Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 18, 2000
Calvin B. Kendall The Allegory of the Church: Romanesque Portals and Their Verse Inscriptions University of Toronto Press, 1998. 401 pp.; 40 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0802042627)

Calvin Kendall has a wonderful topic, the verse inscriptions that decorate a large number of Romanesque church portals. While I sometimes disagree sharply with Kendall’s treatment of his material, he gets full marks for paying attention to it in the first place; it is an embarrassment to art history that such an important and literally obvious topic was first studied monographically by a professor of English. And, whatever disagreements one may have with Kendall’s method and conclusions, the long appendix to his book, which meticulously transcribes and translates all of the inscriptions known to him, is a crucial corpus of material; I believe it will be a goldmine for other scholars. (The author implies that the catalogue is comprehensive. It is not; cf. the additions noted by Pierre Mariaux in his review of Kendall’s book in Art Bulletin 81 1999, 538-40.)

Despite the book’s title, the catalogue is not limited to portals. Rather, it “is an inventory of Latin verses carved in stone on mural surfaces, including columns, of churches and monasteries in western Europe from AD 1000 to the thirteenth century” (excluding epitaphs). Kendall explains that the starting date of 1000 is arbitrary, but the ending date coincides with the “exhaustion of the tradition of verse inscriptions.” A thorough corpus challenges a hierarchically arranged canon of monuments by giving equal weight to each member of the set; true to this quality of corpora, Kendall’s catalogue ranges from the most famous works of Romanesque art (the Cluny choir capitals, the Vézelay tympanum, the facade inscription from Modena naming the sculptor Wiligelmo) to obscure parish churches in France, Spain, and Italy. Likewise the body of his text, which gives considerable attention to famous works such as the Conques tympanum, also studies in detail many lesser known works, such as the tympanum from Santa Cruz de la Serios or the archivolts from Fanioux and Chadenac in Aquitaine.

Of course, canons are developed for a variety of reasons. Many of the individual verses included in Kendall’s catalogue are banal, reporting simple donor inscriptions or paraphrases of the Bible text. Others, however, present extremely sophisticated theological statements. For example, two of the inscriptions of particular interest engage the Christian justification of images. At Regensburg, around a relief of Christ from 1050, we read “Since Christ is called a rock on account of his firm majesty, it is fitting enough that his image be in stone.” This is a clear statement, in an early example of the revival of monumental sculpture, that Christian religious images, particularly sculptural images, needed to be justified because of the thin line separating them from idols. Likewise at Vienne, adjacent to the depiction of St. Peter in the tympanum an inscription reads: “This stone is not Peter. Peter is at Rome and in heaven above. In his likeness the form of this statue is made.” Again, worried by the problem of idolatry, this text takes pains to argue that images are not identical to the things they depict. These inscriptions are the most interesting in the entire corpus. Neither, however, receives much comment from Kendall, in large part because he has not tried to treat all of the issues raised by the disparate material in his catalogue comprehensively. Instead, he provides a general overview of the history of inscriptions, ranging from Constantine to the beginnings of the Gothic, interspersed with some detailed studies of individual monuments and subthemes. At times, the contrasts provided by this pick-and-choose arrangement can be jarring and it is not surprising to learn that parts of several of the book’s chapters are drawn from previously published, detailed scholarly articles.

At the conceptual heart of The Allegory of the Church is Christ’s statement from John 10:10: “I am the door. By me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved.” For Kendall, this was the key text that medieval Christians used to understand the material parts of the church as signs of Christ and other holy figures; this is the “allegory of the church” of the book’s title. David Cowling, in his review of Kendall’s book in The Medieval Review 99.12.02 rightly noted the absence from Kendall’s bibliography of the major previous study of this theme, Joseph Sauer’s 1924 Symbolik des Kirchengebäudes und seiner Ausstattung in der Auffassung des Mittelalters. This lapse is typical of the book, which often ignores scholarly literature from a range of disciplines. For example, missing from Kendall’s notes and bibliography are relevant studies of Tours by Kessler and van Dam, of Conques by Sauerländer, of Bede by Meyvaert, and of Prudentius by Pillinger. Given the innovative nature of Kendall’s subject, these lapses do not invalidate his material, but they do mean that the book is less comprehensive and useful than one would have hoped. Because allegory is so important to Kendall’s understanding of medieval portals and their inscriptions, he devotes his first chapter to the allegorical interpretation of scripture, using Bede’s De schematibus et tropis as a guide to medieval fourfold exegesis. Although Bede was an early exponent of this method of analysis and Kendall has elsewhere translated his text, one wonders if he was the best example to use in a book on Romanesque art. Even if not, Bede’s four levels of exegesis (literal, typological, tropological, and anagogical) are important terms for Kendall; they recur throughout the book and in chapter eleven he even argues (to my mind unconvincingly) that they were literally represented in the series of four archivolts surrounding the doors of some church portals in Aquitaine.

