Thornpuller

October 1, 2006

An anguished youth crouches, foot upraised, trying to remove a thorn using a grotesquely oversized implement. His expressively contorted posture exemplifies a medieval adaptation of a Classical sculptural subject, the spinario or "thornpuller."

The Greco-Roman examples portray a nude, seated, and self-absorbed youth calmly examining his foot after picking out a thorn with his fingers. In this medieval version, however, we see a fully-clothed youth and a gruesome exaggeration of the thornpuller's activity. His anguished expression stems from more than just physical pain; medieval Christians believed that sickness was caused by sin. Gregory of Tours described illness as "incursio diaboli," an invasion of the body by the Devil.

The youth's grimace echoes the hideous expressions of demons and the sinners they torment in Romanesque church sculptures in nearby Burgundy. Examples may be seen on the faÁades of the churches at Autun and VÈzelay, perhaps put there as object lessons for sick pilgrims on the efficacy of faith and miraculous cures.

On medieval French and Italian portal sculptures, the thornpuller often appears in Zodiac and Labors of the Months cycles, where he personifies March, which was thought to rule the feet. Until recently, Duke's Thornpuller was believed to have been a "jamb figure," typically situated either over or on the side of a doorway.

A few years ago, however, Neil Stratford, keeper emeritus of medieval and later antiquities at the British Museum, identified it as a corbel, a decorative, carved sculpture that often depicts humorous or contorted, grotesque subjects. (Stratford was a visiting professor at Duke this past spring and used the Nasher's medieval collection, including the corbel, in his teaching).

Corbels are positioned at the juncture of a wall and ceiling and are intended to be seen from below. As a result of Stratford's finding, the Thornpuller was installed in the museum at a height of seven feet and rotated 90 degrees to reflect the proper orientation for a corbel.