Virtue and vice: a nuanced reading of Notre Dame de Paris' south transept reliefs

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University of Alabama Libraries

Since the nineteenth-century, scholars have attempted to interpret the two sets of four reliefs on either side of the south transept portal of Notre Dame de Paris. Though various readings of the thirteenth-century panels have been offered, none have broken down each set of four reliefs and compared them to contemporary visual examples, establishing a full reading of the pair. The import of developing a full interpretation of these eight reliefs is made manifest when one recognizes that they are original, thirteenth-century works uncompromised by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who led the nineteenth-century restoration at Notre Dame de Paris. Félix de Verneilh, a contemporary of Viollet-le-Duc and the first scholar to address the reliefs, identified the pair as depictions of good and bad students from the University of Paris. That assertion dominated into the late twentieth-century, when Henry Kraus and Michael Camille read the reliefs, with emphasis on the left set, focusing on the political and social context surrounding the panels’ creation. Though these scholars provide initial readings of the reliefs, they do not closely examine both sets, but rather favor the left group explaining the right set as an opposition. This thesis provides a nuanced reading of Notre Dame de Paris’ south transept reliefs as depictions of virtues (Concord, Prudence or Wisdom, Chastity, and Humility) and vices (Discord, Folly, Lust, and Pride). The elaborated scenes on the south transept reliefs were, I suggest, provide an example of the mutability of representations of virtue and vice during the later Middle Ages. To support this reading, I offer an analysis of virtue and vice imagery from its origins through the late medieval period; compare the reliefs to the evolved and elaborated depictions of virtues and vices as they are identified in the Index of Christian Art; and compare them to the cycle of virtues and vices on the west portal of Notre Dame de Paris (c.1257), as that series influenced reading the virtues and vices as comparisons rather than conflicting personifications.

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Art history