Essay: Doors - Entrances and Exits, Liminality and Sacred Space

The thirteenth-century bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste, in one of his Dicta, dwelt, at some point between 1235 and 1253, on how easy it was to access hell, and the possibility of access to heaven. 

Hylestad stave church, 12th century Museum of Cultural History, Oslo University

The image he used to convey this to his audience, probably priests within his diocese, but possibly lay people as well, was of the houses and doors. In particular, in a feat of imaginative interior design, a folding door on a single axis:

‘Imagine heaven and hell as two houses, or two contiguous states with nothing between them, because holiness and iniquity have nothing in common, and imagine the aperture of a door common to both, with a folding door; but this, though common to both houses is more so to one than the other in that it serves one and not the other; and imagine this folding door so loaded that it allows one to go through it and out of the house of which it is the door, but will close shut after the exit and not allow anyone to get back in; yet from the other house it will readily open to anyone wishing to go out. Such is the folding door of pride, a door through which a man may enter hell from heaven, open to all who wish to leave heaven, closed to all who wish to come back through it; and being the work of pride it belongs to hell, not heaven. Yet there is another folding door common to hell and heaven by which a man may enter heaven; this is humility and penitence, which opens itself to all who sincerely seek to enter heaven and prevents anyone leaving heaven through it; and this is the substance of heaven, not hell’ (Dictum 52, trans. G. Jackson)

Grosseteste elsewhere talks about purgatory, even though as place and concept it is absent here. He also talks a lot about usury and coins, but these subjects can be for future posts! Dictum 52 invitates reflection about the door as a physical embodiment of spiritual imagery, and as a powerful device to think about activity taking place within churches.

The door as liminal is a commonplace notion, but, partly as a result, is worth pulling back into focus. The elaborate nature of medieval tympana decoration in stone churches, from the greater cathedrals to more humble parish churches, indicate multi-layered schema, obvious and subtle, of the story of creation, the fall of man, the bible story of mankind’s faithfulness and faithlessness, examples to be followed in the prophets, kings and heroic figures of the church, the consequences of sin, the certainty of judgment and the hope of salvation. To cross the threshold beneath these physical manifestations of the journey of faith, from an individual, community and cosmic perspective, was to be reminded of the function of the space within, and simultaeneously the separation of the church and the world, and their connection one to the other. The entry to some of the stavechurches within this project, may indicate the desire to communicate similar messages: the lions on the doorframes at Lom, and at Borgund as two examples. Christian symbolism of the lion includes the Lion of Judah, standing in Christian allegory for the triumphant Christ, as well as the symbol of Mark the Evangelist. The royal inheritance of Judah is stressed in Genesis 49: 8-10 (using here the Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate, as closer to the bible of the medieval world):

Juda, thee shall thy brethren praise: thy hands shall be on the necks of thy enemies: the sons of thy father shall bow down to thee. Juda is a lion' s whelp: to the prey, my son, thou art gone up: resting thou hast couched as a lion, and as a lioness, who shall rouse him? The sceptre shall not be taken away from Juda, nor a ruler from his thigh, till he come that is to be sent, and he shall be the expectation of nations.

The symbolism of worldly kingship on the one side, and of eternal, divine rule, on the other, was there, potentially for reflection upon by the parishioners entering their church.

How they did so, where the entrances to churches were, and where they are in relation to collection boxes and to offerings, are questions we might lay over the interpretation of the church finds and coin finds in churches. As Grosseteste’s words underline, to pass through a door, could have serious consequences indeed. The behavior that such thoughts might have inspired are what we seek to trace in the Economy of Salvation project. 

Tags: Doors, liminality, sacred space By Giles
Published Oct. 18, 2014 2:16 PM - Last modified Feb. 19, 2019 3:10 PM
Add comment

Log in to comment

Not UiO or Feide account?
Create a WebID account to comment