Visitation Group | Art for Advent 4C

Luke 1:39-40 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

Visitation Group
Visitation Group
Cathedral, Reims
(active c. 1211-1225)
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Annunciation and Visitation (Jamb Figures of the Central Portal), Stone, c. 1225-1245, Unknown Sculptors, Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims, France

During the Gothic Period (the late middle ages) churches increased greatly in size.  Stained glass and sculpture was used extensively and the three west facing entrances (portals) were enriched with statues and ornamentation.  The central portal was always the largest and all three were recessed.  The placement of relief sculpture on the jambs (columns that support the arch over the portals) began during the Romanesque period and the tradition continued in Gothic cathedrals.  As people entered a church they walked past a receiving line of larger than life stone figures that depicted saints, church dignitaries, and heavenly beings.  On the right side of the central portal of the cathedral at Reims the Archangel Gabriel is standing next to Mary; bringing news that she is to be the mother of Christ.  To their right, two pregnant women, Elizabeth and Mary are visiting.

At first, portal figures were carved out of the same stone as the jambs.  These figures called statue columns have almost no form to their bodies and   their robes hang as though they are covering a post.  Changes took place during the “High Gothic” period, however, and at Reims, the figures have discernable human forms; their facial expressions communicate feelings.  Archangel Gabriel’s head is tilted toward Mary and there is a smile on his face.  Mary’s face suggests she is thinking about all that is to come in the future.  Parts of some of the arms have broken but it can be seen that gestures are being used to convey meaning.  This also was a time when liberation of sculpture from the wall was taking place.  Although at Reims the figures are still in relief, they are in “high relief” and almost free from the column.  Reims Cathedral was started in the early thirteenth century and work on it continued until the early Renaissance in the fifteenth century.


The term “Gothic” (in the manner of the Goths) was not in use during the “Gothic Period.”  This term began to be used during the Renaissance.  The tribes that sacked Rome – the Goths – were regarded to be barbaric and uncultured.  Thus the term, “Gothic,” in reference to the time period when cathedrals were built, was intended as a derogatory term.  From the viewpoint of a Renaissance classicist, the cathedrals were monstrous, disorderly, and barbarous in form.

All large churches are not cathedrals.  The term for a bishop’s throne is “cathedra,” therefore, the bishop’s church, the church in which the bishop’s chair is located, is called a “cathedral.”  One of the largest churches in the world, St. Peter’s in Rome is not a cathedral.  St. John Lateran’s Basilica is the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome.

Many cathedrals are laid out to have an east-west axis; the facade and portals facing west and the altar facing east.  Inside the church, a congregation faces the direction of the sunrise which is associated with Christ’s ascension.  Even in churches where the axis is not in an east-west direction the altar end often is referred to as being “East.”

Hovak Najarian © 2012

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