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Category Archives: Great Portals

The Porte Miègeville was so named because it was at the end of the street which connected the great suburban basilica of Saint-Sernin to the centre of Toulouse.

sernin-m-15-49The stone carved relief ensemble above the entrance was perhaps the first fully realised Romanesque monumental work, and has been dated to the first decade of the twelfth century.

The portal sculpture is carved out of white marble.

Paul the Silentiary, a sixth century Byzantine poet, when describing the newly built Hagia Sophia at Constantinople, wrote that white marble was a “visual signifier of the sacred”. The white marble of Toulouse was intended to represent the omnipresence of God.

sernin-m-15-50Every element from the tympanum, the lintel, the spandrels and consoles down to the four capitals which surmount the columns either side of the doorway, were combined to form a complex yet coherent visual discourse on the theme of the Ascension.

The Miègeville tympanum shows a very human Christ being physically supported by a pair of seraphim. This type of portrayal of the Ascension had been largely abandoned from the fifth century to be replaced by a more stylised, frontal image of Christ enveloped in a mandorla.

sernin-m-15-182The change had reflected the Trinitarian concerns in the wake of the Arian controversy and the formulation of the Nicene Creed which had led to a greater emphasis on Christ’s divine nature.

However, the theme of the Miègeville sculptural programme is taken from an exegetical tradition derived from early Greek writers and which had been transmitted to the West by Ambrose of Milan. These authors interpreted and amplified Psalm Twenty-Four as a prophetic text describing the Ascension.

sernin-m-15-104The carved console image of King David, credited as the Psalm’s author, on the upper left of the doorway is an indication of that connection.

The Psalm asks, “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?” answering that it will be the “King of glory”.

There is then a repeated refrain of  “Who is this King of glory?” and calls for the Gates of Heaven to be lifted to allow him passage through.

sernin-m-15-227Ambrose and his predecessors proposed that as Christ rose from earth, he was not recognised by the angels of Heaven because of his human form.

“The angels, they also doubted when the Christ resuscitated, when they saw that the flesh ascended from the earth to the heavens”, wrote Ambrose.

Taking his cue from the Psalm, Ambrose continued, “They said then: who is this King of glory?” The halo surrounding Christ proclaims him Rex, as well as Deus and Pater.

That the angels of Heaven, themselves, had failed to recognise Christ’s divinity at the immediate moment of his passage from the terrestrial to the celestial sernin-m-15-214made the miraculous nature of the Ascension more evident.

It also emphasised the notion that Christ was the first to ascend from Earth to Heaven and the first to be transformed from the human to the spiritual, paving the way for the future redemption of humanity.

The sceptre bearing angels of the Miègeville tympanum represent Christ’s escort, who according to Gregory of Nazianzus, call out to the angels guarding Heaven and “command that the doors raise their lintels to receive him who is grown in stature by the Passion.”

Throughout the rest of the sculptural programme are elements which reinforce and expand this interpretation of the Ascension.

sernin-m-15-78The console opposite King David the Psalmist, depicts two shepherds who have dominated a pair of lions, a familiar symbol of Death.

They each have one foot shod, the other bare. These so-called monosandaloi were known throughout the Classical and Celtic worlds as figures representing a transition from one state to another as in the case of the Ascension above them.

The narrative arc of the sculptural programme begins with the capitals on either side of the doorway.

sernin-m-15-73Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise and an angel guides Adam away from Eden to be separated from direct contact with the Divine and condemned to mortality.

The angel who bars Adam from the Gates to Paradise is intended as the antithesis of the angels of the tympanum who call for the Gates to be reopened.

Immediately to the left of the angel, a naked figure holds a billowing drapery. Such figures were familiar from Roman sarcophagi where the cloth represented the vault of Heaven. At Miègeville, the deflated drape suggests the temporary abeyance of Grace and Salvation.

sernin-m-15-187The loss of Paradise represented by the Fall is opposed on the left side by the promise of regaining Paradise as represented by the Incarnation, here depicted by the capital of the Visitation and the Annunciation.

This capital is paired with the Massacre of the Innocents, a prefiguration of Christ’s sacrifice and Passion, the necessary prerequisite for this Redemption.

A reused sarcophagus forms the lintel and shows the apostles gazing up heavenwards. At each end are the angels reminding them that the Ascension was a prefiguration of the Second Coming.

sernin-m-15-17To the left an angel holds up an open scroll to which he draws the attention of the apostle who stands adjacent.

At the far right the second angel points to a closed book, while the apostle turns away in a gesture of refusal.

The Old and New Testaments. Time before and time after the Incarnation, the closed book the hidden mystery of the Second Coming, a reference to Matthew Twenty-four, “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only”.

On each side of the tympanum are a pair of spandrel reliefs of apostles, Peter and James the Major, who express the Mission of the Apostles which is implicit in the lintel depiction of the college of the apostles at the Ascension.

sernin-m-15-142The spandrels are placed over pedestals, each of which depicts a form of heresy relevant to the general theme of the sculptural programme. Beneath James, Montanus, one of the most celebrated of early church heretics.

