Monday, July 06, 2009
Notre Dame and the Human Rights Complaint
The last major exterior door of the Cathedral is called the “Justice Door,” as it was directly across from the Cardinal’s Palace. As the titular head of Strasbourg, the Cardinal was the final court of appeal for the city. As the Justice Door was the Cardinal’s de facto private entrance to the Cathedral, it aimed to flatteringly reflect his role in the city’s life. Therefore, a statue of the Old Testament's notoriously Wise King Solomon, sits holding a sword between the two doors.
Beneath his throne is a carving of the King's most famous case – the two women fighting over the baby, which Solomon ordered cut in half.* Usually forgotten in that story was one of the woman’s own babies had died, presumably motivating her to claim the other woman’s child as her own. The artist doesn’t shy away from that aspect, so we see the two woman fighting, one with a dead infant slung over her arm like a towel.
Solomon has two lady-friends hanging out with him by this door. On his right (our left) is the Church, wearing a crown, chin jutting proudly, holding a staff with a cross and the cup of the Sacrament.
Over on the other side, we have the Synagogue. Her head is bowed, her spear broken, and she holds the Commandments of Moses, but carelessly. She wears a blindfold, as she has failed to see the Light of Christ.
While undeniably anti-Semititic, I feel the artist’s craft mitigated his inherent bigotry. Unlike the statues on the façade and the far end of the transept, this one is Renaissance Era. Her clothes hang naturally, and there is a human quality to her pose that radiates sorrow, rather than obstinancy. There’s an evocative sympathy to this portrayal that belies the Church’s treatment of the Jews in Europe at the time, as well as their precarious position in the city throughout its history (more on that later).
Incidentally, this door is also an excellent illustration of effect of the 300-year construction schedule had on the design of the church. The archways of the doors are semi-circles, typical of the Romanesque style that held sway when the transept was completed in the 1200s. The carvings over the door are Gothic (1300s) and the major statues Renaissance (1400s). A modern equivalent might be if the Empire State Building being made of exposed brick on the lower levels, garlanded with Victorian ironwork in the middle, passing through a few stories of Edwardian gingerbread, before finishing with 1930s-era art deco on top.
*Everyone knows what happened after that, right?