Asserting authority : the canons' use of the Theophilus legend and Marian imagery at Notre-Dame in Paris
MetadataShow full item record
The north transept portal at Notre-Dame in Paris depicts the legend of Theophilus. This legend is about a church official who sells his soul to the devil but then repents and is granted salvation with the help of the Virgin. This legend was one of the most popular Marian miracles in the medieval period, but it was extremely rare in sculpture. The rare subject, combined with the location’s importance (over a ceremonial door), lead me to propose a supplementary reading of this relief. The general consensus is that the Theophilus legend was used didactically or to honor the Virgin, and while I do not disagree that these reasons hold true at Notre-Dame as well, I propose an additional, site-specific reading. Considering the social and political environment of the cathedral and its hierarchy, especially the relationship between the bishop and his canons over the jurisdiction of the cathedral during the medieval period and particularly during the construction of the Gothic church, I contend that the Theophilus legend depicted on the north transept portal is a visual manifestation of the relationship between the bishop and his chapter. The lack of the bishop’s authority is portrayed, for a specially educated audience, in the inclusion of the bishop in a legend where he was a minor figure and in a sculpture in a physical location—the entrance from the canons’ cloister— where he had no authority. I argue further that, because of the exegetical identification of the Virgin with the church, the canons’ special devotion to the Virgin, and the canons’ association with the church they were in charge of building and running, the Marian imagery was a device used by the canons to mark their presence in their cathedral and, by asserting their presence, to demonstrate their authority and independence from the bishop.