A priest of the cult of the Goddess Cybele who had converted to Christianity, along with his two female disciples Priscilla and Maximilla, Montanus claimed to be a prophet. The two acolytes ride lions, a reference to the goddess Cybele’s iconographic attribute.

sernin-m-15-24Symbols of Death, the lions which appear elsewhere on the Miègeville portal are dominated and subject. The exception is the Montanus pedestal, where Priscilla and Maximilla mounted astride their animals represent Death unvanquished, an opposing polarity to the triumph over Death of the tympanum.

Saint Peter stands over a pair of lions and below him is the pedestal which contains the figure of Simon Magus being consoled by two demons.

A parodic antithesis to Christ’s Ascension, Simon Magus had claimed the supernatural powers which would enable him to fly. The inscription next to him reads, “Confounded by his magical art, Simon is defeated by his own weapons”.

sernin-m-15-198The relief of Saint James shows him framed between two sprouting trees.

This iconography is at odds with his typical attribute of the scallop shell, however it is duplicated on the Puerta de las Platerías at Compostela with which the Miègeville Saint James bears such a striking similarity.

The relief of Compostela was intended for a programme dedicated to the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor and the Miègeville James reprises that most significant element of James’ identity.

Opposite is the figure of Saint Peter, also present at the Transfiguration. He bears the keys to heaven and flanked by the standard of the Church and the Eucharistic vine.

sernin-m-15-3Saint-Sernin’s pivotal place in the Compostelan universe is powerfully affirmed by these spandrel reliefs, Saint Peter and Saint James, Rome and Compostela and the two evangelisers of the West.

Saint-Sernin had resisted Cluny’s attempts to absorb the Tolosian shrine into its federation as it made a concerted attempt to dominate the pilgrimage roads to Compostela in the 1080’s. Despite a number of reversals, the canons of Saint-Sernin had managed to keep control.

The programme of the Miègeville portal is distinctly different from the sculptural ensembles to be found in the Cluniac centres elsewhere in the south-west of France, at Moissac, Beaulieu, Carennac and Cahors, which all bore the heavy imprint of the Burgundian style which emanated from the mother abbey.

Further along the pilgrimage road an almost identical Ascension as the one at Toulouse is featured on the triptych porch relief of the Puerta del Perdón at San Isidoro de León which was an important reliquary shrine, similarly maintained by canons under the Rule of Saint Augustine.

Sources and Biblio: La porte Miégeville de Saint-Sernin de Toulouse : Cluny III and the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, O. K. Werckmeister. Gesta Volume 27, Number 1/2 | 1988

The Politics of Selective Eclecticism: Monastic Architecture, Pilgrimage Churches, and “Resistance to Cluny”, Thomas W. Lyman. Gesta, Vol. 27, No. 1/2, Current Studies on Cluny (1988), pp. 83-92

Notes on the Porte Miègeville Capitals and the Construction of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse, Thomas W. Lyman. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Mar., 1967), pp. 25-36

La porte Miégeville de Saint-Sernin de Toulouse : proposition d’analyse iconographique, Olivier Testard, Mémoires de la Société archéologique du Midi de la France., t. LXIII (2003), pp. 25-61


The  collegiate palatine basilica of Saint Isidore at León lay on the pilgrimage road to Compostela. The church featured two, south facing entrances, both bearing important Romanesque portal reliefs. leon-perdon063The Puerta del Corderón was near the western end of the nave.

The portal of the south transept was known as the Puerta del Perdón and it was the entrance used by the pilgrims.

On their way to Santiago they came to León to venerate the relics of Saint Isidore.

Its carved tympanum is composed of a triptych design. A central image of the Deposition from the Cross is flanked by panels on each side which attest to Christ’s victory over death. leon-perdon005On the right the Discovery of the Empty Tomb and on the left, the Ascension.

On either side of the tympanum are spandrel reliefs of the apostles Peter and Paul.

The porch bears a strong resemblance both in architectural design and iconography to the Porte Miègeville at Saint Sernin de Toulouse.

The sculptural style, which has been attributed to the same Master Esteban who worked at the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, can also be considered to have a degree of similarity with that of Toulouse.

leon-perdon029The Deposition panel depicts Jesus being brought down, after he has died on the cross, by Nicodemus who is wielding a pair of pliers to extract the nail from his left hand.

Joseph of Arimathea cradles the dead body as it is lowered.

A grieving Mary holds her cheek against the right hand. Her presence at the scene is not mentioned in the canonical gospels but is included in the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus.

leon-perdon007To the right an angel opens the lid of the sarcophagus indicating to the visiting Myrrophores, the three Mary’s, Magdalene, Salome and Jacobi, who have come bearing perfume to embalm the corpse, that the tomb is empty.

The sarcophagus is shown with two columns on either side which bear foliate capitals and a spiral design. Records show that traffic along the pilgrim road went both ways and the canons of the cathedral of Compostela travelled to the Holy Land.

leon-perdon007A tenth century monk of León, a certain Jacinto, returned from Jerusalem with an account of his journey which included a detailed description of the tomb of the Holy Sepulchre.

The original church of the Holy Sepulchre had been destroyed in 1009 and Jacinto’s account would have recorded the Emperor Constantine’s original Anastasis rotunda.

On the left of the tympanum’s Deposition is an Ascension, almost identical to that of the Porte Miègeville, in which a very human Christ is being lifted up by two angels.

leon-perdon022This Ascension appears even more of a struggle than the one at Toulouse with Christ using the wings of the angels to lever himself up.

