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Notre Dame de Paris' Tympanum

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

This image features the fate of the damned--stretching from their judgment by Saint Michael (upper-left), across to punishments for specific sins across the bottom-right of the frame.

The central portal at Notre Dame de Paris, just as many gothic churches, features a Last Judgment scene. The tympanum has been overzealously restored from its original carving, but there is still a coherent, consistent narrative.

My images are from my sabbatical trip in spring 2018, about a year before the catastrophic fire. My posts on the interior are bittersweet because I do not know the state of rescue inside. The portal here is undamaged, but the restoration has blocked off an easy view of the west facade.

Here is a pull-back, showing the full center of the tympanum. One distinctive feature of this version is that the judged sinners are all clothed. Usually, the dead as they awaken are shown naked (all equal before God), and the nudity of the damned is usually contrasted with the glorious raiments of the saved (seen in the central register, on our left, Christ's right). If you look closely in the bottom-right of the image, in the archivolts, you will see the sinners there are indeed, naked. I am not certain, but I would not be surprised if those sculptures were truer to the originals.

The Life of Mary Portal

The portal on the right-side of the entrance features scenes from the life of Mary. It's quite curious. It reads vertically, from bottom-to-top. This image cuts off the pedestal she stands on, which is important--it's a scene of Adam and Eve with the serpent. Eve is the New Mary, who helps redeem humanity where Eve condemned it. In the trumeau (the central door support), she stands, dressed as a queen, holding the infant Christ. Above her head is a portco which connect her and Christ to an altar, which is flanked by prophets on one side and kings on the other. I read this as evoking the Presentation in the Temple. Above this scene is the Dormition of the Virgin, where Mary is laid to rest by Jesus and the Apostles. Note the design of the sarcophagus, which echoes the altar below it. In the top register, Jesus and Mary sit on a throne (another box!), and she is crowned Queen of Heaven. In effect, Mary's life is explained by three boxes--the altar, the sarcophagus, and the bench-like throne. Jesus is with her at each phase, but their relationship changes--from his vulnerability to hers, to their sharing of the throne in heaven.

Here is a documentary about the ongoing repair-work at the cathedral.


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