Dragons, lions and whatnot

A week or so ago, Dennis Aubrey over at Via Lucis – that amazing blog dedicated to photography of (mostly) Romanesque architecture in France – posted an entry about the sculptural decoration of the 12th century facade of the Prieuré Sainte Gemme. Aptly titled Curious Corbels, the post features some of those highly imaginative carvings – from realistic human heads to rather cartoonish figures, ferocious beasts and demons – so typical for the Romanesque era.

This reminded me that for quite some time now I have been meaning to do a post about the only still extant set of Romanesque carvings here in Vienna, i.e. the decorations on the main gate of the Stephansdom [St. Stephen’s Cathedral], the so-called Riesentor [Giant Gate]:

This richly decorated portal was begun c. 1237 and completed about fifteen years later, at a time when the Romanesque style had already begun to give way to the Gothic. However, its sculptures and ornaments are still firmly rooted in the Romanesque tradition. Thus, the tympanum shows Christ in Majesty flanked by two angels – unfortunately, though, this piece is not easy to capture on photo because it’s half-hidden by a close meshed the anti-pigeon-net:

Surrounding the tympanum is a series of archivolts with richly carved mouldings (which, actually, I have already mentioned and shown in one of my earlier posts). At the foot of the archivolts one finds the figures of the twelve apostles, and below that an amazing frieze of weird and fantastic creatures:

It is this frieze which interests me here and which, on the verge of the Gothic, shows the imagination of Romanesque sculptors and masons in all its bizarre glory one last time.

There are, of course, some relatively ‘normal’ human figures, even though most of them are confronted by fierce creatures such as this disproportionately large lion:

Lions, as is well known, were a favourite subject in high medieval sculpture and, right enough, here’s another one:

Next in line: dragons…

… and, presumably, an ape:

It’s hard to say what exactly the creature in the next photo is meant to represent. Personally, I’d refer to it as a demon, but it’s hard to say really…

It’s easier to identify the two gentlemen in the next picture: a cripple and the head of a man grasping his beard. It is equally difficult, though, to determine what their meaning is supposed to be.

Most scholars believe that the weird imagery in this frieze is meant to symbolize the moral perils of earthly existence, the confrontation of mankind with the snares of the devil. I must say, it’s hard to argue with that when looking at figures like these two…

… probably two of the most striking figures in all medieval art and definitely two of my personal favourites!

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4 Responses to Dragons, lions and whatnot

  1. Christian,
    Thanks for this fascinating post.
    Suggested interpretation for the cripple and the man holding his beard: The disabled man represents “ignorance” with a contented expression of bliss in his eyes and on his lips. The man stroking his beard: the beard represents “accumulated knowledge” and possibly, “wisdom.”
    The man stroking or holding on to it, represents the truth that man’s wisdom and knowledge can be lost through error, complacency, unclear thinking, or sin. Thus, the wise or knowledgeable person will “hold onto” the gift that has been given to him through hard work, study, and the fear of the Lord.

    • Thanks for the comment and the suggestions regarding possible interpretations.
      The problem is, of course, that we have virtually no evidence how people in the 12th/13th century “read” this particular kind of Romanesque carvings, so I’m afraid this is one of the areas where scholarly dissent and debate is pretty much inevitable.

  2. This is great stuff, I wish I’d made more time to examine the ornament when I was last at the Stephansdom. I missed all this completely, which is shameful. Now I know better, thankyou!

    • Thanks for the comment and apologies for the, er, slight delay in replying… Anyway, these carvings really are easy to miss. I guess they fall into the category of things you only notice when you know they’re there beforehand.

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