THE BRONZE DOORS OF THE DOM CATHEDRAL IN UTRECHT
[click here for the Dom cathedral's own website (Dutch language only)]
Unlike other cathedrals, the Utrecht Dom, a continental Gothic cathedral built between 1253 and 1517 does not have an ornate porch to mark the place of its entrance. The entrance here is no more than an opening in an expanse of brick wall, framed only by a simple, narrow, pointed arch. The brick wall was built after a disastrous hurricane in 1674 demolished practically all of the cathedral's nave, leaving only tower, transept, and chancel standing. So today's west façade is in reality a filled-in cross section of the original building at the point where the nave used to join the transept. No wonder, then, that there is no entrance porch.
The remains of the nave continued to fill the space between transept and tower for 150 years until finally in 1826 the decision was taken not to rebuild, and to remove what was left of the ruins. In the meantime worshippers entered the church from the north, where a new entrance had been added in 1678.
After the latest restoration which was completed in 1988, it was decided for various reasons to relocate the entrance to the west façade, where a secondary entrance, closed with a set of wooden doors, had been in function since 1826. In order to make it clear that from now on this was the main entrance, it seemed a good idea to mark it by some sort of artistic embellishment. Since contemporary attitudes towards historic buildings would not permit the construction of an ornate entrance porch, the only remaining option was to replace the green wooden doors with a set cast in bronze. The commission went to Theo van de Vathorst.
The new doors, without a porch to enclose them, had to contend with the great expanse of brick that is the west façade. Moreover, the tall and narrow shape defined by the existing Gothic arch as well as its unfortunate horizontal division in two equal halves posed great problems for the artist. The large circle in the top half is an attempt to draw attention away from the gracelessness of the proportions.
In most old church buildings the doors open inwards: whether they are closed or open, only the outside is visible. Nowadays, however, considerations of safety prescribe outward-opening doors. Since the Dom is meant to be an "open church" and its doors are kept open most of the time, Theo van de Vathorst decided that the inside of both doors was at least as important as the outside. Accordingly he opted for a form of decoration that could be appreciated at close range by visitors passing through.
The inspiration for all five sections of this work of art was provided by St.Matthew's gospel, 25: 31-46. These verses enumerate the six works of mercy: providing food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, a home for strangers, and clothes for the naked, visiting the sick, and helping prisoners. A seventh, the burying of the dead, has traditionally been added since the thirteenth century (see below).
The large circular relief over the entrance depicts St. Martin of Tours, to whom this church was originally dedicated. It shows St Martin in the act for which he is perhaps most famous, the sharing of his cloak with a naked beggar. As well as in its clearly contemporary conception, the representation here differs from tradition in leaving out both sword and horse. Stretching out his arms to the beggar, St.Martin reaches out to all humanity.
The clothing of the naked thus being depicted in the top section, the other five works of mercy are shown on the inside of both doors, on the left in more or less contemporary form, on the right in more historically inspired scenes. Some of the latter are based on an early 16th century painting in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, by the anonymous Master of Alkmaar. Another one represents St.Willibrord, the Apostle of the Frisians and first Bishop of Utrecht, who is said to have provided freshwater wells for the people of the sea coast.
The outside of the doors is covered in newspaper cuttings. This may perhaps be interpreted as a reference to Luther, and to the custom of using church doors as notice boards in general. The text of St.Matthew 25: 31-46 is given in seven different languages, in full, in part, or in a few verses only. The languages used are Dutch, Frisian (the second official language of the Netherlands), English, Japanese, Greek, Latin and Syriac. There are three additional texts in Dutch. One is devoted to the seventh work of mercy, burying the dead, which is not mentioned by St.Matthew and therefore not depicted on the inside of the doors, and the other two tell the lives of St.Martin and St.Willibrord, both of them being of particular importance to the city of Utrecht. Some texts are cut off by others "covering them". The "newspaper cuttings" include a number of pictures.