A curious figure named Leo became the bishop of Tours in the year 526. As a priest, his teachings were well-received, and no complaints were written against his theological views by his contemporaries or successors. In terms of a lasting legacy, whereas other bishops were remembered for constructing houses of worship, setting new religious codes, or producing written documents, Leo found a unique way to make a name for himself—he was an artist. When Leo became bishop in 526, he brought with him his paint brushes, sculpting tools, and wood carving equipment. A functioning workshop was set up in Tours and it was there that Bishop Leo could always be found during the personal time granted him between his more priestly duties as head of the bishopric. In his art, Leo dabbled in a variety of mediums, but woodworking was apparently his favorite passion and wooden artworks made up the majority of his projects.
Bishop Leo was skilled at his artistic craft, and he developed a process that allowed him to quickly churn out artworks in quick succession. The time he spent in his workshop was almost obsessive, and from accounts of his period as bishop, Leo could be described as possibly paying more attention to his art than to his duties as the head of the bishopric. These dueling attentions might have led to friction between the bishop and his fellow clergymen if he had not won them over by using his artistic skills to adorn the churches in Tours with specially-crafted art installations. What most impressed the people of Tours were Bishop Leo’s baptismal font covers, carved from wood and either painted or plated with gold. These covers and the interesting holy man who made them were mentioned by one of Leo’s later successors, Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594, bishop from 573). Gregory wrote, “[Leo’s] hobby was wood-carving. He made a number of pyramidal font-covers, which he then gilded. We still have some of them today. He was talented in other handicrafts, too” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, X.31).
Unfortunately, Leo’s artistic reign as bishop of Tours was incredibly short. After running the bishopric for only six months in 526, Leo died of unknown causes. During those few months, however, Leo had been busy creating artworks that would outlive him and impress further generations of people in Tours.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of carpenters from a 14th century manuscript of the Decisions of Isaiah of Trani the Younger (labeled BL Or 5024, f. 184v in the British Library), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and Europeana).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.