Many churches devote the space above a large doorway (the Tympanum) to a representation of Ecclesiatical Reality. What I mean by this is that the material world that we inhabit is viewed as an aspect of a larger reality, and that larger reality is dominated by divine personages whose life and relationships determine our lives and relationships. The tympanum is the Big Backstory.
It is common for a tympanum to show a throned figure (usually the Risen Jesus as divine king, sometimes God the Father, sometimes Mary as the Mother of God) surrounded by saints and angels and other inhabitants of the divine realm. The Tympanum is a Great Truth about our existence, and so I always look at them carefully.
I was in Nancy recently, a town in northern France close to the border with Germany, and happened across the Basilique Saint-Epvre de Nancy, and it has the most wonderful tympanum. It is not ancient – it was built in the 19th. century – but it is a very beautiful gothic revival building. Taking the elements of the image in order, there is
- a hovering dove. This derives from the baptism of Jesus: “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove” (Luke 3:22). The symbolism precedes Christianity however and is taken from the book of Genesis, where the spirit of God hovers over the waters.
- the throned and bearded figure of God the Father.
- the four Holy Living Creatures as described in the vision of Ezekiel. These often taken to represent the four Evangelists, but again they are pre-Christian and are probably Babylonian and zodiacal.
- the crucified Son
- a female figure, detached from the main composition but seemingly part of it. I do not know who she is intended to be. One might guess Mary, and one might be easily wrong. She looks downcast and isolated, like the fallen Sophia or the exiled Shekhinah.
The remarkable thing about this picture is how generic it is. I mentioned “divine personages” above. In Kabbalah these are called partzufim. One could create a similar picture of the principal partzuf in Kabbalah: Arkh Anpin, Ze’ir Anpin, Nukva Ze’ir. Anyone who is familiar with the Golden Dawn illustration of The Garden of Eden before the Fall will recognise the principal elements in the composition.
As a parting shot, I add another photo, taken in Bruges, of another tympanum. This time the figure on the throne is Mary, an indication of the high regard and status accorded the Mother of God in many European churches.