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Pentecost and Mission to the Apostles Tympanum, Vézelay

Video transcript

we've just walked up a very steep hill in the town of a sleigh in Burgundy in France and we're in the Church of the Madeleine we're in the narthex actually which is the forecourt inside the church before you walk into the Basilica itself and in the second set of doorways on the main portal above are a set of incredible temple but the central one is just astonishing this is among the first large-scale figural sculpture of the late medieval period this is a very important Church it houses the relics of Mary Magdalene it was a place where one of the pilgrimage routes began the pilgrimage routes were that worshipers could follow on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain from church to church from set of relics to set of relics so this church is important for the relics and as a place where a pilgrimage route began but it's also important because this was a place that the second and third Crusades began the first crusade which began in 1095 was an attempt by Christians in the West to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims now of course this was a terribly violent campaign and although they were initially successful ultimately they were driven out the second campaign was called by the Abbott clairvaux who wanted the Crusaders to go forth into non-christian lands and to convert those foreigners this idea of moving out and converting the world is reflected in a subject matter of this tympanum in the centre we see christ with six apostles on either side christ is giving his mission to the apostles to spread the gospel to all peoples of all nations and all creatures you can see actually that they're all holding books those would be the Gospels themselves that they're going to be preaching and if you look very closely you can see that there are Ray's miraculous representations of light that are reaching from Christ's fingers to the Apollo themselves some art historians have interpreted the scene as the mission to the apostles and some as the event that happened ten days later of the Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and they were given the ability to speak in many languages to convert the peoples of the earth and this tympanum is quite deliberate in representing those peoples of the earth and in a sense the strangeness of the world beyond christian borders the world was very small in the early 12th century it's truth the Europeans really didn't know much about the world beyond their borders the first Crusaders had come back with marvellous stories and they had spoken of people from southern Asia who had ears large enough to wrap themselves in and we see that on this tympanum that's right they spoke of small people that needed ladders to get up onto their horses and that's represented also literally here but this really speaks to the ignorance and in some ways the fear that people here had of the worlds that they didn't know in the center of this tympanum we see Christ in a mandorla kind of body halo but he breaks out of it he's so powerful and so large that even that spiritual light can't contain him and he's very thin and elongated he's also really elegant look at how his posture is somewhat to the side the knees are together but there's push to our right and I suspect that this is one of the ways that his divinity is represented look at his body you're absolutely right he's very flat very linear very attenuated but look at the way in which patterns are so carefully rendered there are those marvelous kinds of swirls and it's as if the cloth itself is a sign of his spirituality well and I think there's a divine energy that seems to run through the figures and their gestures and their limbs Christ is the largest figure he dominates everything and here we are in the early 12th century at this moment of the rebirth of monumental sculpture in the West some scholars have suggested that the stylization especially if the cloth can be seen in representations in painting from this time especially paintings from cleany the large Benedictine church just south of here and actually there's one example that survives of painting from that period at bears a la vie that some scholars suggest this resembles it makes sense that since large-scale figural sculpture was just being revived that artists would look to other media for systems of representation so let's take a look at the sculpture itself we have Christ in the middle as we've established we have the Apostles on either side and then down in the lintel we have the peoples of the world from different historical periods we have perhaps the ancient Greeks on the left that need to be converted just above the tympanum itself there are a series of compartments they also reflect this idea of conversion and specifically the power that Christ gave the Apostles to save and condemn to preach the gospel to all nations and creatures to heal the sick to drive out demons we see for example the conversion of the Jews we see people with the heads of dogs we see people who are blind who can see and it's a series of miracles that's meant to inspire but I think it's crucial that all of this reference to the New Testament is also at the same time meant to be an inspiration for medieval men to go out and convert to go out and save in the very place where Bernard of Clairvaux called for the Second Crusade