Curatorial Essay

           When individuals enter a space, they alter themselves to fit the roles it requires them to fill. Their behavior must be appropriate for the events that are occurring; if not, they risk being removed. I am particularly interested in how people from the Medieval period would have acted within a religious space and what influenced them to behave a certain way. I argue that it was an individuals’ encounter with the entrance to a building that was most influential in determining behavior, particularly in religious settings which utilized monumental structures and sculpture. Large or ornate portals would have been transformative for the viewer, for the act of passing through would have been a sign to them to alter their mindset. I will be comparing entrances and portals across two Abrahamic religions—Islam and Christianity—built or reworked from the eighth century up until the fourteenth century. For Islam, I will be examining the al-Jāmi al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem as well as the Shāla Necropolis in Morocco. The geometric and line-work patterns that come from Islamic sculpture contrast with the iconographic and narrative scenes that decorate the portals of Christian churches, such as the Church of St. Astvatsatsin in Noravank, Armenia and the Cathedral of St. Lazare in Autun, France. In all of these religious buildings, the architectural structure and sculpture of the portals had the ability to not only lead the viewers’ eyes but also to imply the expectations of the space they were about to enter.

            The central portal of the al-Jāmi al-Aqsa Mosque is an example of a portal that not only prepares its viewers for the building they are going into, but it also reminds them of the space in which they are currently in. The al-Aqsa Mosque is located within a site that is also home to the Dome of the Rock, a significant location in Islam where it is believed Muhammad ascended to heaven. Historically, the structure was mostly built by ‘Abd al-Malik and his son, al-Walīd in the eighth century[1], though earthquakes forced later rulers to make alterations and rebuild up until the twelfth century. It is located on the southern wall of the enclave with the front façade facing north and the Dome of the Rock[2]. The viewers’ first clue as to how to use this building is the central portal itself as it indicates where they should enter— it supports a portion of the wall that rises higher than the rest and breaks the uniformity of the seven-arch arcade it is apart of.

             The pointed arches[3]  were a commonly used structure in Islamic architecture, so their presence in this place of worship would have been an immediate indicator to any viewer as to the style and possible use of the building. The arch is repeated throughout the interior of al-Aqsa Mosque, and it is seen in another arcade that stands right outside The Dome of the Rock. This repetition reminds the viewers that they will see this type of structure again, as well as bringing back memories of instances they have seen it before, which was probably in another encounter with Islamic architecture. The marble columns with Corinthian order capitals, a Western style of decoration, spark a different thought in the same way. They were actually taken from Roman and Byzantine buildings as spoilia and can be seen throughout the enclave[4] and remind viewers of the interactions and influences of the Romans, the Byzantines, and their ancestors. The recurrence of the columns and capitals would have told viewers in the Medieval period that exchanges with people from other religions of the book were unavoidable, even within the parts of Jerusalem that might have been only attractive to Muslims. After the Crusades, the columns would have also reminded Medieval viewers of the additions that were made to the mosque by crusaders when they had used it as a church. Once it became a mosque again, the viewers would not necessarily have to think of the building as a previous church, but they would still be reminded of the history of the building and of their faith. The reminder of the Christians’ presence might influence an individual to enter al-Aqsa while reframing Islam within a wider religious narrative that engages with other faiths; though, each individual will have a different perception of other religions and the history between them and Islam, which will determine how they behave within the space.

            The geometric ornamentation around the arch and near the door—beneath the small dome that covers the main portal—is a sign that specifically points to Islam and its culture’s architecture, as the religion does not condone the use of iconography. Many practicing Muslim’s would be aware of this, since other religious objects like the Qur’an were decorated in the same fashion, and would enter the space after seeing this zig-zag design with the knowledge that they were about to enter a space designed for worship. Being reminded of these objects, especially the Qur’an, might have incited piousness within individuals, and perhaps, when inside the mosque, they would become more zealous about their religion than they were outside of it.

