Curatorial Essay

Portals and typanums of curatorial essay objects that depict either the Apocalypse or Last Judgement (above).

            Many Christians followed the pilgrimage route of that taken by St. James, which leads to Santiago de Compostela. This route is commonly known as the Camino. Today, his route has been expanded into many different branches, coming from all over Europe and ending at Santiago de Compostela. The many pilgrims who travel these routes every year could be seeking forgives, guidance in their lives, or ensuring their salvation when the Apocalypse finally comes.[1] Along these routes, many pilgrims travel through parts of France and Spain and visit many Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals. These were two of the final styles of art and architecture that marked the end of the Medieval period. As the Christian faith grew throughout Medieval Europe, churches began to grow and use art and architecture to mirror their beliefs, specifically the belief of the Last Judgement of souls. One of the first things that a Christian pilgrim would see walking into these churches was the portal, or entrance to the church. Because of this, pilgrimage portals in Medieval cathedrals were meant to have a powerful impact on travelers in their art and architecture. It’s because of this that many of these portals depicted the Apocalypse or the Last Judgement.

            Four cathedrals along the routes, the Cathedrals of St. Lazare, Burgos, Leon, and Santiago de Compostela, are examples of Medieval architecture. St. Lazare was built to hold the bones of St. Lazarus, who is said to be raised from the dead by Christ in the Christian religion.[2] St. Ferdinand commissioned the Burgos Cathedral after he married his wife in the Old Burgos Cathedral.[3] Leon Cathedral was originally built as a Romanesque church for the crowning of King Alfonso V, but was later rebuilt into its Gothic form.[4] Santiago de Compostela was built over St. James’ tomb and became the center of pilgrimage, with the scallop shell as the pilgrimage symbol.[5] St. Lazare and Santiago de Compostela Cathedrals are examples of the Romanesque style (which came before the Gothic style) and the Leon and Burgos Cathedrals are Gothic. The Romanesque Cathedrals have rounded voussoirs and tympanums in their portals. This rounded shape allows the portals and entrances to appear taller. The Gothic Cathedrals, on the other hand, use pointed voussoirs and tympanums in their portals. The points disperse and angle the thrust downward, making their portals both taller and deeper than the previous Romanesque style.

            St. Lazare’s west portal holds a tympanum depicting a scene of the Last Judgement.[6] Santiago de Compostela’s Portico de la Gloria has a tympanum of an Apocalyptic scene. In both portals, Christ is the central figure and is shown having open arms and being a frontal. Santiago de Compostela’s trumeau shows St. James sitting on a lion, holding a pilgrim staff, which many pilgrims carried to help them traverse the land on their journey.[7] On either side of the trumeau are jamb figures of apostles and prophets who appear to be in conversation with one another.[8] The voussoir leading from the jambs holds 24 elders that are playing instruments, which were designed so accurately that they were successfully reproduced into life-size scale.[9] The tympanum is a high relief sculpture depicting Christ in Majesty with angels, prophets, and apostles who appear to have been smiling.[10] Master Matthew, the artist, seems to take a more hopeful view on the Apocalypse in Christianity.[11] He focuses on the redemption and returning faithful of the Christian world. St. Lazare’s Cathedral, on the other hand, offers a darker comparison. While St. Lazare’s tympanum is also a high relief sculpture, it is divided into two sides: the right of Christ depicting heaven and the left of Christ depicting hell.[12] Mary, the Mother of Christ, is enthroned in heaven on Christ’s right.[13] Below her is the kingdom of heaven, shown as being a building with rounded arches in the windows.[14] The other side of Christ, however, shows a much darker depiction. It shows St. Michael, and archangel in Christianity, weighing souls to decide who goes to heaven and who is damned to hell.[15] The lintel below the tympanum shows souls being raised from the dead to be judged, arranged in the same way the tympanum is arranged. It even shows a pilgrim carrying a scallop to judgement, representing those who have gone on pilgrimage in the hope of being saved from eternal damnation.[16] While Santiago de Compostela’s figures are holy people who would be awaiting the blessed as they entered heaven, St. Lazare’s tympanum and lintel show the reality of the Last Judgement: not everyone will be saved. As Christ looks out, not addressing those being judged, it shows that it is too late for the souls to fix their wrong doings.[17]This is a strong image to pilgrims, or anyone who may see the sculpture. It shows them their fate, especially by representing one of the souls as a pilgrim and allows them to think about their life decisions or future decisions.

            Like the St. Lazare lintel, the lintel of the portal on the west façade of Leon Cathedral shows a comparison between heaven and hell and is arranged in a similar manner.[18] The left side is heaven and the right side is hell. They both depict the Last Judgement, but in different ways. While there is still an angelic figure in the center of the lintel, Leon depicts the aftermath of souls instead of focusing on the judgment of souls like St. Lazare does. In the Leon portal, the left shows figures playing instruments and interacting with one another. The right, however, shows devil figures burning souls in fiery cauldrons and three large devil heads chewing on the souls of the damned. If a pilgrim were walking along a route that included both St. Lazare and Leon, the pilgrim would first see the judgement in the St. Lazare portal, and then later in the journey, see Leon’s portal. The alignment of these two portals take the pilgrim on a whole other journey where they follow the events of the Apocalypse and the Last Judgement, seeing the judgement and after effects. Both cathedrals’ portals have Christ as the central figure and in high relief, but their structures are different due to their different architecture styles. As explained previously, Leon’s portal is much deeper due to its Gothic style. St. Lazare’s portal has some depth due to the Romanesque style, but not nearly as much as Leon and Burgos.

            The Leon and Burgos Cathedrals, as said before, are Gothic cathedrals, but they are similar in more ways than just their architecture, in relation to their portals. Burgos’s portal, in the south transept that is based on the Apocalypse, has voissours around the tympanum filled with angelic and holy figures that appear to move or fly up the voussoirs.[19] Leon’s portal also has voussoirs with this kind of high relief sculpture. What is also similar between the two is the general layout of the tympanum. Both tympanums have three registers, with the bottom one being a lintel. Leon’s shows the comparison between heaven and hell in its lintel, whereas Burgos’s lintel shows the apostles sitting and conversing with each other.[20] Both Leon and Burgos have Christ as the central figure, but it is what surrounds him that makes the two tympanums different from each other. Next to Christ in the Leon tympanum are angelic figures, with two kneeling figures on either side of them. Burgos, on the other hand, is surrounded by four winged figures, three of which are animals. These four figures directly surrounding Christ are the four evangelists’ symbols.[21] The four evangelists are the authors of the four Gospel books: St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John.[22] St. Matthew is usually represented by an angel or winged man, St. Mark is a lion, St. Luke is a bull or ox, and St. John is an eagle.[23] By each of these figures is a human figure working at a desk. These are the authors themselves,[24] working away at their Gospel books.

            Of all the portals compared between the four cathedrals, only one is an internal portal: Santiago de Compostela’s Portico de la Gloria. There are a couple key differences between this portal and the others. The first difference is that the portal has no doors. Because the portal is not directly adjacent to the outside elements, it has no need for doors. It still contains all other portal pieces, like a trumeau and jambs, but just no doors. The other key difference between this internal portal and the others is that what could have been a voussoir becomes an edge on a groin vault above the portal. While the groin vault is considered Gothic masonry, it uses the Romanesque rounded arches to form its shape and allows the thrust of the ceiling and roof of a church to be directed downward but angled outward, as well.[25] Groined vaults are formed by laying two rounded arches on top of one another. For Santiago’s portal, a decorative “voussoir” starts to climb upward from the jambs, but at a steeper angle, stretching up to the ceiling until either side crosses, forming the groined vault.

            As seen in both Santiago de Compostela and Burgos, apocalyptic portal scenes do not show souls being tortured or judged, but rather holy figures of the Christian faith that pilgrims may look to for help. Leon and St. Lazare, on the other hand, give visual comparisons between heaven and hell, good and evil, making their title, the Last Judgement, appropriate for what is being depicted. Pilgrims traveling the routes to Santiago de Compostela would see these kinds of portals and reflect on the Apocalypse and their own final judgement. They were meant to be a reminder of why these pilgrims were on their individual journeys. The Medieval period marks a time of large Christian development. Art and architecture formed to best represent the beliefs of the church. With the expansion to Romanesque and Gothic architecture, cathedrals became taller and more open. This is mirrored in the increased height and depth of the portals. The four cathedrals described above are examples of this symbolic architecture and are specifically made for those on pilgrimage. Together, they form a conclusive story about growth of the Christian identity and the end of the Medieval period.



[1] Bolli, Christine M. “Pilgrimage routes and the cult of relic.” Smarthistory.August 8, 2015. https://smarthistory.org/pilgrimage-routes-and-the-cult-of-the-relic/.

[2] Zucker, Dr. Steven and Dr. Beth Harris. “Last Judgement, Tympanum, Cathedral of St. Lazare, Autun (France).” Smarthistory, 5 Dec. 2015, https://smarthistory.org/last-judgment-tympanum-cathedral-of-st-lazare-autun-france/

[3] Stokstad, Marilyn. Medieval Art. Westview Press, 2004. 280-281

[4] Blankenbehler, Benjamin. “Leon Cathedral, Spain.” Architecture Revived, 2 Dec. 2015, www.architecturerevived.com/leon-cathedral-spain/#descriptions.

[5] Stokstad, Medieval Art, 256.

[6] Ibid. Zucker, Dr. Steven and Dr. Beth Harris

[7] Stokstad, Medieval Art, 256

[8] Ibid.

[9] Stokstad, Marilyn. Medieval Art. Westview Press, 2004. 256.

[10] Zucker, Dr. Steven and Dr. Beth Harris. “Last Judgement, Tympanum, Cathedral of St. Lazare, Autun (France).” Smarthistory, 5 Dec. 2015, https://smarthistory.org/last-judgment-tympanum-cathedral-of-st-lazare-autun-france/

[11] Zucker, Dr. Steven and Dr. Beth Harris

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Zucker, Dr. Steven and Dr. Beth Harris. “Last Judgement, Tympanum, Cathedral of St. Lazare, Autun (France).” Smarthistory, 5 Dec. 2015, https://smarthistory.org/last-judgment-tympanum-cathedral-of-st-lazare-autun-france/

[18] Ashley, Kathleen M., and Marilyn Deegan. Being a Pilgrim: Art and Ritual on the Medieval Routes to Santiago. Lund Humphries, 2009.

[19] Stokstad, Medieval Art, 281.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Stokstad, Marilyn. Medieval Art. Westview Press, 2004. 280-281

[22] Ibid., 370.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Stokstad, Marilyn. Medieval Art. Westview Press, 2004. 280-281

[25] Bolli, Christine M. “Pilgrimage routes and the cult of relic.” Smarthistory.August 8, 2015. https://smarthistory.org/pilgrimage-routes-and-the-cult-of-the-relic/.

Image citations:

Kren, Emily and Daniel Marx. Web Gallery of Art. https://www.wga.hu/html_m/g/gisleber/2lastj0.html

Chiu, Vincent Ko Hon. UNESCO. http://whc.unesco.org/en/documents/137484

Perez, Guillen. Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mossaiq/2514920960/sizes/z/

Architect Magazine. http://www.architectmagazine.com/design/a-20-image-history-of-santiago-de-compostela_o

Curatorial Essay