Rites of Passage: Gothic Portals as Places of Memory

By Nancy Thebaut.

Published by The Arts Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

As the foremost prominent sites of liminality and transition of a cathedral or monastery, portals are potent, performative, and monumental locales of collective memory as they prompt dynamic interaction with viewers. The gothic doorways of Moutiers-Saint-Jean, Notre Dame, and Reims embody what Pierre Nora deems “lieux de mémoire,” where residual memories are archived, emotion-filled, and even manipulated by a royal audience. The forging of past, present, and future personages is realized through the use of “guising” in each of these portals, wherein a number of individuals are simultaneously embodied in singular sculptural figures. In the portal of the Benedictine abbey of Moutiers-Saint-Jean, idealized biblical, Merovingian, and Capetian kings are sculpturally confounded as a means of gaining royal support, through sculptural flattery, from royal viewers. The Porte Rouge of Notre-Dame conversely evokes strained royal-ecclesiastical relations of the time between Louis IX and the Church’s Canons. Similarly, Reims Cathedral’s Last Judgment portal conveys the church-controlled notions of kingship through the implication of present-day royal viewers in the depiction of their protracted rewards and punishments. In this presentation, I aim to situate each of these portals as embodiments of memento mori, lieu de mémoire, and performative works that sculpturally implicate specific royal viewers.

Keywords: Arts and Audience, Collective Memory

The International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp.93-98. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.478MB).

Nancy Thebaut


Nancy Thebaut is a senior at Agnes Scott College, where she is studying medieval art and architecture under Donna Sadler. Her interest in portals and their sculptural programs piqued during an internship at the Cloisters museum as well as during summer studies of medieval architecture in France led by Stephen Murray and Andrew Tallon.


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