The façade of Strasbourg Cathedral was often said to resemble a "gigantic harp" and shows an extraordinary decoration of pink sandstone, with three carved portals, a great rose window fifteen meters in diameter, and a riot of turrets, gables, colonnades, galleries and statues. It is a large book of images recounting the historic gifts of Christianity, from the Creation of the World to the Fall of Adam.
It is not the choice of subjects that is inventive so much as the feverish and dramatic inspiration that animates the statues of the Prophets in the niches of the central doorway, stirs the draperies and clenches the faces, so much so that one might call this an example of expressionism. The south portal, by contrast, shows the Wise and Foolish Virgins in an elegant and peaceful style, owing a lot to the mannered sculpture at Paris Notre Dame. This mannerism is pushed even further on the left portal where the statues of the Vices and Virtues, simpering preciously, come straight out of some courtly love scene. The most famous statues of this rich collection are placed on the extremities of the double portal of the southern transept. These show allegorical figures of the Church triumphant and the Synagogue defeated; their medieval artist used the symbolic genius of this time to show the Old Testament as a blind woman with her eyes bound by error and maintaining a noble and sorrowful posture. For the first time, here at Strasbourg, Church triumphant looks at her conquest without pride or hostility. The struggle between the Old Testament and the New is a classical theme of medieval iconography.
On the tympanum is one of the finest examples of Alsatian art, the death of the Virgin Mary on a bed covered with a shroud. The virtusoity of the sculptors, the emotional power and the extreme dramatic tnesion of this art demands comparison with Chartres Cathedral. Its roots lie in the perfection of Roman sarcophagi, with the relief varied to give a play of light and shade, and create an impression of transparency and lightness; the same lightness that inside the cathedral characterises the pillar of the angels holding up the vault of the transept.
Yet even here, we can catch a glimpse of a violence held in check that hints at its unleashing in the 16th century and points towards the tormented art that reached its peak in the altarpiece at Issenheim by Mathias Grunewald.
Photos of the sculptures at Strasbourg Cathedral: