Bourges, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne


    Begun ca. 1190

    Sculptural Program

    The western frontispiece of Bourges is articulated by a program of five sculpted portals. These portals are dedicated, from north to south, as follows: the northernmost portal is dedicated to William, a local saint; the portal just north of center is dedicated to the Virgin; in central position is a Last Judgment scheme; south of center is a St. Stephen theme; and a final local saint, Ursinus, who was a bishop of Bourges in the early Christian era, is celebrated in the southern-most doorway. The collapse of the north tower in the sixteenth century resulted in the destruction of the north portals of the western frontispiece, which were replaced later in that century.
    Two mid-twelfth-century portals, perhaps originally intended for the western frontispiece, were incorporated into the walls of the nave after construction of the present edifice began in 1195. Although the figures on the north nave portal have lost their heads, the front-facing sedes sapientiae has retained its dominance in the rounded tympanum of this entrance. Two angels, swooping in and seen in profile, can still be deciphered in the upper register, and the three magi appear to the left of the enthroned Christ. The play of the kings' drapery, with each one frozen at a different moment in the process of genuflection -- the right-most magus lunging forward, his garment curled into a graceful "S." The Annunciation and Visitation appear to the right of the Christ child, although these are rather damaged. In addition to the delicate figures, rich vegetal and geometric patterns adorn the lintel, archivolts, and jambs, alternating between mimetic naturalism and a kind of graphic abstraction, but in all cases exhibiting the marks of the craftsmen's chisels and drills.
    The portal on the south flank of the nave gives pride of place to the Majestas Domini, which is framed by an ovular mandorla and the four symbols of the tetramorph. Twelve apostles sit, engaging each other across the rounded arcade that silhouettes these seated figures. A row of angels, engrossed in various activities, comprises the inner archivolt, and another row of banderole-toting figures decorates the next archivolt. Floral interlace adorns the next archivolt and the embrasures. Cognates to this portal, with its cluster of jamb figures, can be found at the cathedral of Le Mans and the priory church of St-Loup-de-Naud.
    The portal on the north flank of the building dates between 1155 and 1160. The southern portals of the western frontispiece were likely carved in the early 1240s. The central portal dates between 1245 and 1250.

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