Stairway to Heaven

Two-Hundred and sixty eight. This is the number of stone steps it takes to reach the Chapel of St. Michael d’Aiguilhe located in Auvergne. This chapel, built in 962, is built atop a needle of basalt rock above the commune Le Puy-en-Velay. The needle of basalt has long since been revered and sacred to the people who lived in the area. Three large stones used in the construction of the chapel are believed to have been the remains of ancient dolmen that were originally built atop the basalt needle before the chapel was built by Bishop Godescalc. The Romans would later dedicate this site to Mercury before the area was Christianized and the site consecrated to the chapel’s patron saint Michael the Archangel. The church significantly grew with the addition a westerly short nave, an elliptical ambulatory, two side chapels, a narthex with an upper gallery, a carved portal, and a characteristic bell tower that had to be reconstructed in the 19th century.

Some of the real beauty of the Chapel of St. Michael comes from the exterior of the chapel. Many of the stones were chosen in alternating colors, which I found aesthetically pleasing and a unique style compared to other chapels that seem to constantly choose one type of stone for the outer structure. The Chapel of St. Michael also has stonework that resembles iconic images from Genesis and Revelations. The reliefs portray images of the Lamb of God, Four elders of the Apocalypse, and just above that arch is a rendition of the creation and the fall with stonework that portrays garden vines with birds and two human figures.

The stonework on the exterior of the chapel and the frescoes in the interior of the chapel serve to show an important revelation in art up to this period. The stonework as just previously stated served to portray iconic imagery from the bible and this served to be a big step in the progression of art as it brings about the use of iconic imagery that is universally known. This art is meant to reach a wide population of people, literate and non-literate, Christian and non-Christian alike. The sight of St. Michael slaying a dragon in the interior of the chapel on one of the frescoes cannot be mistaken for anything else. This type of art is important as it defines the medium as a convention of communication of a message, which will later become central to modern art.

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