Lausanne is blessed with two jewels. The first is the city’s natural setting: not only does Lausanne spread over three hills with patches of greenery here and there, but it overlooks the usually very placid waters of the Léman with the massive mountains of the Chablais as a backdrop on the other side of the lake. Lausanne’s second jewel is manmade: it is the cathedral Notre Dame. This church is almost as impressive as the mountains that seem to act as an echo to its tower, spire and many arches across the Léman.
On Wednesday evening of last week, I saw a nice picture of the abbey-church of Conques in France posted on an extremely popular social media platform. This romanesque building is famous for its tympanum of the Last Judgment (click here for some really great photos). The sight of this church reminded me that I had borrowed a dictionary of symbols in romanesque art which I would have to return the next day. I felt a little guilty because, even though I had already renewed the book twice (it had thus been on one of the shelves of my bookcase for almost three months), I had not looked at more than one or two pages here and there. So I picked up the book and I went through it from cover to cover — even though, of course, a dictionary is not meant to be used in this way. However, I did so without delving upon each entry for too long unless I came across something which warranted closer attention. I must say that I rather enjoyed the dictionary, even if some of the entries touch upon topics that border on the esoteric (e.g. tellurism/geobiological energy), as the book gives the reader a good overview of the main symbols which appear in the churches that were built in France and elsewhere in Europe during the Middle Ages.
I decided that I would put the rudiments of romanesque symbolism I had acquired to the test the following day when I would return the book to the Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire at Palais de Rumine (left) because the library is located almost at the foot of Lausanne’s cathedral (top right), in the open space used as a market place on Wednesdays and Saturdays called place de la Riponne.
Even if the cathedral belongs to the gothic style (which evolved from the romanesque style), I knew that I would be able to spot some of the symbols described in the book on the west portal of the cathedral of Lausanne. One of the two main entrances to the building, this portal is decorated with an abundance of Biblical and allegorical figures stretching well above the eye line. There are so many of these figures that I would be surprised if they would have meant much even to the medieval churchgoer. For the contemporary lay European, who lives in a world almost totally ‘dechristianised’ and whose understanding of such Christian artefacts therefore is at best very patchy, these figures are akin to a lost language because he or she lacks the basic knowledge (or shall I dare say ‘lacks the cultural fundamentals’) necessary to be able to decipher the symbols and allegorical codes that are present in such works of art.
[Detail showing allegorical figures, right sculpted section of the west entrance to the cathedral of Lausanne]
One of the first groups of figures one sees immediately on the right of the cathedral’s portal illustrates my point almost perfectly. The monkey, the two snails, the plant topped by a huge leaf and the monster with what seems to be a boar’s head were placed almost at eye level and their presence therefore cannot be deemed to have been fortuitous. The monster with its prominent buttocks may well be an allusion to Christianity’s invitation to drop the burden one carries metaphorically speaking (that is to say, from the perspective of one’s salvation) if one is entrapped in earthly pursuits. This reading seems to be backed by the fact that the very first figure visible on this section of the portal is a monkey (generally a symbol of lust in medieval European art) that seems unable to climb a plant (which I have not identified but which can only stand for spiritual elevation) in opposition to the pair of snails — this mollusc is usually an allegory of resurrection (and thus of the soul’s immortality) and is often represented in conjunction with the grapevine, a symbol of knowledge and of one’s ability to leave behind earthly burdens.