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The West Portal of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard

In the late Victorian era, plaster casts of outstanding classical, ancient, and medieval works were mass-produced by various vendors. Just a few museums, like Carnegie Museum of Art, went to extraordinary lengths to develop their own large, unique casts. The West Portal of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, paid for by Andrew Carnegie on the recommendation of art experts, is one of a kind, and is arguably the largest architectural cast ever made.

Since making molds directly from architecture could damage the originals, then-Director of the Museum of Art John Beatty faced problems in getting permission for large, unique casts. In the case of Saint Gilles, a gift of 2,000 gold francs to the town of Gard bought permission—the thank-you note from the mayor is in the museum’s archive. It took three different shiploads from France to bring the 195 packing cases with the Saint Gilles facade to New York, and a series of flatcars to bring it to the Shadyside Station.

The west portal cast is 38-feet high, 87-feet 3-inches wide, and the molds were destroyed when removing the plaster replicas. The plaster (with a binder of horse hair) has been tinted reddish brown, following the good advice of the plaster makers, giving the facade a warm, antique appearance.

Postcards of Saint Gilles feature the symbol of
the wounded deer.

For generations the facade of Saint Gilles has inspired Pittsburghers, especially young artists who make illustrations of its details. The dominant presence in the hall, it is especially popular during the holiday season, and it has always served as a remarkable setting for public activities.

Why Saint Gilles?
The West Portal of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard is considered by many to be the most beautiful of all the great Romanesque portals and the culminating example of the Provencal Romanesque in southern France. This region, so close to Italy, soon showed the influence of Christian Rome in church architecture, and the façade of Saint Gilles is noted for having an early sculptural treatment of the Passion of Christ. The abby still exists and is a tourist attraction today.

The west portal was constructed during more than a century of craftsmanship in the 12th century, as medieval artists in the southern province of Languedoc exercised their creative fancies in stone carving. They drew upon images from Roman and Biblical tradition to express the story of Christ on a church devoted to a saintly recluse, Saint Gilles.

Saint Gilles (c. 650-710 AD) was a hermit priest who lived in the forest near the Gard River, a tributary of the Rhone where it empties into the Mediterranean. Born in Greece (legend has it he came from a noble Athenian family), during his youth he crossed the sea to Rome where he became a priest. As a missionary he wandered to southern France, where his reputation for humility and holiness drew so many admirers that he eventually retreated to become a hermit into the deep woods, where his sole companion was a female deer (hind).

Saint Giles and the Hind, c. 1500. by the Master of Saint Giles. [The French Gilles is spelled “Giles” in Great Britain].

The details of Saint Gilles life vary with the telling, but certain elements remain common. The story tells of how the king’s hunters struck a lily-white hind with an arrow, and tracked the deer to its refuge in a cave. In the cave lived the saintly hermit, who protected the animal. Incensed at the cruelty of the king’s hunters to a helpless animal, Saint Gilles reproved the king. The king, touched by the behavior of the humble, white-haired old man, became contrite. He promised to build a holy place at the site, and later revisited the Saint several times. The reclusive Saint Gilles took disciples, saw the construction of a church begin, and placed it under the rule of St. Benedict.

The cult of Saint Gilles spread rapidly and far through Europe in the Middle Ages, as witnessed by some 19 places that bear his name in France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, and the British Isles. During the crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Abbey of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard was a refuge for pilgrims and crusaders on their way to the Holy Land through the ports of southern France.

For religious pilgrims and the illiterate masses, the story of Christ was seen and explained through visual sculptures and carvings on the façade of the church. The west portal of the church signified arrival for the pilgrim, who then proceeded inside (and east, in the direction of the Holy Land) towards the ultimate goal, the reliquary shrine at the east end. There, pilgrims would kneel before the saint’s shrine and touch or kiss it to be in closest proximity to Saint Gilles.

During the religious wars of the 16th century, the French Huguenots (Protestants) used the church as a citadel, ordered it razed, and left it in ruins. The broken faces of the religious sculptures are testimony of this violent time. In the 17th and 18th centuries there were efforts to rebuild the rest of the church, but they were only partially successful.

Still, the west portal survived as a luxurious example of the early Romanesque style. It was this fame that recommended it to the art experts that Andrew Carnegie assembled in 1907. They fulfilled their task: to identify the greatest sculptures and architectural pieces from antiquity to be displayed for the public in the new, vast (and at the time largely empty) Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

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