple and hands survive, and are of a distinct, faintly-pinkish marble.

Although now mounted morally, until 1821 these two slabs were horizontal, supported physically by statuesque stone lions in a sejeant erect posture, probably one at each corner. Curiously, they “held” shields and lozenges with the La Chapelle and de Melun arms. Four of these supporters still survive and are now embedded in the wall of the chapel, positioned ostensibly to prop up the slabs mounted above them. The original arrangement seems akin to that of the gisant of Saint-Ronan (late 15th century) at Locronan, Finistère (29), or the famous tomb of Philippe Pot, of the same period, now in the Louvre.

These two beautiful slabs are just one means of commemorating this family of La Chapelle however. Their heraldry is found in profusion throughout the church, which Olivier hugely enlarged towards the start of the 16th century. In addition, a separate chapel on the south side of the church was built and dedicated to Saint-Julien-de-Brioude (the patron saint of bodily malformation), in memory of Julien, the son and heir of Olivier and Arthuse, who died aged 16 years in 1522, predeceasing his mother. In commemorating him equally on a personal level Arthuse commissioned a craftsman from Le Mans, Gervais Duval, to sculpt a remarkable “Sepulchre” which was located in its own enclosure opening up off the seigneurial chapel, and which effectively portrayed the burial of Julien as Christ. A stunningly elegant group of figures clusters around the body of Christ laid out on a plain tombchest; the most natural but charismatic figure of Mary Magdalene is deemed to have been modelled on Arthuse herself. The whole is immensely evocative of the supreme piety of the lady Arthuse; her husband and son and heir were dead, so her only role was to ensure their souls’ salvation before following suit herself. The sculptural grouping also invokes a natural, humanist pity for the death of her only son, and with him, the ultimate demise of the resident seigneurial family.

The name ‘G[ervaise] Duval’ was recorded by the Abbé Angot as being engraved on a statue of Saint-Julien in the chapel. The sculptural quality of this work resonates strongly in the sepulchre and seigneurial chapel altar, so Duval’s intimate collaboration with Arthuse in orchestrating her commemorative schemes invites speculation as to whether he was also responsible for the incised slabs. Fortunately, there is a record of a contract made in January 1509 which describes Gervaise Duval as a tomb engraver of Le Mans. It specified that Duval was to engrave “une tombe de cuivre” with the figures of a man in armour and his lady, under a canopy, with a shield at each corner and an inscription around the whole composition. This documentary reference suggests strongly that Duval would have been skilled at incorporating brass fillets into the designs of incised slabs and was no doubt responsible for the production of those at La Chapelle-Rainsouin. The slab to Jean Margerie (d.1512) at Baroche-Goudouin, Mayenne, is very similar to these, and it still retains along one side a thin fillet of brass incised with an inscription in Gothic minuscules, as well as a brass shield.

Further examples of incised slabs which were most likely produced by Duval in this region of France can be identified stylistically. The use of a semi-circular arched niche to house the effigy and the inclusion of the invocation ‘Spes mea in misericordia Dei est’ are characteristic; slabs at Clermont Abbey (53) to Abbot Yves Tronsson (1506) and Château-l’Hermitage (72) to two unknown knights, for example, are clearly by the same hand as those at La Chapelle-Rainsouin. Without an appreciation of these monuments contextualised within Arthuse’s much bigger scheme of family commemoration in the church, however, the link between the signed statue of Saint-Julien and ultimately a sculptural attribution for the slabs might well have been overlooked. Monuments must be examined in their setting, as they were meant to be, to appreciate their exemplifications to the full.


M. de Caumont, Bulletin Monumental, XX (1854)

Abbé A. Angot, Épigraphie de la Mayenne, 2 vols (1907)

Abbé A. Angot, Armorial Monumental de la Mayenne (1913)

Francis Salet, ‘La Chapelle-Rainsouin’, Congrès Archéologique (Maine, 1961)

Dictionnaire des Églises de France (1967)

© Paul Cockerham

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