The Gate of Heaven and the Fountain of Life: Speech-Act Theory and Portal Inscriptions

The Gate of Heaven and the Fountain of Life: Speech-Act Theory and Portal Inscriptions

Kendall, Calvin B.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 10 (1993)


The portal of the medieval church was uniquely symbolic. Jesus’s words provided the key to it: “I am the door. By me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved” (John 10:9). This figure of speech became one basis for the allegorization of the church that was current in the earlier Middle Ages. The Venerable Bede attempted a synthesis of the Alexandrian tradition of allegorical exegesis and Augustine’s theory of signs: “The temple of the Lord in the literal sense is the house which Solomon built,” he wrote; “allegorically, it is the Lord’s body…or his Church…; tropologically, it is each of the faithful…; anagogically, it is the joys of the heavenly mansion….” It is my contention that the art and symbolism of the Romanesque portal reflect a widely held assumption on the part of artists, patrons, and worshipers that all four senses, the literal, the allegorical, the tropological, and the anagogical, adhered essentially to any church building that they were “literally” aspects of its reality. The symbolism of the portal was not merely conventional; the portal was in a real sense Christ and the entrance to heaven.

In the twelfth century church portals and their sculptural programs were frequently inscribed with verses. When the inscription spoke in the voice of the door or the building or a sculpted image above or beside the door, it employed the rhetorical figure of prosopopoeia or personification. Far from being naive, as at first sight it may seem, the use of prosopopoeia reflects the allegorization of the church in a sophisticated way. In this paper, after passing in review a selected group of Romanesque portal inscriptions in verse, most of them voiced in the first person, I inquire into their status as speech acts, and conclude that some of them were probably intended and received as “performative utterances.” This conclusion rests on the argument stated above that the allegorization of the church was understood in a “literal” sense.

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