The west portal of Chartres
Cathedral, known as the Royal Portal, was part of
a campaign to beautify the cathedral, which began in the
time of Bishop Ivo (reg 1090–1116).
It is an integral part of a new west front
made for an extension of the nave of Fulbert’s cathedral.
This was done in two stages: the first, c.
1140, comprised the north-west tower, originally free-standing,
and a façade to replace the tower porch that had previously
formed the entrance to Fulbert’s nave. The appearance of this
façade is difficult to establish.
It would have had at least a single window and a single portal, as at Le Mans
Cathedral, but the three windows and the three portals of the later phase may already have been
The matter has been discussed for nearly
a century, but arguments, whether based on style, analogy or archaeology, have proved
The date of the second stage, when the façade was moved forward to its present
position, is controversial. The one thing that is certain is that it was done in conjunction
with the building of the south-west tower.
Christ in Majesty with the Evangelist Symbols and Apostles, on…Whether or not it
began as a single portal, in its final form the Royal Portal was a remarkable fusion of formal
design with iconographical presentation.
It is divided horizontally into upper and lower parts, but the tripartite
division is really emphasized only in the upper parts. The three doorways are related in the
proportions of 1:√2:1, or 7:10:7.
These numbers are represented by the corbels over each door and by the number of
column statues on the embrasures.
The side portals have the odd arrangement of three figures on one side
confronting four on the other. At this level the divisions between the portals are unimportant. The
capitals form continuous friezes, running outward in both directions from the centre. Collectively
the column statues (originally 24) seem to represent the Old Testament, while the capitals narrate
salient episodes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin. This horizontal division is fundamental
to the iconography.
Above it, the three tympana show Christ in
his decisive epiphanies: at the Nativity (south); to the
Apostles, and through them to the Church, after the
Resurrection (north); and at the end of time, as revealed by St
The voussoirs bear the Signs of the Zodiac
and the Labours of the Months; the Seven Liberal Arts and their
principal exponents; and the Elders of the Apocalypse.
The whole ensemble is thoroughly didactic
and encyclopedic in character, and the style has a formal
rigour to match. Occasionally, however, it is relieved by the
first softening touches of humanism to appear in medieval
Delicate modulation of anatomy and rapt expressions verging on smiles raise some
of the column statues to the level of great art and justify their epoch-making reputation.
Photo by Notre Dame Architecture
The place of the Royal Portal at Chartres in the stylistic
evolution of medieval figure sculpture has been variously assessed.
Most scholars are agreed about the superlative quality of the column statues of
the central doorway, which are distinguished from the others by being attributed to the so-called
Headmaster, but the relationship of these statues to the rest depends on theory.
Other sculptors at Chartres can be traced to Etampes and perhaps to Saint-Denis
By comparison with the Headmaster, the Etampes sculptor strikes modern eyes as
somewhat clumsy, but his lack of competence alone is not enough to allow one to infer that he
belonged to an earlier generation of sculptors.
For all his sophistication and subtle technique the Headmaster responded to the
mathematical discipline of the overall design far more punctiliously than his colleagues; and if a
monumental figure style evolved by emancipating movement and gesture from such abstract
constraints, his place in the sequence should be nearer the beginning than theirs. Quality is no
clue to chronology.
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