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The unexpected role of nature at Amiens Cathedral [slideshow]

Medieval church designers drew on nature in surprising and innovative ways. Organic forms appear in unexpected places, framing the portals that provide access to sanctified spaces, punctuating interior walls and supports, and hanging from the vaults that soar above the beholder. These foliate sculptures are often characterized as mere ornamentation, devoid of meaning or purpose. However, the Gothic cathedral of Amiens (1220-1269) in northern France suggests that designers used plant motifs strategically to interconnect and inflect the stratified spaces of the building in particular ways. The stone vegetation not only underscores the primary themes of the figural sculptures on the main doorway, but also functions as a signpost for the foliage inside the building and the ritual acts staged therein.

Three sculpted portals pierce the west facade of Amiens Cathedral. The central door, the largest of the three, depicts the Last Judgment, one of the most common subjects on medieval church facades. The Archangel Michael weighs the souls of the risen dead in the lintel spanning the top of the door. In the tympanum directly above are the saved and the damned being led to heaven and hell. Crowning the composition is a depiction of Christ enthroned in the palace of heaven in the company of two kneeling intercessors (the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist) and four angels holding the instruments of the Passion. A larger than life-size statue of Christ stands beneath an elaborate canopy in the trumeau at the center of the doorway. In the doorjambs to either side are statues of the Apostles.

Foliate sculptures are interspersed throughout the design of the Amiens portal. Two tangled vine friezes frame the lintel portraying the rising and weighing of souls. Their palmately-lobed leaves and round clusters of fruit leave little doubt that these friezes represent grapevines. The frieze below the lintel is aligned with the foliate capitals of the major and minor columns in the jambs, forming a continuous string of vegetation across the shallow space of the porch. Mirroring the serpentine forms of the lintel and jamb friezes are the entwined stems linking the figurated quatrefoils in the dado (bottom) zone of the buttresses flanking the central door, and the grapevine on the pedestal beneath the trumeau statue of Christ. The makers of the central portal carried the organic into the upper parts of the design with a depiction of a Jesse Tree in the two outermost archivolts enclosing the main scene. A muscular branch shoots from the side of the sleeping patriarch to support the royal ancestors of Christ above, including the crowned David playing his harp. The formal consonance between this fruit-bearing grapevine and the others lends cohesiveness to the doorway, unifying visually the dado, jambs, trumeau, lintel, and archivolts.

The semantically-charged grapevines on the Amiens portal function as glosses for the figural imagery, which focuses on Christ and his redemptive powers (“I am the true vine; and my Father is the husbandman,” John 15:1). The Christocentric associations of the vine are carried to the interior of the cathedral via the monumental frieze that runs around the entire building at the precise midpoint of the elevation. Unlike the botanical forms of the main portal, which unmistakably represent grapevines, the nave frieze does not accurately portray a specific plant species. And yet the interlaced stems marking the limits of each bay and clusters of round fruit are strongly suggestive of grapevines. It’s possible that the frieze’s distance from the viewer made the carving of mimetic details unnecessary for its identification as a grapevine. It’s equally possible, however, that the sequential experience of the cathedral as the beholder moved through space resulted in the production and transmission of meaning. Organic forms are not specifically coded, but can resonate in varied ways depending on the architectural context, the habitus of the viewer, and the adjacent figural imagery, among other factors. The juxtaposition of grapevines with images of Christ on the main portal lend the motif a decidedly Christocentric emphasis, and it’s with this emphasis in mind that medieval visitors encountered and interpreted the foliate frieze inside the building, making it a prime emblem of Christ. The Christ-vine connection expressed on the west facade and carried into the nave via the foliate frieze was then restated in a multisensory but fleeting manner during the ritual performance of the Mass with wine and bread at the high altar, which is on the same axis as the doorway and nave. What the foliage at Amiens Cathedral alerts us to, then, is the careful coordination of organic and figural imagery inside and outside the building, and a recursive structure, contingent upon the visitor’s movement, that becomes increasingly apparent after crossing the threshold.


Featured image: Author’s own. Used with permission.

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