This study examines possible interpretations for the central portal sculpture found in the narthex of the church of Sainte-Madeleine de
Vèzelay in France. I will discuss and support alternative interpretations of the biblical, monastic, and artistic origins of this unusual and puzzling sculpture. Studies on the narthex sculpture debate the program’s subject matter, suggesting that it may refer to the Pentecost, the Mission of the Apostles, the Ascension, or exerts of biblical text, specifically, Ephesians 2: 11-22. The thesis will also discuss the sculpture’s meaning to the lay and monastic communities living in Vézelay. It will be proposed that the sculpture was intended to show support for reforms occurring in the monastic community at Vézelay during the time of the program’s creation.
The thesis will begin with an introduction and will follow with a chapter on the history of Vézelay from the creation of a small community for Benedictine nuns in the ninth century to the events of the nineteenth century that influenced the sculpture seen in the church today. Much of the sculpture has been damaged or altered since its creation in the twelfth century. The third chapter will describe in detail the sculpture found within the narthex of the church in preparation for my discussion in chapter four on the alternative interpretations for the program proposed by Émile Mâle, Abel Fabre, Adolf Katzenellenbogen, Michael Taylor, and Peter Low. Each theory provides a viable explanation for the central narthex tympanum’s unusual design; however, as the individual elements surrounding the portal are analyzed, I will discuss the possibility that one overall interpretation for the program, despite thorough research by those who have studied the sculptures, may never be determined.