The inscription on the moulding adjacent to the Ascension declares, “Ascendo ad patrem meum et patrem vestrum”.

These are words taken from the Gospel of Saint John and were spoken to Mary Magdalene, first witness to the Resurrection.

They follow the famous Noli me Tangere words, “Touch me not for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father”.

leon-perdon066Such a conjunction between the Resurrection and the Ascension, as was implied by the inclusion of these words, was a way of introducing a fourth element into the triptych.

It was a pattern which, with variations, which could be seen elsewhere. On a series of ivory plaques created at León around the same time, four carvings show the same scenes as on the tympanum except that the Ascension, notably, is replaced by the Noli me Tangere. An additional fourth scene is of the Disciples at Emmaus.

The cloister of the Benedictine abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos in Castile featured six corner reliefs on the theme of the Resurrection which included among them, the scenes of the Deposition, the Discovery of the Empty Tomb, and the Disciples at Emmaus.

leon-perdon065It was traditional to depict the latter scene as one of medieval pilgrimage.

At Silos, Christ is shown bearing the scallop shell of the Compostelan pilgrimage on his pouch, by contrast, the ivory plaque of León’s reliquary depicts Christ on the road to Emmaus with a cross on his pouch, signifying Jerusalem.

At León there was a church of the Holy Sepulchre located in the suburb of Santa Maria del Camino whose cemetery was used for the burial of pilgrims who had died en route. The church also benefitted from a hospital for pilgrims.

The detailed image of the Holy Sepulchre on the tympanum of the Puerta del Perdón was part of a broader connection between León and Jerusalem.

The association of the Ascension with the first appearance of the resurrected Christ combined the whole of the tympanum relief into a representation of Easter and the penitential liturgy associated with it.

leon-perdon017This pictorial formula also emphasised the role of Mary Magdalene since she was directly identified with both the Discovery of the Empty Tomb and the Noli me Tangere.

Mary Magdalene’s role in the church had been radically elevated by Pope Gregory the Great who saw her as the archetypal sinner redeemed.

At Villafranca del Bierzo, eighty miles further along the pilgrimage road, there was also a porch doorway at the church of Santiago designated the Puerta del Perdón, where pilgrims who were too sick or lame to continue their journey were granted the same absolution they would receive at Compostela itself.

It is likely that the same intention was implied at León.

Sources and Biblio: Topographie Sacrée, Liturgie Pascale et Reliques dans les grands centres de pèlerinage: Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Saint-Isidore-de-Léon et Saint-Étienne-de-Ribas-de-Sil, Manuel Antonio Castiñeiras González, Les Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, XXXIV, 2003

Etude sur les sculptures de Sainte-Foy de Conques et de Saint-Sernin de Toulouse et leurs relations avec celles de Saint-Isidore de Léon et de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle.Deschamps Paul.  In: Bulletin Monumental, tome 100, n°3-4, année 1941. pp. 239-264

León Roman.  Antonio Vinayo Gonzalez. Ed La Nuit des Temps ed. Zodiaque 1972

After the triumphal arches of Late Roman Antiquity, large scale monumental sculpture was absent from Europe for more than six hundred years before being Beaulieu-Tymp-3dramatically revived in the final decade of the eleventh century, when the great Romanesque church portal reliefs were begun.

The representation of theophanic visions, traditionally frescoes or mosaics situated within the church, were now located outside above the main entrance and carved in stone.

In a conscious desire to recall Roman triumphalism, an arched space or tympanum placed on a lintel over the doorway, became the site for these massive relief sculptures.

Moissac-S-Tymp-21The iconography of these portal sculptures was, by and large, sourced from just three New Testament theophanic visions which were combined into a single image.

These were; the Gospel of Matthew’s description of the Second Coming, the Ascension from the Acts of the Apostles and the Apocalypse of the Book of Revelation.

A fear of idolatry, which had persisted since the end of the Roman Empire, was now banished.

For the Christian church, the Old Testament injunction against graven images had long been of serious concern, reaching a peak during the Iconoclast Controversy in the Eastern church during the eighth and ninth centuries.

In the West, in early sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great had debated the issue with Serenus, an iconoclast bishop of Marseilles.

Cahors-'15-240Gregory reasoned that images need not be idolatrous and were important because they enabled an illiterate public to learn what they would otherwise know only from books.

“For to adore a picture is one thing,” wrote Gregory, ”but to learn through the story of a picture, what is to be adored is another”.

However a persistent desire to avoid idolatry meant that images were by and large restricted to the small scale manuscript illuminations and liturgical materials.

Gregory the Great’s view continued through into the eleventh century and was expounded anew at the Council of Arras in 1025, which proclaimed, “The illiterate people who cannot understand writing, can contemplate images”.

Complex arguments were brought to bear by both the iconoclasts who sought to prohibit religious images and the iconodules who believed them to be important tools to bring man closer to God.

Arles-Facade-Initially, the West had rejected the ideas of the Byzantine iconodules.

Misunderstanding their reasoning, which came out of the tradition of Greek philosophy which was now lost to the Latin Church, the intellectuals of Charlemagne’s court rejected the propositions of the 787 Council of Nicaea which had restored the veneration of icons.