            The sculptural designs on the main gate of Shāla would have promoted the same type of mindset for whoever wished to enter the religious compound. Near the city of Rabat, Morocco, the necropolis was built by the Marinid dynasty sometime in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. The entire complex is made up of many Islamic structures such as a mosque, several qubbas, a madrasa, and a garden[5]. Shāla has had several purposes throughout its history—the two primary ones being as a family necropolis and as a ribāt[6]. The main gate is flanked by two tall towers and faces north-west. The geometric patterns and decorations on the bastions and around the arch of the gate would have reminded individuals of the Islamic faith, as would the muqarnas that were sculpted just below the parapets. This honeycomb design is very common in Islamic architecture would have had the same effect of recalling faith as the pointed arch did, encouraging viewers to treat this place as an area dedicated to their religion.

            The design of the main gate particularly makes this compound feel like it was meant to be a protected area, and it was preserving the venerated dead in honor of their memory.[7] The structure’s appearance as a fortress denotes Shāla’s history[8] as a defensive outpost for military volunteers who functioned as servants of God’s purpose. Despite whether or not it was used for important military campaigns, the appearance of a base of strength for their force would have been a motivator for medieval soldiers viewing the gate to invest themselves in their service while residing in the compound. The inscription on the battlements next to the portal would have suggested either purpose to an individual entering Shāla; it says “take refuge in God.”[9] This phrase would have put the viewer into the mindset of a someone participating in either the lesser or greater jihad, whose actions for whichever case are for God and his almightiness. Individuals coming specifically for the necropolis would have been reminded that in death one returns to God, and therefore, death would be the ultimate “refuge” in Him. This script, along with the reminders of Islamic tradition in the sculpted patterns, would encourage viewers upon entry to be invested in the religiosity of an entire compound dedicated to the faith.

            In Armenia, the Orthodox Catholic churches of the medieval period also have vegetal and geometric ornamentation in their sculptures. The Church of St. Astvatsatsin in the Noravank Monastery is an example of a medieval Armenian building which, much like the inscriptions and decorations on the Islamic structures discussed above, utilizes the portal to instruct and define the use of the space for the viewer. The church was built in the fourteenth century and decorated by a well-known Armenian sculptor Momik. He is well known for the design of the khatchkars[10], cross-stones, which are featured throughout the church and the rest of the monastery. One is featured on Astvatsatsin’s West façade towards the point of the wall directly above both the oratory portal and the main portal, and it connects this building to the rest of the monastery and the rooms within the church. The architectural elements and decoration of this façade and its portals—unlike the flat, rectangular façade of al-Aqsa Mosque—are incredibly dynamic. The most noticeable element would be the stairs that extend in a triangular shape from each bottom corner of the façade meeting at the oratory door. The stairs are meant to be used for function and decoration, and the way in which they are designed instruct the viewers’ eyes not only to the oratory door to which they lead, but also to the main portal directly in the center of the triangular shape they create.

            There is not much room to stand when reaching the oratory door, but a viewer can very obviously see the immense amount of detail in the line-work designs of the bas relief sculptures as well as the tympanum, which stands in higher relief. In the tympanum, St. Peter and St. Paul flank the bust of Christ, who is identified by the script[11] around him, which reads “Isus Kristos” or Jesus Christ. The sculpture intimates to the viewer which figure is the most significant, Christ, by centralizing him and utilizing hierarchy of size. This would imply that the space beyond the portal should be used to worship these figures, but specifically and most importantly the Savior should be more venerated than all others as he is in the Christian religion.

            The scene in the tympanum, and the surrounding decoration, of the central portal below has a very similar layout. The primary figure in this case is the religious icon to whom this church is dedicated, Mary, the Holy Mother of God (Astvatsatsin). She sits enthroned with the Christ Child in her lap and is flanked by two angels, identified as the archangels Gabriel and Michael. That Mary should be the recipient of the viewers’ prayers is implied not only by her size and placement within the tympanum but also by the fact that her tympanum is above the most utilized door. These figures are also labeled with Armenian script as in the tympanum above the oratory door. When the lettering of the Armenian culture was first created, it was considered to be religiously significant—as if the creator of the script was given it by God or through some holy intervention.[12] To an Armenian audience, for whom this church was constructed, the lettering would have religious, informational, and artistic relevance and might imply to them that the structure is imbued with a sort of holiness. The whole façade implies to an Armenian viewer to take pride in his/her heritage due to the use of the culture’s script and the work of a popular Armenian sculptor, and this pride would translate to an invigorated devotion to the church as well as the religion it stands for.

            The central portal of the Cathedral of St. Lazare would also spur a medieval audience to devote themselves to the Christian faith, though through a different tactic. The pieces of this entrance which are the most eye-catching, because they make up the largest and most detailed portions of the portal, are the lintel and tympanum[13] depicting the Last Judgment. This scene juxtaposes the damned and the saved souls beneath a divine, judgmental Christ—to a sinless viewer, this could have inspired a continuation of the “good” existence according to Catholicism, but these images would have been a terrifying warning to those who were living in sin, attempting perhaps to convert their behavior by using fear as a motivator[14]. The results of living with or without sin are laid out plainly for the audience: if you are judged to be worthy of saving, angels will usher you into the City of Heaven, but if you are to be damned, you face torment from demons and inescapable pain. The idea of judgment is clear in Christ’s separation[15] from the the scene and the viewer, the depiction of the archangel St. Michael with the soul-weighing scale, and the distinct contrast between the realm of the saved to Christ’s right and the realm of the damned to his left.

            Other elements of the portal do not focus so heavily on judgment and allow viewers’ minds to wander to other aspects of the cathedral and the Roman Catholic Church. The trumeau shows depictions of Saint Lazarus, the patron saint of the cathedral, and his sisters, Mary and Martha, which effortlessly articulates to the viewer through visual recognition that this cathedral is dedicated to this person. The saint acted as a greeter to whomever entered his building and would have inspired medieval minds to pray to him or his sisters for their support upon entering and interacting with the space beyond the portal. The historiated capitals on the top portion of the portal’s jambs would have also had a similar effect as they depicted narrative scenes that were smaller and less complicated than what was going on in the tympanum and lintel. Allegorical lessons could be found in some of these sculptures, such as the one of Saint Jerome and the Lion, in which the man studiously concentrates on pulling a thorn from the paw of what is supposed to be his enemy. Medieval viewers with knowledge of this story might have received the general message that kindness would earn them good returns, and they would have taken that idea with them into the cathedral perhaps encouraging them to donate charitably that day or to generally be a good congregation member and Christian[16]. The relief sculpture is the main component here that would influence the viewers because it is heavily used in decoration, but the portal is very similar to those in the Islamic buildings in that the architectural elements of the doorway inform the viewer about similar themes and shapes that will be repeated throughout the entire cathedral.

            This trend perhaps points to a larger architectural standard that separate structures in a space should emulate each other to form a cohesive whole. The portal is perhaps the most important structure to focus on when constructing the building because the transition through it is the first real interaction a viewer has with the building, and that transition should change the mindset of the viewer to allow them to properly adjust to the space[17].  In the Islamic al-Aqsa Mosque and Shāla Necropolis, the space is defined and informed mostly by tradition of forms, styles, and shapes seen in the portal and echoed throughout the structure. Christian iconography allows for the religion’s buildings, like the Church of St. Astvatsatsin and the Cathedral of St. Lazare, to send specific messages through visuals; though, the Armenian St. Astvatsatsin and the Islamic buildings share the ability to communicate directly through the use of their respective scripts that were seen as more fit for divine messages and seen in general as holier than other cultures’ forms of written language. Script, however, may not always be as memorable and effective as imagery. Juxtapose, for example, an inscription stating “The sinful will be punished” and a sculpture of a tormented soul being grabbed by spiny, demonic hands—seeing a visual representation of what could happen to an individual is much more terrifying than simply being told what consequences may fall upon him/her, and therefore, inspires action. However, portals need not be elaborately decorated structures to be optimally functional. The key factor in the design of a portal on any faith-driven structure is the ability to believably transition a viewer from the external area into a religious space.



