Hildesheim Narratives and Experience

I bet I’m the only person who woke up early this morning and began thinking about the doors of the Hildesheim Cathedral.  Oh man, I’m such a nerd!  I have been thinking about these doors because of an interesting article that I read over the weekend (which I’ll probably explain in another post, but I wanted to jot down a couple of my own thoughts first). The doors of the Hildesheim Cathedral (also called the “Bernward Doors,”) date from 1015 (see a detail of the doors on the left, and click here to see a complete image of the doors).  The left section of the doors includes scenes from the Old Testament, and the right section of the door includes scenes from the New Testament.

The Old Testament scenes appear chronologically from top-to-bottom, whereas the New Testament scenes appear chronologically from bottom-to-top.  I think this layout is especially interesting to consider in terms of how the viewer’s physical eyes and head would move when looking at the panels chronologically: the viewer starts by looking up at the Creation of Eve, and the viewer’s eyes and head would move downwards (to physically “fall”) as the story of The Fall is revealed.  The composition of first Old Testament scene, the Creation of Eve, even encourages the viewer to look downwards – God the Father and Adam’s bodies are composed of downward pointing angles (click on the image above to look at the top panel in better detail).

When reaching the end of the Old Testament section (the bottom of the left side of the door), the viewer moves his eyes over to the beginning of the New Testament section (the bottom of the right side of the door).  The first New Testament scene shows the Annunciation.  It’s interesting to note that the viewer’s eyes stay downwards at the beginning of the New Testament panels, particularly in terms of the redemption and the Fall (since Man is still in his fallen state before Christ’s birth and sacrifice).  However, the viewer’s eyes and head move (or angle) upward as the narrative progresses, continually rising until Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are completed.  The last panel of the doors depict the Ascension of Christ into heaven.  At this point, the viewer is again looking upward, in the same position that he/she assumed when first looking at the Creation of Eve.  I think that the viewer is even encouraged to continue looking upward, towards heaven, in this Ascension scene.  Christ’s body swoops and arcs upward, encouraging the viewer to literally look towards heavenly heights, beyond the physical boundaries of the door (see top panel in this image).

I love when artists consider the physical participation of the viewer when creating a work of art.  The Hildesheim viewer’s physical process of “falling” and “rising” with the biblical narrative is really cool.  It’s almost like a medieval visitor to the cathedral could travel a mini-pilgrimage by just “moving” through these panels.

  • heidenkind says:

    Oh, I love the Hildescheim doors! Didn't wake up thinking about them, though. ;)

  • e says:

    Wow. Very cool.

    I didn't wake up thinking about them (as I hadn't ever heard of them before), but maybe I will now.

    I'm off to read more about them now …

  • Annette says:

    I love the fact that you woke up thinking about these doors. I didn't know about the way they were properly read. Your post is enlightening. Thank you.

  • Char says:

    I love the idea of a visual pilgrimage! That's really interesting!

    I love these doors. There's so simple but so expressive. I love that the figures are so "Gumbi"-like.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.