Art in situ: a short case study

The sculptural programme of the south fagade, comprising a Last Judgement portal flanked by portals dedicated to Martyrs and Confessors, appears to have been designed with address to this urban setting in mind (Figure 4.9).25 Of all the High Gothic portals at Chartres, the Last Judgement portal is the most broadly relevant to potential viewers – it forcefully and explicitly compre­hends every viewer (male/female, cleric/layperson, knight/bourgeois, king, bishop, monk, and maiden) in a way none of the other imagery does – and it achieves the broadest possible public address by virtue of its position facing the largest concentration of urban population (Figure 4.5).

Overall, the south fagade presents a triptych of the Church Universal, the communion of all saints to be revealed at the end of time. In its fullness, this vision incorporates its own counterpoint: the depiction of negative exemplars of what the city of God is not, similarly addressed to the town beyond. One brief example shall suffice to show how the structure of the splayed Gothic portal, in addition to the choice of iconography, was used to communicate to the urban community beyond, indicating the distance between God and the world and the threshold which the church portal itself represented.

The five small pairs of figures occupying the lowest register of voussoirs on the right side of the portal continue the representation of the damned found on the right end of the lintel (Figure 4.10). In the first, innermost voussoir, a devil carries a naked figure upside down over his shoulder. Their positions are dictated by proximity to the hell mouth at the right end of the lintel, and the devil is clearly about to toss the sinner in, headlong. Proximity to the hell mouth also determines the inward-facing positions of the figures in the next voussoir. Here, an aristocratic woman submits fearfully and with distaste to the advances of a horned demon. In the third voussoir, a nun is similarly seduced by a devil who approaches her from behind. Following this, a miser in aristocratic garb, clutching his money bag to his chest, is clasped by a devil who caresses his cheek and grasps his arm. The sequence is completed in the fifth, outermost voussoir by a devil carrying a naked woman upside down over his shoulders, secured by her ankles. The careful rendering of different costumes in these sculptures places the emphasis on the range of different social identities. As an incipient Dance of Death in which persons of both sexes and every class and pro­fession are implicated, these images represent an early stage of the personalization of death which will have its final flowering at the end of the Middle Ages and after.

In composition the outermost voussoir is a repetition of the innermost one – both demons are headed to the hell mouth with their victims – and together they frame the sequence. But whereas the demon in the final voussoir turns inward, the naked woman he carries on his back faces outward: out of the portal, away from Christ at its centre, and towards the secular realm


Cathedral of Notre Dame, Chartres, north transept fa$ade


Cathedral of Notre Dame, Chartres, south transept fa$ade

of the town beyond. Both upside-down and oriented to the world, she is lost to the community of the Church depicted so fully on the fagade, whereas the king in the corresponding voussoir on the opposite side of the portal faces inward as he is welcomed into the community of the blessed by an angel. The woman’s violation of the closed, hieratic, and serene order of the portal in the end only reinforces its frontiers.

Addressing the main urban, lay conglomeration of Chartres, the south fagade ensemble as a whole suggests that each worshipper entering may find his or her place in the Church Universal it represents. Nevertheless, the margins of the central portal also imply that the devil’s next encounter will be off the edge, in the town, perhaps with one’s own self – i. e. an encounter real, not represented. Here, we may properly speak with Michael Camille of ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’,26 since the portal’s margins launch a challenge onto the viewer’s own turf, the response to which, yet to be delivered, will determine that viewer’s fate. Although the imbricated categories of system and transgression remain valid for this imagery on the margin of the portal, we might, with R. I. Moore, more profitably speak of it, its urban environ­ment, and its likely viewers in terms of community and exclusion and the ethical dilemma posed to the viewer: to participate in the former or be subject to the latter?27

Updated: 3rd October 2014 — 1:37 pm