📍 🇫🇷 Elephants and monsters at Sens
Walking through the Sens Cathedral, it takes a while to understand where you are, to grasp the message the old Church is trying to convey. Way too contradictory in a sense, clearly! That is because two different ages are competing for this building’s soul: the Romanesque period (1000-1200 CE) and the Gothic period (1200-1400 CE).
How do we see it? At the entrance of the Cathedral, as well as inside, you will witness monsters, devils or "aberrant, grotesque" (Focillon) human faces on the capitals (top of pillars). These are nightmares from before - often from the centuries of invasions and plagues which followed the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE. It is also the fear of eternal hell for those who commit certain sins... But the 12th century entrance portal shows something else: a European humanity filled with curiosity, which seeks to understand far-away lands and seas once again.
"In the medallions on the facade, we have the Indian elephant, the African camel, the mermaid of the seas... which give us a geography of the world. All of this expresses the unknown of this East where no man had penetrated since Alexander the Great” (E.Mâle). Fear, then, but also newfound confidence.
____ Sources ____
>> Emile Mâle, “Religious arts in the XIIIe century”, 1923
>> Henri Focillon, "The Art of the West in the Middle Ages", 1938