Writing to Pope Adrian in 790 they declared, “the Greeks place almost all the hope of their credulity in images but it remains firm that we venerate the saints in their bodies or better in their relics”.

In the East, the subtlety of the Byzantine debate over icons had superceded the more simplistic considerations of the Latin West.

Conques-Christ-1The Eastern defenders of religious images considered that because of the Incarnation, the representation of God’s image in art was not merely sanctioned but positively essential.

One of the most eminent apologists for the use of religious imagery was Theodore the Studite who in the early ninth century reasoned, “When the Word of God, was made flesh, the invisible became visible and that which remains without form took on a corporeal form. That is why the Christ can be represented”.

Slowly, the ideas of the iconodules began to permeate through to the Latin West, in particular via the abbey of Cluny in the eleventh century.

moissac-christ-tetramorphThe abbey’s library contained copies of their manuscripts and their ideas were explicitly taken up by Cluny’s fifth abbot, Odilon de Mercoeur, in his Sermon on the Nativity.

For Odilon, the Fall had caused man to be blinded from the true vision of the Divine.

“And it became the condition of human nature, by the persuasion of the apostate angel, that our first father lost sight of the invisible light and so blinded by internal speculation, it was scattered and deformed without.”

Carennac-87It was possible, now, continued Odilon, to find a way towards the spirit by means of physical images .

These considerations suggest that the purpose behind the iconographic programme of the great portal sculptures was not Gregory the Great’s didactic and pedagogic intention for the edification of the illiterate.

For Odilon and the Carolingian philosopher John Scotus Eriugena the purpose of art was as an aid to contemplation of the Divine.

One of the results of this new thinking concerning sacred images was to reinforce the notion of the symbolic aspect of the image and this resulted in an artistic development away from naturalism towards the greater stylisation and abstraction, which defined Romanesque sculpture.

Sources and Biblio: Christe, Yves Le portail de Beaulieu, étude iconographique et stylistique, In Bulletin archéologique du Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques 1970.

Dale Coulter, Pseudo-Dionysius in the Twelfth Century Latin West, The ORB, 1997.

Paul Rorem, Eriugena’s Commentary on the Dionysian Celestial Hierarchy, ‪Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies‬, ‪1 Jan 2005‬.

The city of Cahors is located on the river Lot as it makes a dramatic loop, creating a site of important strategic value which had been exploited as an urban centre since pre-Roman times.

cahors-15-235-copyIt was the major station between Conques and Moissac on the Puy route to Compostela, notably benefitting from relics of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

The subject of the tympanum relief of the great north portal is the Ascension.

This was the favoured theme of the first portal sculptures which emerged from the sphere of influence emanating from the Burgundian abbey of Cluny at the end of the eleventh century.

In 1085 bishop Gerard II of Cahors had appealed to abbot of Hugh of Cluny to submit the cathedral chapter of canons to the Cluniac reform.

Cahors-'15-240The design of these Ascension portal reliefs was derived from Byzantine models which appeared in the sixth century and featured Christ standing upright within a mandorla being borne aloft by four angels.

Both arms are raised, in the left hand is the Book of Life and the right is raised in benediction.

The Eastern Ascensions had evolved to acquire a secondary tier which featured the Apostles and the Virgin in a register below, representing the terrestrial Church.

There are three accounts of the Ascension in the New Testament: as the culmination of the Gospels of Mark and Luke and at the opening of the Acts of the Apostles.

Jesus is described rising up to Heaven and disappearing from the view of the Apostles. “A cloud received him out of their sight”, according to Acts.

Cahors-'15-263At the top of the Cahors tympanum, four angels are descending from the clouds ready to assume Christ into heaven, to be veiled henceforth from the view of man, as represented by the Apostles below, until the day of his return.

The disturbed Apostles are interrupted by two angels who declare, “This same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven”.

Cahors-'15-182Accordingly, the Ascension, which was the theophanic vision adopted by Cluny as the chosen image for portal reliefs, was considered a prefiguration of the Second Coming.

At Cahors this is strikingly rendered by the prominent and dramatic poses of the two angels of Acts poised in both reverence and celebration.

Significantly, the Gospel of Saint Mark does not limit its account to Jesus passing from view but states, “He was received up into heaven and sat on the right hand of God”.

cahors-15-201-copyIn addition to the principal theme, on each side of the Ascension there are episodic representations of the life and death of Saint Stephen.

A series of scenes depict, first Stephen’s profession of faith before the angry Sanhedrin priests, then his expulsion from the city.

This association of the Ascension with the martyrdom of Stephen was not simply a way of commemorating the cathedral’s patron.

It was a juxtaposition intentionally derived from a longstanding exegetical tradition emanating from the writings of Gregory the Great in the sixth century and further expanded upon by Rabanus Maurus in the ninth.

cahors-15-16-copyThey drew an important link between the martyrdom of Stephen and the principal subject of the tympanum relief, the Ascension.

The very literal treatment of the episodes of the martyrdom arises directly from this exegetical tradition.

