Solving the problem of evil in the twenty-first century

Tympanum at Vezelay

Tympanum at VezelayThe Tympanum of the central portal at Vezelay St. Madeleine depicts a different scene than most tympanums of the time.  Rather than the usual portrayal of the Last Judgment, this tympanum depicts the Pentecostal Mission of the Apostles.  This difference in imagery was chosen specifically to help justify the Crusades, in which the tympanum would play a central role (the first and second Crusades were announced at the church, and it was also a staging point of the third).  Here Jesus stands as the central figure, giving to His apostles the mission of converting the world to Christianity.  Along the arch there are various scenes of people who have been, or who are soon to be, christened.  On the lintel there is an additional group, a group who was thought to live at the very ends of the earth.  These people, or the monstrous race, here include several classical medieval mythological creatures, such as a pygmy (who needs a ladder to mount his horse), a creature with very large ears, and another man covered in feathers.  These ugly and bizarre creatures were added to the lintel to help justify the Crusades in their mission to convert such monstrous races, whose sins were so great that they were physically apparent in deformity and ugliness.  But these depictions reveal something else, an inherent fear amongst many at the time, a fear of the unknown.  The world was largely undiscovered at this time, certainly they did not know how much more of it was left to find, and so this monstrous race was thought to live in some foreign and completely unfamiliar land, and these creatures which they had never seen had such sins that they had made them ugly.  And it is this idea of an unseen and unknown evil which underlies the inclusion of the monstrous race, a fear which justifies their being hunted down and then converted or killed.  This fear of the unknown provided the impetus and justification for the Crusades, just as that same fear would eventually provide reason for the trying and killing of “witches” in the 16th and 17th centuries.   

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2 responses

  1. Molly Allender

    You did a nice job putting the tympanum into historical and cultural context. The tympanum promotes and justifies the crusade all while unknowingly revealing the fears that spurred the crusades.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:37 pm

  2. Elizabeth Hinojos

    I find the choice to engrave and create something so permanent such as an image on a tympanum quite intriguing, seeing that this advocacy would be seen hundreds of years later. To think that many pieces of art, such as this tympanum, aided political affairs of the time makes me realize how long religious advertisement has truly been around.

    April 9, 2011 at 8:13 pm

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