If iconography is the art of writing with images, then the pedestals beneath statues are one important means by which medieval artists formed iconographic sentences and paragraphs for us to “read.” Usually no names were inscribed on statues to help identify them. Instead, the sculptors used something familiar that we “attribute” to the person as a clue to his or her identity. The attributes of some saints–as with Peter and the Keys to the Kingdom–make them easy to identify. Others are harder to recognize through their attributes or their attributes have been broken off or lost, and that’s where the sculpted pedestals step in to help. Today, we’ll look at some statues and pedestals at Reims Cathedrals in France and the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. It’s good to keep in mind that the artists who worked on cathedrals and churches in North America found inspiration in the sculpture adorning Europe’s Gothic cathedrals and, as you’ll see, they carried forward the medieval tradition of using pedestals as subtext with some great results.
Reims (or Rheims) Cathedral is located seventy-seven miles east of Paris in the heart of France’s Champagne region. The prosperity of Champagne’s vineyards enabled Reims’ citizens to build an outstanding Gothic cathedral with fine sculpture and stained glass. But much of its original sculpture was damaged or destroyed by German shelling in World War I (photo #1, below). Reportedly, the building became a target in that devastating conflagration partly because it held symbolic value as the traditional coronation site for French monarchs. Recall that Joan of Arc and her army accompanied Charles VII to Reims in 1429 to be crowned King of all France. When I visited Reims in 2010, extensive restoration work was underway in advance of the cathedral’s 800th anniversary in 2011.
Among the many pieces of statuary restored or replaced after World War I are the sets of figures that flank the cathedrals main doorways. Photo #2 shows six Biblical figures that stand near one of the cathedral’s portals. I can identify three of the six with certainty by using their main attributes.
John the Baptist stands second from left. Medieval artists often depicted him wearing rough garments and holding a “Lamb of God” medallion. Moses stands fourth from left. He holds one of the tablets of the law and a tall staff with a snake atop. The staff and snake refer to the book of Numbers where Moses placed a bronze serpent atop a standard so “that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.” The figure to the right of Moses is that of Abraham. He’s identified by the proximity of his son Isaac who stands with him. It’s likely that the figure on the far left is Simeon holding infant Jesus.
The pedestals beneath Moses and Abraham add the “footnotes” to their stories. Click on photo #2 for a close look. You’ll see a bull beneath Moses feet to suggest the incident in the book of Exodus where the ancient Israelites worshiped a golden calf. Similarly, the sculptors placed a ram beneath Abraham’s feet to recall the passage in Genesis that describes Abraham finding a ram tangled in a bush, and sacrificing it instead of his son.
Sculptors at Washington’s National Cathedral, constructed between 1907 and 1990, carved statues and pedestals in much the same way. A statue of Joan of Arc (photo #3) portrays her looking heavenward as she probably did before her English captors burned her at the stake in 1430.
In the elaborate pedestal, sculptors carved an image of the façade of Reims Cathedral, the coronation church where Joan crowned Charles VII King of France. On closer inspection (photo #4), you’ll also see that the pedestal contains a crown and fleurs-de-lis, emblems of the French monarchy. Joan’s shield at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans displays the royal emblems too (photo #5).
St. Peter’s statue and pedestal on the National Cathedral’s west exterior also merit a close look (photo #6). Sculptor Frederick Hart departed from a traditional representation of Peter as the first Bishop of Rome holding the Keys to the Kingdom and instead shows the saint holding a fish net, an attribute that reminds us of Peter’s original occupation as a fisherman.
The pedestal (photo #7) amplifies Peter’s story. Heraldic Keys of the Kingdom signify his leadership status in the early church, and an inverted cross alludes to his martyrdom and Peter’s legendary request to be crucified upside down.
Mike Klug, firstname.lastname@example.org, 4/15/14