After the triumphal arches of Late Roman Antiquity, large scale monumental sculpture was absent from Europe for more than six hundred years before being dramatically 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.
The 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.
Gregory 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.
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.
The 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.
The 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.”
It 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.