The north cloister

Let me now turn to the detail of the cathedral’s north fagade and the northern part of the cloister (Figures 4.4 and 4.8), where the frame of reference will be determined not by distant and varied secular structures but, rather, by immediate and consistent ecclesiastical institutions. In the thirteenth century, the north fagade was completely surrounded by an impressive array of clerics’ residences and administrative structures, so that it fronted onto a different environment than did the south. This situation is not unique: a recent general survey of canonial quarters adjoining cathedrals in northern France – i. e. quarters serving the canons or cathedral clergy – indicates that most of them lay to the north of the church.28


Cathedral of Notre Dame, Chartres, Last Judgement portal, detail of the archivolts representing the damned

Originally, the cathedral canons at Chartres lived as a community, as part of the bishop’s household, quartered at his palace to the northeast of the cathedral; after the canons abandoned this arrangement in 997, they began to acquire property of their own to the north and west of the cathedral, gradually moving away from the bishop’s territory.29 Just west of the bishop’s palace, on a site hallowed since the Merovingian period, stood a three-aisled basilica dedicated to the Early Christian martyrs Sts Sergius and Bacchus,

which the bishop ceded to the chapter of canons in 1190.30 This church presumably occupied an important place in the mental landscape of the canons, their private analogue to the public building which was the cathedral near by.31 It was to this building that they repaired every Wednesday morning for theological instruction and it was a frequent destination for chapter proces­sions; it also housed the chapter scriptorium in or above its south aisle.32

Further afield lay yet other buildings administered by and serving the chapter. To the south of the episcopal palace and east of the cathedral in the thirteenth century sat an earlier version of the present chapter house, the hall in which the chapter met as a community and from which it dispensed its justice. To the north, outside the cloister proper, the chapter granary survives as an important example of vernacular architecture from c.12 0 0.33 Here, daily distributions of bread were made to those canons who had attended matins and rents and tithes owed to the canons were also paid here.34 One of the few chapter buildings not located to the north was the Hotel-Dieu, the charity hospital.35 Its location on the opposite side of the cathedral, to the west – southwest, testifies (as did the baptismal fonts) to a greater number of laity and more public circulation in the south cloister. The north fagade, on the other hand, may have served as a semi-private entrance to the cathedral for the clergy.

To sum up, each societal entity expressed itself in the location and functions of its architecture. The concentration of ecclesiastical administrative buildings to the north, a logical consequence of the bishop’s residence and the canons’ initial settlements on this side, made the northern part of the cloister more clerical in its functions and associations,36 as opposed to the more thoroughly public, more openly commercial space of the southern part. By using qualifiers, I concede that I cannot state these distinctions absolutely; nevertheless, while my differentiation of functions and audiences is relative, it is well documented over a period in excess of 750 years.

I have suggested that the north fagade served as a semi-private entrance for the clergy. This does not mean, however, that only clerics saw it. In general, a cathedral portal ensemble operates in at least two ways: it serves, obviously, as an entrance and exit, marking the boundary between exterior and interior and impressing upon people the rights and responsibilities attendant upon movement from one to the other; it also functions as a frons scenae, a stage set, for actions performed outside of, but in proximity to, the sacred space of the interior. Both functions had the capacity to influence the choice of imagery as well as later perceptions of it.37 Although they probably formed the primary users of the triple portal as entrance, the bishop and canons did not comprise the entire audience of viewers for the north portal as frons scenae.

Vassals and serfs of the chapter, for instance, saw it when they paid their annual taxes on the steps leading up to the porch.38 Lay supplicants to the bishop saw it, as did plaintiffs before the bishop’s and chapter’s courts; indeed, judicial sentences of the chapter were sometimes rendered there. Those con­victed of crimes regarded it for extended periods of time from the bishop’s ‘stone’, a pillory situated immediately to the left of the entrance leading to the bishop’s domain, where thieves, perjurers, false witnesses, and others were subjected to public exposure, perhaps on a ladder of the sort depicted in one of the so-called ‘school reliefs’ on the south transept fagade of Notre-Dame at Paris.39 Lay men and women may have both seen and used the portal on a happier occasion as well, during the rites of reconciliation on Maundy Thursday which I’ve argued elsewhere were performed under the north porch.40

It is instructive to examine one particular example of an occasion on which the north fagade and porch functioned as a frons scenae. Three documents from the century following construction of the north transept stipulate that certain legal transactions had taken place, or were to take place, at a location on the steps of the north porch in front of a statue of St Mary Magdalene, which is probably now lost.41 These documents have been cited in studies of the cathedral sculpture’s iconography and programme mainly as evidence for the simple existence of such a figure. What has been less remarked is the way the porch sculpture clearly served as a backdrop to activity in the north cloister. The statue of Mary Magdalene was presumably chosen as stage scenery for the ritual act of restitution required in one document because that saint was a major exemplar of penance at Chartres, hers being one of the very few double feasts in the cathedral calendar.

The entire built environment of the north cloister, then, proclaimed the status and power of the clergy and that appears to have been the case even before construction of the present Gothic cathedral. For ideological reasons, then, as well as more traditional symbolic ones, the sculpture of this fagade was devoted to the clergy’s patroness, the Virgin Mary, with her Coronation in Heaven on the central tympanum and her role as Theotokos or ‘God-bearer’ highlighted on the left tympanum,42 whereas the south fagade adopts a broader eschatological perspective, presenting an evocation of the Church Universal, its serried ranks of saints a more appropriate programme for a public vision of the institution of the church and its legitimacy.

Updated: 3rd October 2014 — 1:37 pm