Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
22.08.15 Angheben, Les portails romans de Bourgogne

22.08.15 Angheben, Les portails romans de Bourgogne

This panoramic study examines the almost fifty sculpted church portals in the dioceses of Autun, Chalons-sur-Saône, Mâcon and Nevers which date from between around the year 1100 and the end of the twelfth century. Marcello Angheben, the author, who is on the faculty of Université de Poitiers, is the first to acknowledge that these important sculptures have already received considerable attention--as well they ought, being among the finest surviving examples of Romanesque sculpture. By focusing on the church entrance in this specific region (an enterprise that might at first seem restrictive) he concentrates attention on iconographic recurrences and peculiarities as well as on the broad messages that the Catholic church sought to convey through its use of the carved image. This analysis of a specific architectural element--the doorway--follows the model of this author’s earlier publication on the Romanesque sculpted capitals of Burgundy. [1]

The book, which is clearly intended for a wide audience rather than a scholarly few, opens with an overview that ranges from early works like the west portal at Saint-Fortunat, Charlieu and the Avenas altar to “first Gothic,” portals including such famous examples as Saint-Bénigne at Dijon and Saint-Lazare at Avallon. This introductory chapter sheds light both on the genesis of Burgundian Romanesque and on the dispersal of iconographic themes to peripheral monuments. The author’s presentation of texts and inscriptions highlights how in its early manifestation the portal was conceived not only as an entrance to heaven but to the body of Christ. The decorated tympana which became such an important element of portal design only emerged as an architectural component at the very end of the eleventh century. The west doorway at Saint-Fortunat, Charlieu (c. 1100), which depicts Christ flanked by standing angels with the twelve Apostles on the lintel, has perhaps the earliest carved tympanum to survive in Europe. From this modest Burgundian example, the complex tympana at Cluny, Autun, and Vézelay follow.

The next four chapters group twelfth-century Burgundian portals thematically. This approach by iconographic subject enhances the understanding of the mutation and development of recurrent themes. These chapters include careful descriptions of the sculpture, supported by detailed photographs that give even the armchair reader a vivid experience--especially welcome during a pandemic. Chapter 2 explores the iconography of the Ascension and Theophany. The theme of the Ascension is traced to the early Christian ampullae preserved in the treasuries of Monza and Bobbio. These portals revealed the world au delàand the glory of the incarnation of the Lord. They are manifestations of the presence of Christ that evoke and re-enforce the mystery the Eucharist. The west portal of the great abbey of Cluny (c. 1115-1120 and destroyed 1810) is included here, albeit in a summary manner.

The third chapter on the Last Judgment opens with an overview of the texts that gave rise to imagery, notably the apocryphal text of the Apocalypse of St Paul (a fourth-century vision of heaven and hell), St Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Bede. After briefly treating the tympanum at Saint-Vincent at Mâcon the author turns to the west portal of Saint-Lazare at Autun. The giant figure of Christ dominates with the blessed including the Virgin to the right of the Lord, lively vignettes of damnation on his left, and the dead rising from their sarcophagi on the lintel his feet. The trumeau (restored) depicts Lazarus and his sisters welcoming the faithful into the sanctuary. The outer archivolt shows the Signs of the Zodiac and the Labors of the Months. The distinctive and consistent style of carving with parallel ridged draperies, lively narrative detail and poignant facial expressions is believed by most to be the work of, Gislebertus who not only signed the tympanum directly beneath the feet of Christ but carved all but a few capitals of the church interior. But this book focuses on iconography; so artistic style is not central.

The focus of the fourth chapter is on the Pentecost and The Mission of the Apostles, which dominates the central narthex portal at Sainte-Marie-Madeleine at Vézelay. This depiction of the Holy Spirit descending upon Christ’s disciples after the Resurrection is unique in Burgundian sculpture. Though rare in the Early Christian period, interest in the Pentecost increased during the third quarter of the eleventh century. Reflecting on the rarity of the iconography, the author points to the representation of the theme in three manuscripts: the Reichenau Epistolary, the Limoges Sacramentary, and the Cluny Lectionary. The subjects of the eight compartments around the tympanum remain under debate but those of the lintel probably, as Katzenellenbogen suggested in 1944, illustrate the people of the earth: dog-headed cynocephali, the big-eared panotii, the Arabs, and the Jews. Interest in exotic and mythical peoples is explicable in the context of emergent social movements--pilgrimage, Crusade and the growth of urban centers. The sculpture even extends onto the trumeau (John the Baptist holding the emblem of the agnus dei) and jambs (Apostles and a prophet). As is often remarked, this expansion of the iconographic program from the doorway across the entire entranceway (the portal is flanked by smaller doors with the Emmaus story and the Adoration of the Virgin and Child) is a precursor to the extended iconographies of Gothic portals.

The fifth chapter showcases the iconography of the Virgin and Child. As he does consistently, the author begins with early texts, inscriptions, and events, the naming of Mary as mother of Christ at Ephesus in 431, Bede (d.735) and Haimo of Auxerre (d. 865). The most frequent Marian theme in Burgundian Romanesque portals (twelve out of fifteen carved examples) is the Adoration of the Magi. These reveal a growing interest in the veneration of the Virgin evident in Burgundy as in most of Europe by the early twelfth century. But the Coronation of the Virgin is nowhere in sight in Burgundy despite its early appearance elsewhere (as on the capital from the Reading Abbey cloister c. 1120).

The final chapter includes a descriptive catalogue of the portals. Bibliography following each entry would have added enormously to the value of the book. The photographs, both general views and especially the closeups, are laudable and do full justice to this wonderful sculpture. Some editorial glitches are perplexing, like the failure to include page numbers at the head of the reference pages. But this is a minor issue in so brave an enterprise. The book is a fine introduction to the portals of one of the richest regions of twelfth-century Romanesque sculpture. The immensity of the task of bringing them together is daunting, but the author has done so to great effect, thereby making the material accessible to a wide audience.



1. Marcello, Angheben, Les chapiteaux romans de Bourgogne: Thèmes et programmes, Culture & Société Médiévales (Turnhout: Brepols, 2003).