The great tympanum
The tympanum has at its centre a large figure of Christ enclosed in a mandorla evoking the splendour of His glorious body; He is seated on a throne and faces forward, motionless,
contemplating the Endless Beyond symbolized by the absence of stone behind His head. He is contemplating the heavenly Father with Whom he shares Divinity.
He is, however, portrayed in action, partly standing up to welcome mankind with open arms. His hands are the only parts of His body to go beyond the mandorla. Their action is directed towards the Earth. From His fingertips extend rays of light that fall upon the heads of each of the twelve apostles ( Matthias has been chosen to replace Judas). The apostles, divided into four groups of three are around Jesus. From the hip of Jesus, where a spiral is represented, a swirling force seems to extend to envelop the apostles. Directly under Christ’s hand, one apostle holds keys and can be identified as Peter.
The twelve apostles are sent on mission to the peoples of the Earth represented in 8 quadrangular compartments. People with all sorts of deformities can be seen (dog heads, pig noses, etc.). They are the peoples of the Earth.
They can be found further on both sides of the lintel, progressing in two lines towards the centre. All sorts of people can be seen: people with enormous ears, dwarfs, giants. They represent mythical peoples who were perceived at the time as being totally different from us. The Good News will be announced to all of them on the day of Pentecost, as is explained in the Acts of the Apostles. Some of them are introduced by Peter and Paul whose bodies exceed the limits of the lintel to penetrate into Christ’s mandorla. The figures of Peter and Paul are represented crossing an undulated frieze situated under the feet of the twelve apostles. The frieze probably symbolizes the waters of baptism and it probably also symbolizes the waters of the Red Sea which the Hebrew people crossed to leave a world where they were enslaved, and flee towards the Promised Land (Exodus).
On the other side of the lintel, a group of men leading a sacrificial bull and bringing offerings collide with soldiers who stop them and show them the cornerstone, i.e. Christ on whom the whole architecture of the Church relies, according to the Scriptures.
The great tympanum is surrounded by a decorated archivolt containing representations of the Labours of the Months in alternation with the Signs of the Zodiac. The aim of their presence is to recall that Christ, who is at the centre of everything, is the master of both time and space (Chronocrator and Pantocrator) and that he sums up all things both in Heaven and on Earth, as is explained in the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Ephesians.
The invitation to turn to Jesus also comes from John the Baptist whose statue decorates the trumeau, right under the feet of Christ. The symbol is clear: “He that cometh after me is mightier than I” (Matthew, 3:11). John the Baptist holds a large roundel bearing the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world.
On the tympanum, Christ is presented in three symbols: he is Himself the Messiah who will come to judge the world; as a cornerstone, he is the foundation of the Church and as the Lamb of God, he is the one who gave his life for the sake of mankind, to save the world.
Christ’s gaze leads to God the Father, to the Endless beyond everything, and through Him the Spirit is given to mankind. God is the Triune God.
Starting with a reference to Pentecost, the visitor is invited to travel through space and time to be confronted with a vision of the end of time in which Man will not be judged on his own merits (the weighing of the souls that was usually represented) but on his acceptance of the Word of God, as the Gospel according to St. John reminds us, particularly in its prologue.
Jesus is “the gate” and when the gate opens, we will understand that He is really “the light of the world”, something that His body, like a lightning bolt.
He is “the rising Sun who, from above, comes to visit those who are in darkness and in the shadow of death and guides our steps on the road of peace” as the monks sing every morning. Vézelay is a church of light.