In the lapidation scene, Stephen’s gaze is fixed directly above. This is his vision prior to the moment of martyrdom. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen was possessed by the Holy Ghost and, “Said, behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God”.

cahors-15-135-copyThe account of the protomartyr’s vision of Jesus in heaven, together with Saint Mark’s narrative of the Ascension, were taken as the only texts which corroborated the appearance of the Son at the right hand of the Father after the Ascension.

The image which is depicted above the lapidation is of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost is represented by the hand which reaches down towards Stephen.

The Father is shown seated and the Son standing, both wear the cruciform halo. The iconological inference of the composition is drawn from the exegesis of Gregory and Rabanus Maurus.

cahors-15-113-bBoth writers had pondered the question posed by the differing accounts in Mark and the Acts of the Apostles. Whereas the Gospel of Saint Mark states that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, Stephen’s vision is of Christ standing.

As Rabanus asks, “How is it that Mark says seated and Stephen testifieth to seeing standing?” For Gregory the Great and Rabanus Maur, this apparent contradition is evidence of the duality of God’s nature, both Judge and Redeemer.

It serves to explain why for Stephen, who is redeemed by both his ministry and martyrdom, the vision he sees is of Christ standing in his role as Redeemer.

The attributes of Judgment and Redemption are present with both the Father and Son holding the Book of Life and right hand held up in benediction.

The presence also of the sun and moon confirm an Apocalyptic context. Stephen’s vision is of the moment after the Ascension, in other words, the celestial reality now veiled from man but available to Stephen in the moment of martyrdom and a reminder of the words of the angels of the Acts of the Apostles, that the Ascension was a prefiguration of the Apocalypse.

Sources and Biblio. La Cathédrale de Saint-Etienne de Cahors, Architecture et Sculpture, Marcel Durliat. Bulletin Monumental, 137 1979.

Yves Christe. Les grands portails romans. Études sur l’iconologie des théophanies romanes, Genève, Librairie Droz, 1969

Quercy Roman. M. Vidal, J. Maury, J. Porcher. La Nuit des Temps, ed Zodiaque, 1959



One of the principal monasteries of the Cluniac Order, the abbey of Beaulieu was situated on the banks of the Dordogne river. Strategically positioned on the Compostela road, it was a key point of passage between the two regions of the Limousin and the Quercy.

beaulieu-71The southern porch features a tympanum relief sculpture whose style emanates from the same Languedocian tradition as the great sculptures at Moissac and Cahors.

Its dating is still disputed, however it can be fairly ascribed to the first half of the twelfth century.

The subject is the Second Coming of Matthew’s Gospel and the iconography is firmly influenced by the Late Antique Roman triumphal arches. These monuments were celebrations of imperial military victories.

beaulieu-184They depicted the victorious leader surrounded by his retinue of dignitaries being offered the trophies of the vanquished enemy who lay prostrate at his feet.

At Beaulieu, an enthroned Christ returns at the End of Time in the manner of an imperial victor. Surrounded by his Apostles, his trophies are borne aloft by an assembly of angels.

One bears the Instruments of The Passion symbolised by the nails of the Crucifixion.

Another bears the Crown of Heaven. Two more angels carry the bejewelled Cross, Matthews’ sign of the Son of Man.

Like the Roman emperor, Christ stands over the vanquished enemy, Death, represented on the lintel by the devouring beasts.

beaulieu-167A manuscript of the first decade of the twelfth century makes explicit the connection between the iconography of Imperial Rome and the Apocalyptic theophany.

“In what form shall Christ appear on the Day of Judgment?”, asked Honorius of Autun, rhetorically answering, ”In the manner of an emperor who enters a city, his crown and other insignia carried before him so that his advent might be recognised, the angels carrying his crown will lead the way”.

beaulieu-108“On his arrival they will resuscitate the Dead by their voices and their trumpets”. The Beaulieu theophany is an image of the Redeemer.

In the exegetical works of Cluny’s tenth century abbot, Odon, the four arms of the Cross symbolised the diffusion of Redemption to the four corners of the Earth. Similarly, the outstretched arms of the Beaulieu Christ reach out to encompass the whole world.

Immediately beneath the register of Christ and his Apostles are smaller figures who are pointing towards the theophanic spectacle to which they are witness.

beaulieu-145The seven figures are Jews, holding up their tunics to expose their circumcision and pagans wearing tricorn hats.

They represent those peoples of the earth who will, at the last day, be converted and redeemed along with the rest of humanity.

This notion derives from Gregory the Great’s treatment on the Book of Job, the Moralia, a work widely circulated in Cluniac libraries. Two copies of abbot Odon’s commentary were kept at the great abbey of Saint Martial of Limoges.

In this work, Gregory argued that the Jews would be the last to convert and that their initial opposition had been part of the divine plan, having obliged the Gospel to be spread abroad.

beaulieu-156Above the Jews and Pagans is the seated figure of Paul, notable for his own late conversion after initially persecuting the early Christians.

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans specifically had addressed the question of the redemption of the Jews.

The very presence of the unconverted on the tympanum of Beaulieu signifies that the Apocalyptic moment has arrived.

The Word has now come to the furthest reaches of the world and the Mission of the Apostles has been fulfilled.

