How to read a (church) door

Portada de la Coronería, at Burgos Cathedral (thirteenth-century). [Image author’s own].

One of the most common scenes you’ll see over an external church door is the Last Judgement, where all the dead are summoned and Christ grants heaven to some and condemns others to hell (each according to their merits).  The sculpturing of these doors is amazing and was executed according to a universally understood design — a medieval pilgrim from Ireland or Hungary who stood before the thirteenth-century Portada de la Coronería at Burgos Cathedral would have understood it as easily as a local.  Much of what you see in this door is easily identifiable in other church doors along the Camino, or in works of art like Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.  Follow this simple guide below and you’ll be able to impress all your fellow pilgrims with your art history knowledge!

Portada de la Coronería, at Burgos Cathedral – Christ enthroned and in judgement. [Image author’s own].

The easiest way to read a doorway is to start in the tympanum (the area contained within the arch and directly above the door), with the central figure of Christ enthroned and sitting in judgement.  Immediately on either side of him are usually saints, kneeling or making gestures of intercession on behalf of the souls he judges.  Most commonly these are his mother (Mary) and an apostle (here St John).

Portada de la Coronería, at Burgos Cathedral – the saved and the damned. [Image author’s own].

Below him is the busy work of assessing the souls of the dead, often carried out by St Michael, who can be recognised by his wings and the scales he uses to weigh their souls.  The saved are on Jesus’ right (the viewer’s left) and the damned on Jesus’ left (the viewer’s right).  The saved, seen on our left, often include local dignitaries like the founders of the church, in this case we have King Fernando III ‘el santo’ (St Ferdinand) and his wife, Beatriz de Suabia (more about them in a future post).  Somewhat rudely, they’ve left the sepulchre door open and are probably leaving in a draft.  But judgement is not just the business of heaven, and demons also help out, like the hairy one seen on our extreme right, throwing a soul headfirst down into damnation.

Looking up, we see the ‘archivolts’ (the decorated arching bands) above the doorway.  These usually have collections of figures in them, which at first appear something of a jumble (especially if some have been damaged over time), but they are usually ordered thematically, by band.  Simple tips to spot them: if everyone in a band is wearing a crown then they might be the Old Testament Kings of Israel or the elders around the throne who cast down their crowns in the Book of Revelations.  If they’re carrying items or tools (like musical instruments) they may be allegorical representations of the arts and professions.  If they’ve got wings, well… they’re probably angels.

Portada de la Coronería, at Burgos Cathedral – the fate of the damned. [Image author’s own].

Here the outmost band is a continuation of the Last Judgement theme.  On Jesus’ right (our left) we see souls within the outmost band rising up out of their tombs, orientated upward toward the pinnacle of the arch.  On Jesus’ left (our right) are the damned, orientated downward or being thrust, pushed and dragged down by ‘helper’ demons.  At the very bottom, I think you can see a demon shitting on one of the souls!  This isn’t an uncommon image — simply a way of emphasising the foulness of hell.  If you see an ass on a church doorway, it’s up to no good.

Below all this, closest to ground level, you’ll often have a series of statues of saints.  If there’s six on either side of the doorway, you can bet they’re apostles.  They’re usually identifiable by symbolic items they carry or wear.  The two easiest to spot are Peter (carries a set of keys) and Paul (carries a sword; the instrument of his beheading).  They almost always form a pair, which is somewhat ironic given that they didn’t always agree in life!

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