Beard Pulling in Medieval Christian Art: Various Interpretations of a Scene

Beard Pulling in Medieval Christian Art: Various Interpretations of a Scene

By Ekaterina Endoltseva and Andrey Vinogradov

ANASTASIS. Research in Medieval Culture and Art, Volume 3, Number 1, 2016

Corbel with a pair of beard pulling acrobats, from l’Abbaye de La Sauve-Majeure

Introduction: Christian iconography contains a lot of subjects with unclear interpretation. More difficult are the cases where unclear subjects could have several possible interpretations. That is the case of the scene where one man is pulling out the beard of another one or two men are pulling beards of each other.

It can be seen on some Christian objects dating back to the Late Antiquity and Middle Ages. The semantic meaning of such a gesture and of beard in general in the medieval culture of the West and East was studied by Z. Jacoby. Representations of beard pullers are not very frequent. They are present almost exclusively in medieval Christian architectural decoration.

They could be divided in several types. The scenes of secular characters with mutual aggressive pulling of the beard are among the most carefully studied. For example, representations of two men seizing each other by the beards can be seen in manuscripts and sculptural decoration of churches in Western Europe (in Ireland, England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria and Hungary) starting with the 9th century. Antique analogies of this subject are missing.

According to V. Darkevich, representations of fighting men and beard pullers could express anger and discord; they were regarded even as the allegory of a sin. However Z. Jacoby stresses the motif of reconciliation which is frequent on neighboring scenes, also pointing to their buffoonery character. Among the earliest examples of such type are the initials in the Book of Kells (around 800) and the base from the cross in Monasterboice (around 923), both from Ireland.

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