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Remembering the Notre Dame de Paris Interior, Part 2

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

This entry continues an analysis of the thirteenth century choir screen of Notre Dame de Paris, with photos taken in 2018, before the 2019 fire. For part one of this discussion, please redirect here.

Adoration of the Magi

In this tableau, by way of acute contrast to the tiny, humble shepherds in the previous panel (Part 1), the three kings have jumped the line of the procession, and are presenting their gifts. Gold has pride of place here, with the kneeling king (see his crown at Mary's feet?) presenting to a golden-haired baby Jesus. The other kings, with their incense and myrrh in identical Williams-Sonoma Lock-Tite (TM) canisters look alarmed that they've been shown up. Mary is at her most radiant here. Joseph realizes that he's an accessory to the scene. (There is a whole trope of "Joseph's doubt" in medieval art which I hope to deal with in a later post.). The Bethlehem star Angel makes his reappearance, and infant Jesus looks a little like infant Barron Trump in that gilded People spread, lo, these many years ago.

I'm not trying to be politically snarky here. This People Magazine spread self-consciously draws on the ideas of royal maternity and precious successor:

Here Melania Trump isn't wearing the blue, starry mantle of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven, but, in modern, more secular symbolism, she and the baby are in a virginal white, isolated in a golden vault, which connotes a similar kind of elite purity. (Photo: People Magazine)

Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist

This is one of my favorite types of scenes: the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Why? Because sculptors, mosaicists, and painters before the Renaissance drive themselves crazy on how to portray Jesus in the river Jordan, without subordinating him to John, and keeping a modest nakedness going on. This one has an absolutely miserable-looking John, a Jesus who's thisclose to doing an eyeroll over the whole affair, and---who the heck is that attendant holding Jesus' robe? If you care, I'll dig up some images I have from much earlier of this scene with the river god of the Jordan also present; I've seen several. It's a pagan remnant. What I find intriguing about this image: 1) the cup John uses to poor water over Jesus' head runs contiguous with his hair--there's no differentiation between water and hair. I wonder if originally there was a difference in paint. 2) This is the first suggestion I've *ever* seen of a Jesus with a receding hair line. I don't know what to make of this. Surely, some doctoral art history student has pored over this portrayal. I'm going to have to go back to the library.

Scenes with the Apostles

Here we have three scenes which are rather static. On the left is the Supper at Emmaus, with Jesus greeting the humble folks on the left, and shown inside their home, having dinner with them (a delightful way to represent two events in one image). In the middle is Jesus (center), teaching the apostles. On the far right, we have Doubting Thomas, the apostle who wanted proof that the man before him truly was Christ risen from the dead, and so stuck his hand into the spear wound in Christ's side. they are bookended by terrified little figures in towers--I can't tell whether these are apostles or not. What I love in this sequence is the way architecture is used to create a break in scenes, much like a film strip, running left to right.

The Last Supper

So, here's the Last Supper panel. In terms of the centrality of certain scenes to a medieval church's decoration, The Last Supper is in the top 5, for sure (The others being Crucifixion, Last Judgment, Nativity, and The Annunciation, in my informal survey.). I'm a bit baffled by this one, because the iconography is more vague than I'm used to. John is obvious, because he's sleeping on Christ's bosom, per the gospel. But which one is Judas? Usually, he's made to stand out, either being red-headed, or on the other side of the table, or having a hook-nose to make him appear more Jewish than the other, ahem, Jewish guys. My guess is that Judas is the guy at the left end of the table. Because left is "sinister," and other guys are pointing at them. That said, I'm not sure who is Peter and who is Paul (who's usually shown as bald). Peter might be the guy with the biggest beard, pointing at Judas. Jesus looks like he really wishes he'd ordered takeout and stayed home to watch HBO. More seriously, the expressions of Jesus throughout the ages of art is another topic no doubt covered by art historians. There's a range from the more classical God From Beyond Human Affairs gaze into the distance, the anguish on the cross, the compassionate empathizer with human suffering, to a few others. This one gazes out at the audience, or beyond us, suggesting he is preoccupied with the great sacrifice he will soon be making.


Here's the scene with Jesus' "Let this cup pass from me" moment--anguish, as before in the Last Supper, but he faces away from us toward God. Gethsemane. It's partially cut off, which makes me think that a centuries-later remodel must have truncated other scenes So, the cut-off left me with a weird angle from which to photograph this. The kodachrome-winged angel is back. Here we have God leaning over Jesus at a very weird angel. The disciples are clustered together in a sleeping pile like kittens: I think Peter and Paul are in the foreground. Jesus and God look like they're arguing over the plan, with Jesus saying, "Really? I have to make the ultimate sacrifice for *these* bozos, who can't even stay awake, and God saying, "Yes, it's right here in the contract. Sorry." The attending angels look uncomfortable. The shield with the Fleur de Lis is like the official royal French court seal of approval on this whole deal. Why *this* is the point for that emblem, I don't know. Perhaps it's an indicator of sponsorship?

Christ and the Magdalene

Here's one more from the choir screen--on the other side of the choir. It's the Magdalene encountering Jesus after the Resurrection, where he rejects her joy at seeing someone she loves as a person, with the rebuke, "Noli me tangere." (Don't touch me.) This signals that he's fully divine now, and her human touch would profane him. She has her attribute with her--the perfume jar, which she used to wash his feet (as interpreted by medieval clergy that the woman with the jar was the Magdalene, though she was not named in that passage). Her other most common attribute--beautiful, usually golden, long hair--has been tucked into a wimple, because she's a contrite and respectable saint, now. I am not sure why Jesus holds a spade. A symbol of death (grave-digging), or is he gardening? If it's gardening, then here you have the Christian close-parenthesis to Adam and Eve: clothed, non-sexual, and laboring, with Eve completely subjugated and obedient. Not what I had in my head regarding, "We've got to get ourselves back to the garden," as the song goes.

I continue to kick myself that I didn't do a more exhaustive shoot of the interior. Who knew that something that seems so eternal (esp. compared to my own puny lifespan) would be ephemeral? Please continue to Part 3 of this talk for analysis of the stained glass windows in Notre Dame.


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