After this introduction to medieval allegory, Kendall devotes two chapters to a study of the ways in which inscriptions were used in Christian works of art in the pre-Romanesque period, from Constantine to the tenth century. These chapters could have done with a little more synthesis (and, concurrently with the publications of Kendall’s book, much of this material was studied more comprehensively by Arwed Arnulf in his 1997 Versus ad picturas: Studien zur Titulusdichtung als Quellengattung der Kunstgeschichte von der Antike bis zum Hochmittelalter). Chapters four through eleven, the bulk of the text, are a series of studies of Romanesque portal inscriptions. Among the themes treated are the depictions of Christ above portals and the language and form of the inscriptions. This last material is particularly authoritative, given Kendall’s philological and literary-critical training. The bulk of the argument is meant to show that because of the power of the allegory of Christ as the church, these portals were among the most serious statements of theology in the Middle Ages, often having “real presence” as renderings of Christ’s appearance and words. As a general conclusion, this seems right, although its significance needs to be tested in the case of each portal by considering its function, its inscription, and its figurative and nonfigurative decoration.

The mode of analysis used in these chapters is high iconographical, reminiscent of Otto von Simson’s The Gothic Cathedral or Adolf Katzenellenbogen’s Sculptural Programs of Chartres Cathedral. The assumption is that Romanesque church portals and their inscriptions express complex theological concepts, concepts which find their closest parallels in the writings of important medieval theologians. (Kendall’s tendency to favor elite sources was signalled already in the first chapter by his dependence on Bede). While this kind of iconographical study has proved very fruitful in the study of medieval art, it has also been recognized to have its limitations, the most significant of which is that it puts the burden of the production of meaning on theologically sophisticated, typically clerical patrons. Given the recent emphasis in the humanistic disciplines on the beholder’s share in making meaning, however, iconography of this sort has come under attack. Particularly for public works of art like church portals (and especially for the portals of the several pilgrimage churches treated by Kendall), high iconography can only tell part of the story, since the audience for these works can hardly have had the sophistication (not to mention the literacy) needed to comprehend the inscriptions. We can legitimately ask, then, how these portals were understood by their viewers (as opposed to how they were conceived by their makers) and whether this understanding is not as important (or even more important) than the “intended” meaning deduced by iconography.

Kendall is aware of this challenge to the iconographic method, but I do not think he confronts its implications satisfactorily. Indeed, his attempts to deal with it lead him deep into the realm of highly speculative hypothesis or worse. Two examples: to support his complex reading of the Conques tympanum, Kendall suggests “Perhaps the monks of Conques provided guides to explain the scenes and translate the inscriptions for the benefit of pilgrims.” Perhaps, but Kendall cites no evidence for this, nor do I believe that any exists. Kendall’s argument is plausible, but no more than that. And, to justify his analysis of the “richly obscure” allegory of the facade of the Abbaye aux Dames in Saintes, Kendall “surmises” that the Benedictine nuns of that convent church “wanted a sculptural program that would give them opportunities for meditation.” Again, this is in theory a plausible function for Romanesque art, but would the nuns have placed this work of art on the public, west facade of their church, rather than on some less public facade or on the inside?

The book ends with very provocative discussions of the use of verse inscription by artists to signal their fame and individuality and a consideration of the ways in which the Gothic differed from the Romanesque (as Kendall interestingly notes, carved verse inscriptions are not found in Gothic portals). Both of these cases take Kendall very far indeed from the core of his book. In discussing the status of medieval artists, one needs to draw on evidence other than the verse inscriptions on portals; likewise, the proper characterization of the Romanesque and the Gothic depends on a much broader basis of evidence. Kendall recognizes this, but in the relatively few pages he devotes to these subjects he can be no more than suggestive.

Calvin Kendall has done very well to call the attention of medievalists to the previously neglected, but crucially important verse inscriptions on Romanesque portals. While his analysis of the phenomenon is not comprehensive, the book is certainly an invaluable starting place, particularly because of its catalogue of inscriptions. A newer generation of scholars, more attuned to questions of orality and literacy, more aware of the significance of the various audiences for medieval texts and images, will be able to do much with the material presented by Kendall.

William Diebold
Goodsell Professor of Art History and Humanities (emeritus), Reed College