Universität Bamberg

A high-definition 3-D model of a Madonna figure.

- Patricia Achter

Church Portals in an Interdisciplinary Light

Gaining new art-historical insights with a combination of humanities-based and technological methods

The exulting angels, the observing prophets and the smiling saints: The medieval portal is a place of transformation in more ways than one! Written across the faces of the sculptures is that to which every church visitor aspires: bearing witness to divinity. From earthly to divine, from the corporeal to the spiritual: How is this central notion of Christian transformation represented in the medieval portal? How can amorphous faith be rendered visible? These are the questions that the University of Bamberg’s interdisciplinary project, “Portals as Places of Transformation”, seeks to answer using both humanities-based and technological methods. The project has received €800,000 in funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Project director and art historian Professor Stephan Albrecht, professor of architectural and building studies Stefan Breitling and restoration scholar Professor Rainer Drewello, along with nine other project members, are pursuing the answers to these questions by conducting research on five portals located in prominent European ecclesiastical buildings: the transept portals of the Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris; the Bishop’s and Singer’s Gate of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna; the St. Peter portal of the Cathedral of Cologne; the Judgement portal of the Laon Cathedral; as well as the Gate of Grace in the Bamberg Cathedral.

The close cooperation between the fields of building research, restoration studies and art history facilitates a deeper understanding of the portals’ material and conceptual designs. Each object is first measured using a three-dimensional laser scanner – a technology available only to very few institutes. Next, project staff spend a week on location examining figure sizes, types of stone and other materials, adhesives and surface colours. An almost indiscernible trace of paint on a figure, a minor repair made to a seam – even these small details can reveal a great deal about a church’s history and transformation, and even about medieval faith and religiosity.

Each scholar brings the particular expertise of his field to the project: as a chemist, Rainer Drewello analyses the coloured framing and surfaces; Stefan Breitling, an architect, is concerned with structural aspects like statics and masonry. As an art historian, Stephan Albrecht is able to place the imagery and figures in historical context, make comparisons and draw conclusions about how an imminent beatific vision was announced to visitors entering a church in different centuries. The three professors have been working together for six years. “This configuration of scholars devoting themselves to the study of cathedrals is the only one of its kind worldwide. We are discovering more together than any of us could alone,” says Stephan Albrecht.

With the help of 3-D laser scanning technology, the researchers have been able to gain heretofore undiscovered insights into the construction of the Paris cathedral. It was previously assumed that the south transept was built 20 years after the northern one – as something of a “competitive product”. But the three Bamberg scholars have now discovered that both transepts were erected simultaneously and according the same plan. In short, they must be the same age. “As far as art history is concerned, this is extremely significant, because numerous scholarly works have focused on the supposedly different historical origins and artistic persons involved,” says Stephan Albrecht. “Now the experts are going to have to return to the start and begin their research on the two transepts anew.”

The complete German-language article can be found at: www.uni-bamberg.de/news/artikel/kirchenportale


This press release was translated by Benjamin Wilson.


Further information for media representatives:

Queries regarding the content of the project:
Prof. Dr. Stephan Albrecht
Lehrstuhl für Kunstgeschichte, insbesondere für Mittelalterliche Kunstgeschichte
Tel.: 0951/863-2400 or -2398 (departmental secretary)

Prof. Dr. Stefan Breitling
Professur für Bauforschung und Baugeschichte
Tel.: 0951/863-2344 or-2402 (departmental secretary)

Prof. Dr. Rainer Drewello
Professur für Restaurierungswissenschaft in der Baudenkmalpflege
Tel.: 0951/863-2370 or -2402 (departmental secretary)

Media Contact:
Patricia Achter
Tel.: 0951/863-1146