Sources and Biblio: Art et réforme clunisienne : le porche sculpté de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, Barbara Franzé. Bulletin du centre d’études médiévales. Auxerre 18.2. 2014

Yves Christe. Les grands portails romans. Études sur l’iconologie des théophanies romanes, Genève, Librairie Droz, 1969

Programmes Eschatologiques: Fonction et Réception Historiques des Portails du XIIe: Moissac – Beaulieu – Saint Denis, P Klein Cahiers de Civilisation Medieval 33 317-49

Limousin Roman J. Maury, M-M Gauthier, J. Porcher, La Nuit des Temps. Ed. Zodiaque 1960

In 1115 the sculpted relief of the central portal of the largest church in medieval Christendom, Cluny abbey, was completed. The image it depicted was a simple one. Christ in a mandorla supported by a pair of angels.

Angouleme-Ascension-1The Romanesque world viewed reality and art as being imbued with multiple layers of meaning.

The function of the great portal relief sculptures was to combine these layers into a single richly symbolic form which would act as a conduit to guide man to the essential truth.

The first portal reliefs which emerged from the Burgundian sphere of Cluny made use of a motif which originally had its source in Roman funerary art.

This was of the funerary apotheoses carved onto antique sarcophagi, depicting the head of the deceased enclosed in a circular frame held aloft by two winged figures, signifying assumption into a paradisaical afterlife.

Cahors-'15-182The reliefs of the Burgundian monasteries depicted Christ in a mandorla representing the celestial realm, supported by a pair of angels. This was an image of the Ascension.

Early Christian commentators had seen the Ascension as a prefiguration of the Second Coming. This arose from the account in the Acts of the Apostles whereby, two men dressed in white appear to tell the disciples that Christ will return ”in like manner”.


Attributes associated with the Apocalypse were incorporated, in particular with the addition of the Four Living Beasts.

Traditionally, a second register was included showing the Virgin Mary and the Apostles.

These latter additions were necessary to symbolise the human dimension of the theophany by representing the Incarnation and the Bearing of Witness.

The sources for this depiction of the Ascension came from the Byzantine East.


This view of the Ascension had been actively refuted in the Latin West.

According to Gregory the Great, “Our Saviour, as it is written in the scriptures was not taken by a chariot like Eliah or carried by angels. He who created all rose to Heaven by his own force”.

However the Romanesque depiction of the Ascension became the dominant theophanic image during the second half of the eleventh century up until the middle of the twelfth.

It found a multitude of forms and was not intended as a simple literal depiction of the event described in the New Testament.

Cahors-'15-239Its true function was to act as an iteration of the Neoplatonic metaphysics which had reached the West from Byzantium during the course of the ninth century and which had later been taken up by Cluny.

Accordingly, it was proposed that man had acquired the capacity to grasp, at least partially, the Divine Nature in the same way as the angelic orders.

Odilon de Mercoeur, fifth abbot of Cluny had written in the early eleventh century, “the angels of the Ascension appeared in white garments because the human race which had been covered by the dark because of a mortal blindness had merited, by the Grace of God to wear the garment of eternal joy and acquire angelic dignity”.

Source: Yves Christe. Les grands portails romans. Études sur l’iconologie des théophanies romanes, Genève, Librairie Droz, 1969

A transcendental mysticism entered Latin Western Christendom from the East in the ninth century.Moissac-S-Tymp-25

At the centre was the Divine One, immobile and eternal, surrounded by a Celestial Hierarchy and Cosmos that was in a state of continuous movement.

That motion was one of ebb and flow, a progression towards the still centre and a corresponding regression away from it. The Divine was in a constant process of self-revelation.

An emanation of Its essence was in an unfolding dialectic with the rest of the Universe, which was in a corresponding process of contemplation of that essence.


Each being, containing elements of the Divine and the non-Divine, processed through an alternating recognition of their Divinity followed by its negation, ascending through the hierarchy until there was nothing left to negate and union was attained in the Godhead.

Taking the theophanic vision from chapter four to six of the Book of Revelation as a description of the highest level of the celestial hierarchy, the tympanum sculpture of the Cluniac abbey of Saint Pierre at Moissac was essentially a depiction of the Christian Neoplatonic metaphysical system.

This was derived largely from the writings of a Syrian monk of the sixth century who wrote pseudonomously under the name of Dionysius.

Moissac-S-Tymp-12-copyThe contorted figures whose gazes are all directed at the central Divine figure, were intended to represent that process of movement back and forth between the Divine and the non-Divine.

According to the system presented by Pseudo-Dionysius there were three orders of angels each consisting of three ranks. The highest order was made up of the Cherubim, the Seraphim and the Thrones.

The Tetramorph of the Moissac tympanum which surround the central figure consist of the Living Creatures of Ezekiel’s Old Testament vision who reappear at the Apocalypse. These were the Cherubim who, according to Ezekiel were angels each with the head, respectively, of a man, a calf, an eagle and a lion. On each side there is a six winged Seraphim and below are the Thrones, represented by the Twenty-Four Elders.

Moissac-SeraphimAll are joined in contemplation and adoration of the Godhead, united in one continuous song of prayer.

The celestial hierarchy was further extended by three terrestrial orders which formed the basis and rationale for the medieval monastic system. This tripartite division of society was made up of those who labour, those who fight and those who pray.

