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Arbois (Municipality, Jura, France)

Last modified: 2010-07-03 by
Keywords: jura | arbois | pelican |
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image by Pascal Vagnat


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Presentation of the city

Arbois is a city of ca. 4,000 inhabitants located in the department of Jura, region and traditional province of Franche-Comté. As the capital of the Jura wine-producing area, Arbois is the host of the Biou festival (fête du Biou), every first Sunday of September, the day of St. Just, patron of the city. The biou is made of alternating horizontal layers of bunches of white (yellow) and red (purple) grapes fastened to a metallic heart-shaped frame. The top of the biou is ornated with flowers and a small French Tricolore flag flanked by two Arbois flags. The biou can be heavier than 100 kg, depending of the year (the bunches are given by the wine-growers of the area). The biou is carried by four wine-growers through the city streets into the church, where it is blessed and hung for one to three weeks.

Source: J. Aoun. Fêtes et folklores de France. France-Loisirs,1999 (with a colour picture of the biou)

Arbois is the birth city of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), the famous microbiologist and physician (who was in fact born in Dole but spent most of his life in Arbois). Pasteur is said to have joined every year the Biou festival. He owned himself a vineyard and did several experiments about alcoholic fermentation and improvement of wine and beer production. Pasteur's vineyard wine is still produced and sold every year at astronomical price.

Ivan Sache, 21 November 1999


Description of the flag

The colours are simply those of the coat of arms of the city which is de sable au pélican d'or avec sa piété dans une aire du même that is a yellow pelican, which feeds its children with its own blood, on a black field. It is a religious symbol.

Source: M.P. Pidoux Le drapeau franc-comtois - Notes d'histoire et d'iconographie, in:Académie des sciences, belles-lettres et arts de Besançon. Procès verbaux et mémoires. Années 1915-1916-1917-1918.

Pascal Vagnat, 21 November 1999

The origin and interpretation of the pelican 'in her piety' is explained in Êmile Mâle's book L'art religieux du XIIIe siècle en France. Mâle (1862-1954) was an art historian and medievist, who completely renovated the understanding of the medieval iconography in his book, published for the first time in 1898 and reedited eight times until 1948, each new release being corrected and completed by the author. Mâle's accurate and lively style was (and is still) highly estimated not only by specialists but also by a general audience and novelists. In Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, all discussions on medieval religious art are based on Emile Mâle. Proust had a long and enthusiastic correspondence with Mâle and included some parts of Mâle's book with nearly no change, in his own book (probably with permission). Before Mâle, the Romantic and Preraphaelit medievists already understood that most of the religious iconography had a symbolic value, but usually missed its meaning. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and his school interpreted the symbols according to their own views, since they believed Middle Ages were a period of darkness and ignorance. Mâle opposed to such views and, as a paleograph, was able to read and understand most ot the medieval manuscripts and textbooks. He claimed that symbols had to be found in those books and that interpretation of the iconography should be based only on medieval sources.

The representation of beasts in the medieval iconography (including the famous four beasts associated to the four Evangelists) has its source in the Bestiaries. The original Bestiary, called Physiologus, dates back to the second century. It included a mix of fables by Ctesius, Plinus and Elianus and mystical comments appended by the first Christians. There is no remains of the Physiologus, but the book spread all over the Christian world, and was rapidly translated into Greek and Armenian. In the XIth century, it was translated into German. A century later, the Anglo-Normand poet Philip de Thaon translated it into French. In the XIIIth century, a new translation was given by Guillaume le Normand. Pope Gelasus tried to ban the book because of its pagan roots, but failed because of the popularity of the book, which had been authoritatively quoted by St. Augustine, St. Ambrosius and St. Gregor the Great. Medieval scientists such as Vincent de Beauvais, Bartholomew de Glanville and Thomas deCantimpre validated the 'data' included in the Bestiaries without further questioning them.

The knowledge included in the Bestiaries was popularized by the Speculum Ecclesiae (The Church's Mirror), a sermon anthology written by Honorius d'Autun. Honorius wrote sermons for the main religious festivals into verses. The rhymes probably contributed to the great spread of the book, which was written in the beginning of the XIIth century but was still very popular in the XIIIth century. Every sermon is identically framed: Honorius first describes the event of Jesus' life celebrated on that particular day, then finds a matching event in the Old Testament (considered as a premonition of the New Testament), and finally finds a matching natural symbol in the animal life. Honorius was the first preacher to associate those three kinds of events in sermons. A comparative study showed that most animal representations in the French medieval iconography were based on the Speculum Ecclesiae, rather than being individual interpretations of the Bestiaries: animals mentioned in the Bestiaries but not reused by Honorius are seldom or never shown in medieval iconography.

The pelican 'in her piety' is shown for instance on a stone frieze in the cathedral of Strasbourg and on stained-glass windows in the cathedrals of Bourges, Chartres, Le Mans and Tours. The pelican, according to Honorius (Sp. Ecc., De Paschali dei, 936), is one of the symbols of the Resurrection, along with the lion resurrecting her cubs, the phoenix rising from her own ashes, and prophet Jonas emerging from the whale. The pelican was said to kill her own fledglings and resurrecting them three days later by slashing her chest and shedding the fledglings with her own blood, the same way God resurrected His Son on the Third Day.

Ivan Sache, 26 October 2002

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