[1] See Al-Ratrout & El-Awaisi 513-514 for the history of al-Aqsa’s construction.

[2] See Al-Ratrout & El-Awaisi 511-512 for more discussion on the enclave.

[3] For a brief commentary on pointed arches, see Al-Ratrout & El-Awaisi 515.

[4] Al-Ratrout & El-Awaisi 533 describe these as “traces of ‘Abd al-Malik’s structure.”

[5] See Nagy 134 for general plan of the complex and 135-141 for in-depth historical knowledge of these structures.

[6] Nagy 138 references different definitions of ribāt; used first for defensive purposes and later developing into a sort of convent.

[7] Nagy 145 stresses the protection of dead rulers and their families and the idea. It is apparent how he believes that veneration was a key motivating factor in the design of the complex. Though the wall and gate surrounding Shāla were built for the purpose of mujāhids, the visual connotation of protection was spread to every purpose that was applied to the complex, including maintaining the sanctity of the necropolis.

[8] For a layout of the mujāhid history of Shāla, see Nagy 134-135. He references how soldiers were participants in mujāhid, but the functionality of Shāla was never

[9] Nagy 138 pulls this information from a translation done by Henri Basset and Évariste Lévi-Provençal in their text “Chella.”

[10] For history of khatchkars and inscriptions, see Rapti 190.

[11] Rapti 189 states that inscriptions “seem to be transferred in medieval monuments to the focal points of the door,” forcing viewers to read them as they enter the building.

[12] Rapti 187 describes Armenian script as being seen as a “gift of divine providence” and made up of “sacred signs.”

[13] Seidel 13 writes that “Scholarship on medieval art…regards the tympanum as a special field of force.” She writes about how it is a perfect area for the artist to ensure his work his known because it will be viewed as people enter the cathedral, though the same exposure would do just as much for the ideas of the sculpture.

[14] Seidel 76 supports this by saying that medieval masonry was particularly influential in the activation of “contemporary imaginative practices.”

[15] See Seidel 10-11 for commentary on how the mandorla specifically causes severance between Christ and the scenes around him. The shape of the mandorla is visually analogous to seals that were used in the same time period as the central portal’s construction, which would have reminded medieval viewers of the legal judgment they would receive here on the physical plane.

[16] Seidel 76-77 claims that Romanesque buildings in particular are adept in inspiring thought and “creating expectations for and connections with visitors,” which they would carry throughout their experience with the structure.

[17] Rapti 190 more accurately describes a door as a “synecdoche,” or a part that is meant to represent the entire entity, for the rest of the structure.

Works Cited:

“Al-Jāmi' Al-Aqsa (Al-Aqsa Congregation Mosque).” The Architectural Development of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Islamic Jerusalem in the Early Islamic Period Sacred Architecture in the Shape of the 'Holy', by Haithem Fathi. Al-Ratrout, Al-Maktoum Institute Academic Press, 2004, pp. 511–534.

Eastmond, Antony, editor. “Displaying the Word: Words as Visual Signs in the Armenian Architectural Decoration of the Monastery of Noravank' (14th Century).” Viewing Inscriptions in the Late Antique and Medieval World, by Ionna Rapti, Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 187–204.

Nagy, Péter Tamás. “Sultans' Paradise: The Royal Necropolis of Shāla, Rabat.” Al-Masāq, vol. 26, no. 2, 2014, pp. 132–146. Taylor and Francis Online, doi:10.1080/09503110.2014.915103.

Seidel, Linda. Legends in Limestone: Lazarus, Gislebertus, and the Cathedral of Autun. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

Curatorial Essay