Death of the Virgin, South portal, Strasbourg Cathedral

The scene of the Death of the Virgin exhibits a new naturalism and inspiration from ancient Roman sculpture.

Death of the Virgin, South portal, Strasbourg Cathedral, c. 1230. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris


Additional resources

Synagoga and Ecclesia, Strasbourg Cathedral

Jacqueline E. Jung, Moving Bodies: Movement, Expression, and the Human Figure in Gothic Sculpture (Yale University Press, 2020).

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re standing just outside of Strasbourg Cathedral, looking at the south porch. It’s a beautiful day, so there are people everywhere.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] We’re looking at this particular portal because it demonstrates a virtuosity of carving that’s really remarkable.

Dr. Zucker: [0:21] There are two doorways and above each is a tympanum. We’re focused on the left, which depicts the death of the Virgin.

Dr. Harris: [0:28] There’s a whole iconographic program involving the death and the burial and the coronation of the Virgin, as well as other figures, many of which were destroyed during the French Revolution in the 1790s. We have to imagine a more elaborate portal with more figures than we’re seeing here.

[0:47] Art historians really like to focus on this image of the death of the Virgin, sometimes called the Dormition, because it demonstrates a new approach to the human body that is inspired by ancient Roman art. Where we have this beautiful complex folds of drapery that cling to and show us the form of the body underneath.

Dr. Zucker: [1:07] What we’re seeing then is a degree of naturalism in the rendering of the human body, in its proportion, in its anatomical accuracy, and in its easy movement that art historians are fairly confident that the sculptors looked at ancient sculpture and used that as a model.

Dr. Harris: [1:24] Here we are in the city of Strasbourg, which was part of the Roman Empire. We’re not far from Trier, which was considered the second Rome and which became a capital of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. We’re seeing the Virgin Mary on her deathbed.

Dr. Zucker: [1:40] She’s framed by Saint Peter on the left, Saint Paul on the right, Christ above, and Mary Magdalene below. In Christ’s hand, we see the Virgin’s soul in heaven.

[1:50] All the figures are looking directly and intensely at the Virgin Mary.

[1:54] A sense of grief and mourning — and that extends to the other figures that are crowded around in a semi-circle as well, the other apostles — those figures are expressing their grief through a variety of physical expressions, looking in different directions.

Dr. Harris: [2:09] Some look up as if toward God, some put their hands on their faces in gestures of profound grief and loss.

Dr. Zucker: [2:17] Look at the beautiful arc that’s created by Peter’s body as he leans over the Virgin Mary. His right arm comes down, cradling her head as he reaches out and touches her shoulder. On the opposite side, we see Saint Paul gently holding her feet.

Dr. Harris: [2:32] What’s so interesting about this sculpture and so new about this sculpture is this interaction between the figures and this display of emotion.

Dr. Zucker: [2:42] We’re not sure who carved this, but art historians think that perhaps it was a workshop from the cathedral at Reims or perhaps a workshop from the cathedral at Chartres. The cathedral at Reims, especially, is famous for two figures that depict the Visitation, and that are so clearly influenced by classical sculpture that early art historians actually thought that they were ancient Greek or ancient Roman sculptures.

Dr. Harris: [3:06] There we see Elizabeth and Mary interacting, with these complex folds of drapery, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing here. The passage that I find most beautiful is at the Virgin Mary’s feet, where we see the pull of gravity on that drapery as it moves toward the ground and surrounds her legs. This is decidedly classical. By that we mean, coming from this ancient Greek and Roman tradition.

Dr. Zucker: [3:35] I’m most taken with the drapery just across her chest, which instead of obscuring the body, actually in a sense reveals the torsion of the body.

Dr. Harris: [3:44] With the light shining on the portal, my eye is immediately drawn to those complicated folds of drapery on either side of Mary Magdalene in the center.

Dr. Zucker: [3:53] Those folds create deeper shadows. They’re cut more deeply in relationship to the broader surfaces of the side of Mary Magdalene, highlighting her. And so the artists here have been able to contrast deep shadows against broad surfaces.

[4:07] As we stand at some distance from the relief, it’s complicated. It’s crowded. But as we step closer, and as we look up, the carved figures resolve and the composition locks into place.

[4:18] All of which is to say that it’s important not to underestimate the ambition of the sculptors and their understanding of the viewer’s vantage point.

[4:27] Our attention has been almost exclusively on this one tympanum, but to appreciate its full meaning, how it would’ve been understood in the 13th century, it’s important to understand this tympanum in the larger narrative of the portal as a whole, but that’s for the next video.

[4:42] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Death of the Virgin, South portal, Strasbourg Cathedral," in Smarthistory, July 25, 2023, accessed June 21, 2024,