The monastery of Moissac was the most important establishment in the Cluniac federation, after the mother abbey itself. Through the writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius and his successors, which were held at the library at Cluny, had emerged the idea that humanity partook in that celestial hierarchy and formed a tenth order of angels. Moissac-S-Tymp-18-copy

It was in the light of this transcendentalism that Cluny had refined the Rule of Saint Benedict into a constant round of liturgy.

By prayer and mystical contemplation, monks could access the same theophanic vision, which was the preserve of the angelic orders.

For the remaining two orders, those who fought might find redemption through martyrdom and those who laboured, through pilgrimage and the veneration of relics.

Moissac, on the banks of the broad river Tarn, was an important station on the pilgrim road to Compostela.


The Pilgrims Guide describes a choir of one hundred monks of the Cluniac priory of Saint Jean d’Angély, another station on the road to Compostela, who “worshipped day and night” the relic which they guarded: the head of Saint John the Baptist.

It was a description intended to echo that of the Living Creatures who, in the Book of Revelation, “rest not day and night, saying Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty”.

The Elders of the Apocalypse beckoned pilgrims from the tympanum above the entrance to the abbey church at Moissac with the vessels they held and which contained, according to the Book of Revelation, the accumulated essence of the prayers of the saints.

Biblio: Dale Coulter, Pseudo-Dionysius in the Twelfth Century Latin West, The ORB, 1997. Yves Christe. Les grands portails romans. Études sur l’iconologie des théophanies romanes, Genève, Librairie Droz, 1969. Paul Rorem, Eriugena’s Commentary on the Dionysian Celestial Hierarchy, ‪Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies‬, ‪1 Jan 2005‬

Fronsac-GV-WPThe Benedictine priory church at La Lande-de-Fronsac lies fifteen miles north east of Bordeaux on the northern banks of the Dordogne river.

Its portal relief sculpture is singular in being the only monumental representation of the first theophanic vision from the Book of Revelation in Romanesque sculpture.

A partially legible inscription surrounding the semi-circular relief reads, “Johes VII eccliis que sunt … Ter VII candelabra aurea” referencing the text which is the source of the image.

Fronsac-Tymp-2On the lintel below we can read another inscription, “Principiu sine principio sine fine” that is, beginning without beginning without end, an amplification of the Alpha and Omega of the text.

The striking image at Fronsac shows the hieratic image of the Son of Man in a full length tunic standing with arms outstretched. From the left side of the head emerges a sword.

Surrounding this dramatic figure is a circle containing seven daisy-like flowers, beneath which cowers Saint John the Divine.

Fronsac-John-WPRepresented here is John’s vision on the island of Patmos addressed to the seven churches of Asia which are depicted on the relief next to his cowering figure.

According to the text, John is hearing a voice behind him which describes itself as the Alpha and Omega standing amid seven candlesticks. To the right of the figure of Christ amid a complex entwined vegetal motif one can make out the representation of the candelabra.

The crude execution of the stone carving only serves to enhance the elemental severity and latent violence of the image.

Fronsac-Christ-1-WPThis is in keeping with the tone of the text which describes the Son of Man as having, “eyes as a flame of fire; and his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.”

This was an image of the deity, the sacrificial Lamb itself, as the agent of the sacrificial act.

The medieval exegesis to be found in the commentaries on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liebana, Caesarius of Arles and Walafrid Strabo explained this passage from Revelation as a representation of Christ’s sacerdotal role as the Priest Messiah.

Fronsac-Christ-Sword-WPThe hieratic representation of the Son of Man with the sword emanating from the mouth indicated Christ’s priestly sacrificial function.

The seven stars, the seven candelabra and the seven churches were all symbolising the Church in its various forms, historical, spiritual, cosmic and Christ’s omnipresent permeation of it. This notion is represented on the Fronsac tympanum by the motif of the vine which extends into every space of the relief.

For Caesarius, Asia represented humanity and “As the Son of Man is in the midst of the candelabra, so is Christ in the midst of the Church”.

For Strabo, the attributes of the Son of Man in the vision, the tunic, the gold belt and the sword were attributes of priestly power and the son of Man was the underlying principle of the Father and the Holy Ghost.

The lintel inscription implied even more than the Alpha and Omega, that the Son of Man preexisted the beginning and continued after the End.

Biblio and Sources: Guyenne Romane, Pierre Dubourg-Noves, Zodiaque. “Les sept églises et Le fils de l’homme au tympan du portail sud au prieuré benedictin de la Lande-de-Fronsac”  Mireille Mentré , Cahiers de Saint Michel de Cuxa 8 1977 89-103


La-Ch-Trans-14-WPThe tympanum sculpture of the Transfiguration at the Cluniac priory church of Notre-Dame de la Charité-sur-Loire in Burgundy ranks as one of the masterpieces of Romanesque sculptural art evincing similarities with the Languedocian style of Moissac.

It is the only large scale Transfiguration in twelfth century Romanesque sculpture, apart from the putative remnants now situated above the Platerias Portal at Compostela.

The Transfiguration was a rare subject for art. It was a late addition to the liturgical calendar celebrated only in monasteries belonging to the Cluniac order from 1132.


The subject of commentaries by Saint John Chrysostom and Peter the Venerable, the twelfth century abbot of Cluny, it was considered by them a prefiguration of the Second Coming.

