Friday, July 03, 2009

Notre Dame: Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name

The last, southernmost door on the façade of NDS is by far my favourite, when taken as a whole. It is probably the most clear in its message to parishioners: you choose Salvation through Jesus, or you choose Eternal Damnation. No one escapes this choice.

This is driven home by the tympanum over the door: on top, J.C. sits on his throne on judgement day, palms up to show his stylish hand-piercings. Just below him, we see the some demons ushering an unhappy platoon of damned souls into the mouth of hell: as you can see, this unlucky group includes kings, queens and – cheekily – a bishop. On the level below them, the souls of the elect arise from their tombs to ascend to heaven.

The larger statues on either side of the door carry the theme through. They illustrate the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. On the right are the Wise Virgins: they are stern faced, holding their lanterns of knowledge upright, and standing on the right hand of Christ the Bridegroom.

On the other side we have the Foolish Virgins: they are smiling goofily, holding their lanterns carelessly (one has dropped hers). They stand with the Prince of Earthly Desires (not that he’s living up to his job description, if they’re all still virgins).

The Prince is a handsome, genial sort, holding an apple. Seems respectable enough, right? Look closely at his back. See those lumps and squiggles? Those are snakes and toads, manifestations of his corruption. For he is…

(dramatic pause)

The Devil.

Legend has it that Lucifer himself, having heard that the people of Strasbourg were building a magnificent Cathedral, paid a visit to the town, presumably to engage in a little industrial espionage. Supposedly, he was so taken with this image of himself as a handsome young man, that he’s been galloping around the place ever since – the constant winds sweeping through Place de Cathedral is caused by the passing of his horse. I guess Strasbourgeois had to come up with some explanation for the wind-tunnel effect they created by erecting the equivalent of a skyscraper in their town.

Incidentally, the other thing I find interesting about this door is that the pediments under the large statues are all decorated with the signs of the zodiac, as well as the labours of the different months (sewing in December, sowing in April). That something seemingly as pagan as the zodiac would end up on a Catholic edifice shows how ineffective the Cardinals in Rome were at combating the persistence of such traditional superstitions.

Next: Infanticide and anti-Semitism!

1 comment:

belsohni said...

I think the foolish virgins were my fave at the Cathedral. Too late, but we should have thought of videotaping your Cathedral tour. You coulda been a youtube star!