|Main building of the Episcopal Palace at Beauvais
Passing through this impressive porterie today, the visitor enters the enclosure of the palace that ‘Le grand bâtisseur’, Louis de Villiers, restored in the 16th century. The ornate gardens set off the elegance of the main building which combined flamboyant gothic and Renaissance features to great effect.
Although I did visit the museum’s art collection, it was in fact, part of the mural decorations in the original 14th century towers that caught my attention far more than some of those stodgy early-19th century Neoclassical paintings. Within one of the fortified towers, with its fairy-tale pointed slate roof is a discrete treasure - four ephemeral mermaid figures that seem to float above us on the vaulted ceiling. This fresco with its enigmatic vision of feminity offered my eyes a welcome respite from some of those hefty, heaving female forms of the MUDO collection.
This ceiling painting probably dates back to 1310-1320, shortly after the construction of the entrance. The function of the rooms within the towers is not clear. The presence of latrines and fireplaces indicates that they were inhabited, and it is assumed that some members of the bishop’s household occupied these spaces, rather than the main body of the palace itself. Were they used by members of the clergy or by the wealthy, prestigious family of the bishop, Simon de Clermont de Nesle? The nature of the intended audience would generally affect how the mermaids were to be interpreted; the simple presence of these fishy females was always significant.
Our modern-day image of the mermaid is that of a magical symbol of beauty, peace, light and grace, often associated with rainbows, unicorns and the like. However, these mythological hybrids have a far murkier reputation and legends abound of their sinister practices in cultures around the world. In the epic poem Odyssey, Homer’s malefic mermaids lured sailors onto the rocks with their bewitching siren songs, driving the unsuspecting males to their death. For Ovid, the sirens were the companions of the young Persephone who was destined to be the Queen of the Underworld. It was Demeter, her mother, who had given the sirens wings in order to search for her daughter who had been abducted by Hades. By the Middle Ages, mermaids had largely lost their wings, but had kept their symbolic fish tail and their wicked ways. The mermaid became symbolic of the lascivious female in general, flaunting her feminine charms to ensnare any man foolish enough to fall prey to her attributes. Most mermaid figures were shown playing musical instruments, as is the case here in Beauvais, and often carry a mirror and comb with which to preen themselves. The tempting yet treacherous nature of the mermaid had already been documented in the Bestiaire d’Amour of Richard de Fournival, dating back to the mid 13th century.
"There are three kinds of siren ; two of which are half-woman, half-fish. The third is
half-woman, half-bird… Their melody is so pleasant that nobody can hear it without wanting to draw close."
|Richard de Fournival, Bestiaire d'amour,
In the tower, however, the mermaids do not occupy a marginal position, but rather a key one as they float around the intersection of the rib-vault ceiling. They seem to be the main focus of the artist rather than a quirky after-thought, unlike the usual drôleries (grotesques). Furthermore, these mermaids do not appear to be particularly ill-intentioned, even if they do have the long golden hair, voluptuous nude forms and long scaly, swishing tails of their evil sisters.
|The cornemuse (left) and the viol
|The trompette marine
|The galoubet or flûte de tambourin