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Claudia Rueckert TheWomanWithTheSkullfromThePuertadelasPlaterias

Claudia Rueckert TheWomanWithTheSkullfromThePuertadelasPlaterias

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Published by: Jeremy Smith on Jun 22, 2013
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11/04/2014

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129
GESTA
51/2 © The International Center of Medieval Art 2012
A Reconsideration of the Woman with the Skull on thePuerta de las Platerías of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral*
CLAUDIA RÜCKERT
 Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf 
 Abstract  Although the Woman with the Skull relief has long beenan established part of the canon, art historians have hithertoneglected to consider the architectural changes that were madeover the centuries to the south transept portal of the cathedralof Santiago de Compostela, also called the Puerta de las Pla-terías. Most studies have assumed that the current position of the relief is identical with its original setting. Analysis of thearchitectural context and figurative style of the Woman withthe Skull carving, however, makes clear that this extraordinaryimage was not originally intended for the south transept portalbut must have been part of the Romanesque north portal, whichwas demolished in the eighteenth century. Called the WomanTaken in Adultery in the
Pilgrim’s Guide
and represented asa seductive enchantress with long, flowing locks, the figure isstylistically and formally related to the relief panels of King David, the Creation of Adam, and Christ Bestowing Blessings.This essay will argue that, before the rebellion and assault onthe cathedral in 1117, this figure may have been a represen-tation of Bathsheba, who, along with David, Adam, and Eve,symbolized the penance and salvation yearned for by pilgrimson their long journey.
The relief of the Woman with the Skull is beyond all doubtone of the most impressive sculptures on the cathedral of San-tiago de Compostela (Fig. 1). The
gure is even mentioned inwhat is known as the
Pilgrim’s Guide
, the
fth book of the
 Liber Sancti Jacobi
, a compilation of liturgies, miracles, andreports of the translation of the body of St. James to Santiago.
1
 Dated to the 1130s, the
Pilgrim’s Guide
describes—unusuallyfor its time—the sculptures at great length.
2
In the chapter aboutthe city and the cathedral, it states:Nor should be forgotten the woman who stands next tothe Lord’s Temptation, holding between her own handsthe stinking head of her lover, cut o
 
by her rightful hus-band, which she is forced by her husband to kiss twicea day. Oh, what ingenious and admirable justice for anadulterous wife; it should be recounted to everyone!
3
It is unclear whether this interpretation bore any relationship tothe work’s real meaning or whether it was merely an expres-sion of vernacular lore.
4
Alongside the profane interpretation of the
gure as the Woman Taken in Adultery,
5
she has been iden-ti
ed as the personi
cation of original sin,
6
Mary Magdalen,
7
 
FIGURE 1.
Santiago de Compostela, Cathedral, Puerta de las Platerías, left tympanum, Woman with the Skull (photo: K.
 
Waak).
 
130and Eve as the mother of death,
8
and as a fusion of Eve, MaryMagdalen, and the Virgin Mary as part of the papal propa-ganda of Gregory
 
VII.
9
Willibald Sauerländer emphasizedthe voluptuousness of the
gure and its ambivalence.
10
Otherscholars have seen in this representation a moral exemplumand identi
ed the
gure as Luxuria or Voluptas.
11
Anotherinterpretation has identi
ed it as an actual historical person-age: Urraca, queen of Castile-León (ca. 1081–1126) and oppo-nent of Archbishop Diego Gelmírez (ca. 1069–1140).
12
Forhis part, Carlos Sastre Vázquez sees in the
gure a warningagainst conjugal in
delity, particularly appropriate as a back-drop for marriage ceremonies at the Puerta de las Platerías.
13
 More recently, Manuel Castiñeiras González has linked thepiece to the story of Tristan and Isolde, expanding an earlieridea of Serafín Moralejo Álvarez.
14
All of these interpretations have their merits, yet nonehas proved entirely convincing.
15
A consideration of formaland stylistic peculiarities, however, can help us reconstruct theoriginal context of the Woman with the Skull.The
gure is seated, knees apart, on a lion’s-head throne.Her bare feet rest on foliate decorations; foliage is also discern-ible above the throne to the left of her head. She is dressed in arobe or cloth that does not entirely cover her body but, rather,falls over her left shoulder and breast, leaving her right breast,right arm, and left forearm unclothed. The robe is gathered ather right shoulder, falls down her back, and reappears at hiplevel; it therefore conceals her right leg, lap, and left thigh. Herleft leg, by contrast, is exposed from the knee down. On her lapshe tenderly holds the skull, cradling it in the bunched cloth. Itseems to bear a letter inscribed on the forehead, perhaps a
, aspointed out by José Luis Senra Gabriel y Galán (Fig. 2).
16
Herhead is turned slightly to her right, and her magni
cent wavyhair falls down her right shoulder, which is almost entirely bare.The visual codes at work in this image are arresting in partbecause of their continuity from Antiquity to the present era:the sculptor aimed to personify feminine wiles. While the loosehair could be inspired by representations of furious maenads onRoman Dionysiac sarcophagi, the exposure of her right breastis known from Late Antique depictions of Ceres or Ariadne.
17
Today, the relief of the Woman is part of the left tympa-num of the double south transept portal, known as the Puerta delas Platerías (Fig. 3). Dating from the early twelfth century, theportal is covered with so many sculptures that its appearance isbewildering.
18
The relief slabs of the two tympana seem to havebeen
tted together almost arbitrarily (Figs. 4 and 5).
19
Position-ing a
gure such as the descending angel on the right tympanumor the man riding on a lion on the left was not at all unusual inthe early twelfth century; the Puerta del Cordero in León, forexample, was handled in much the same way.
20
In Santiago deCompostela, however, the disturbed appearance of the southtransept portal is due primarily to later repairs and attempts atrecon
guring it in the medieval and modern periods.
21
It should
FIGURE 2.
Puerta de las Platerías, Woman with the Skull, detail (photo:K.
 
Waak).
FIGURE 3.
Puerta de las Platerías, south transept facade (photo: K.
 
Waak).
 
131
FIGURE 4.
Puerta de las Platerías, left tympanum (photo: K.
 
Waak).
FIGURE 5.
Puerta de las Platerías, right tympanum (photo: K.
 
Waak).

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