Art and Architecture in Medieval France: Medieval Architecture, Sculpture, Stained Glass, Manuscripts, the Art of the Church Treasuries

By Whitney S. Stoddard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 15
Early Gothic Sculpture and Painting

THE WEST PORTALS of Chartres Cathedral, the best-preserved sculptural ensemble of the mid- twelfth century (fig. 198), are the sculptural counterpart of Early Gothic architecture. On September 5, 1134, a fire destroyed the town of Chartres. Contemporary reports state that although the church was engulfed in flames, it miraculously escaped damage. However, the Hôtel-Dieu, located only a few meters to the southeast of the church, suffered considerably, and damage to the west end of the church was apparently great enough to inspire a new building campaign. So great was the community's commitment to this reconstruction of the house of the Virgin Mary that men of all classes, in silence, pulled huge carts bearing the stones from the quarries. This cult of the carts reflects the religious enthusiasm of the building campaign.

Donations for one tower refer to the north or older tower of Chartres, while the Abbot of Mont- Saint-Michel reports two towers under construction in 1145. Since the sculpture of Chartres grows out of the more experimental portals of the west façade of Saint-Denis, dedicated in 1140, the date of the late 1140's is reasonable for the carving and erection of the Royal Portals of Chartres. These portals were thus carved some fifty years before the fire of 1194 which necessitated the construction of the High Gothic Cathedral of Chartres.

The portals (fig. 198) depict the scenes of the Incarnation in the right-hand tympanum, Christ's Ascension in the left portal, and Christ upon His return to earth surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists in the central tympanum. The capitals function as a horizontal frieze between archivolts and jamb figures and relate the life of the Virgin Mary and the Passion of Christ. The total comprehensive nature of the subject matter of these Early Gothic sculptural compositions has no parallel in Romanesque art. Vézelay (fig. 94), Moissac (fig. 99), and Saint-Gilles (fig. 96) are all conceived on a less encyclopaedic scale.

In his book The Sculptural Programs of Chartres Cathedral, Adolf Katzenellenbogen has discussed in detail the entire inconographical meaning of these Early Gothic west portals and the High Gothic transept portals. In this writer's opinion, Katzenellenbogen's book contributes more to the complete understanding of French Medieval sculpture than any other book yet written. The author describes the meaning of the west portals and how they reflect the thinking of the cathedral school of twelfth-century Chartres. In discussing the right-hand portal (figs. 214-216), Katzenellenbogen emphasizes the new lucidity and explicitness of the tympanum scene. He further stresses the sacramental importance of the Incarnation through the axial, vertical centrality of Christ in the Manger (Nativity), Christ on the altar (Presentation), and the frontal Christ on the Virgin's lap in the tympanum. The corpus verum, His real flesh and the true substance of the Eucharist, which is symbolized by this arrangement, reflects the leading role of the School of Chartres in the fight against heretical movements of the time. The second Lateran Council of 1139 had condemned those who denied the validity of the Eucharist. Thus, by the placement of Christ in the middle of both lintels and the tympanum, the School of Chartres is stating its agreement with

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