According to the accounts described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the vision was witnessed by three disciples only, Peter, John and James.

This narrative of the New Testament was key to the importance attributed to Saint James in the medieval world. That he was witness to the appearance of Christ’s divinity was of huge significance.


There is little variation in the three gospel accounts: the disciples were led up a mountain by Jesus, which although unnamed in the Gospels was recognised by medieval tradition as the Mount Tabor situated a few miles from the shore of lake Galilee.

There, Jesus was seen talking to two men, Moses and Elias and “transfigured” becoming bright as the sun. A hand emerged from the clouds and a voice was heard saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”.

Afterwards, Jesus bound the three disciples to a vow of secrecy as to the scene they had witnessed telling them, “Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again”.

The disciples are confounded by this remarking that Elias, according to the Book of Malachi was to return before the Day of Judgment. Whereupon Jesus tells them that Elias has already returned in the form of John the Baptist.


Surviving from the sixth century only three large scale Byzantine mosaic representations are known. At Ravenna at the church of Saint Apollinare in Classe at Ravenna, the Christ is represented by the Crux Gemmata, the bejewelled cross which had been set on Golgotha by the emperor Theodosius in the early fifth century. He is attended by Moses and Elias while beneath the disciples are depicted as sheep.

As at Ravenna, the mosaic at Saint Catherine’s monastery at Sinai is set in the vault of the apse. The disciples are in human form crouching beneath a Christ in mandorla. Another mosaic depiction exists at the Euphrasian basilica at Parenzo in modern Croatia.

A contemporaneous account mentions a Transfiguration mosaic scene in Constantine‘s church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople. In the destroyed cathedral of Naples it was associated with the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse.

Biblio: Les Grands Portails Romans, Yves Christe, 1969

A Propos du tympana de la Vierge à Notre-Dame de la Charité-sur-Loire, Yves Christe, Cahiers de Civilisation Medièvale 9. 34 1966

The iconography of the reliefs on the double tympana of the Puerta de las Plateriás at Compostela was intended as a direct thematic extension from the scenes of the Expulsion from Paradise on the north portal. Platerias-Temp-3-WPWhere the former represented the victory of Satan in the form of the Serpent in the Garden, the Plateriás reliefs show Christ triumphing over Satan and Death

Discarding the elements added when it was decided to enlarge the space from its original lunette form, it is apparent that the subject of the left hand tympanum is the Temptation of the Lord

Depicted is the narrative in the gospels of Matthew and Luke where Jesus has gone into the wilderness for forty days and nights.

Platerias-Tempt-3-WPThere, he meets Satan who offers him three temptations; one to assuage his hunger by turning stone to bread, a second whereby he should jump from the pinnacle of the temple and depend on angels to rescue his fall and a third where he is offered all the kingdoms of the world in return for prostrating himself before Satan.

In a gesture which can be seen in Byzantine mosaics, Christ is turned towards his left where two winged demons, hands clasped in supplication implore him to surrender himself before Satan.

A tree stands between Christ and the demons alluding to the Tree of Knowledge, through which the serpent Satan is entwined. An image of Christ in dialogue with Satan, Christ’s gesture with his right hand is a visual representation of his words “Get thee behind me Satan”.

Platerias-Tempt-Demon-1-WPOn either side of the Christ figure angels are ministering, which according to Matthew’s Gospel they did after Satan had left, defeated. The angel immediately above is emerging from clouds waving a thurible just in front of the serpent’s head.

The angel behind Christ appears to be holding aloft items which may be liturgical appurtenances, corresponding to the thurible held by the first angel.

Elsewhere on the tympanum of the Temptation are reliefs carved by the Master of the Porta Francigena which were included when the design was enlarged.

Platerias-Temptation-2These include a slab with three ape-headed demons and notable a seated woman cradling a skull on her lap.

The author of the description of the cathedral in the Book of Saint James, makes much of this, referring to it as an image of a woman taken in adultery. The writer however has shown himself to be unreliable elsewhere in his readings of the sculptural imagery.

The Woman Bearing the Skull would seem to have been intended for the north portal where as Eve, the Mother of Death, the image would have complemented the others from the Genesis cycle.

Biblio: Santiago de Compostela in the time of Diego Gelmirez, Barbara Abou-El-Haj, Gesta XXXVI/2 1997

Reading Romanesque Sculpture: The Iconography and Reception of the South Portal Sculpture at Santiago de Compostela, Karen Rose Mathews, Gesta XXXIX/1 2000

The Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: A Reassessment, Christabel Watson, BAR International Series 1979-2009

The Codex Calixtinus as an Art-Historical Source, S Moralejo in John Williams / Alison Stones The Codex Calixtinus and the Shrine of St. James 1992

Manuel Castiñeiras: Didacus Gelmirez, Patron of the arts. Compostela’s long journey: From the periphery to the centre of Romanesque art. Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.

Topographie Sacrée, Liturgie Pascale et Reliques dans les grands centres de pèlerinage: Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Saint-Isidore-de-Léon et Saint-Étienne-de-Ribas-de-Sil, Manuel Antonio Castiñeiras González, Les Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, XXXIV, 2003

The Basilica in Compostela and the way of Saint James, John Williams, Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.