The north transept portal of Notre-Dame
A scaffold had recently been placed before the north transept portal of Notre-Dame de Paris. This is so that it can closely studied for an ongoing project undertaken by researchers at the University of Bamberg (entitled Mittelalterliche Portale als Orte der Transformation). The fellows at the Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte working on the project ‘The Middle Ages and its Image’ were invited onto the scaffold so that we could inspect the images at close-hand. And so we did, on the eighth of April 2016.
The images below were taken on that day by Lukas Huppertz, Stephanie Luther and Martin Schwarz, fellows of the DFK. They are images of the sculptures on the tympanum, archivolts and trumeau, all carved around 1250.
The typanum is split into three levels. The lowest level narrates scenes from the infancy of Christ: his birth, the presentation in the temple, the massacre of the innocents and then the flight from Egypt. The upper two levels narrate a less well-known tale, the apocryphal story of Theophilus from Jacob de Voraigne’s The Golden Legend. According to the story, Theophilus was an administrator to the Bishop of Adana in Cicilia, an area that is now southern Turkey. However, an incoming bishop dismissed him from his post. Theophilus did not take this news well. With the help of a Jewish magician, he arranged to meet the devil, to whom he pledged himself with a contract written in his own blood. Although he was reinstated to his position, Theophilus inevitably regretted this pledge later in his life. He prayed for help from the Virgin, who obliged by taking the contract from the devil after threatening him with a sword. His soul saved, Theophilus died peacefully a few days later.
This story can be seen in the central tier of the typanum. On the uppermost tier above these scenes is the Bishop of Adana who explains the story to his enraptured flock by showing them Theophilus’s contract.
The juxtaposition of the Theophilus story with scenes from Christ’s infancy may seem peculiar. But there is a running theme between them: deliverance through the Virgin. Although Herod sends his soldiers to kill all the boys younger than two years old in Bethlehem, the Christ child escapes, held in his mother’s arms. Despite the fact that Theophilus is a very different character to Christ, he too finds himself defenseless, requiring the Virgin’s love and protection.
We hope you enjoy the photos. They reveal charming details from these scenes that either cannot be seen from ground level, or can but only with great difficulty. A particular favourite of ours was the donkey-shoe below the donkey’s hoof.