Saturday, 25 February 2017

Opening the Doors to Heaven: Lion Head Doorknockers from the Treasury of Freckenhorst Church

Maria Gordusenko, PhD History of Art, University of Edinburgh

Figure 1. Church of St Bonifatius in Freckenhorst, Westphalia, Germany.

The Treasury of Freckenhorst Church in Westphalia (Germany) possesses two doorknockers cast in bronze. They were produced for the doors of the main portal of this Church at the end of the eleventh century (figure 1). Originally set at the church doors, the Freckenhorst doorknockers were not only handles with a merely practical function: their significance expanded far beyond. These doorknockers are made in a form of lion heads that hold ring-shaped handles in their teeth (figure 2). The handles are notable for an inscription mentioning a man by the name ‘Bernhardus.’ Its position at the doorknockers’ handles suggests that the maker wanted the faithful to notice the inscription and read it, think about their souls, pray for the said Bernhardus, and then enter the Church. This inscription resembles a pious petition[1]:


[‘May Jesus Christ the King of kings see to it (faciat) that the people who enter (literally entering) these doors to pray (for the sake of prayer) ascend to Heaven. Bernhardus made me.’] 

Figure 2. Lion Head Doorknocker, ca 1085. Treasury of Freckenhorst Church, Westphalia, Germany. Photo:  A. Legner, Der Artifex: K√ľnstler im Mittelalter und ihre Selbstdarstellung: eine illustrierte Anthologie (Cologne: Greven, 2009), p. 226, fig. 300.

The symbolic nature of lion head doorknockers is rooted in antiquity. The continuity of this motif can be traced from the fifth century BC up to the Christian Middle Ages. Christian artists adopted, rethought and enriched the images of lions and their symbolism. Since antiquity, lion’s masks with rings in their mouths were commonly used to decorate doorknockers or handles of chests. A lion was regarded as an embodiment of strength and as a symbol of the sun. That is why the manes of lions head doorknockers were often modelled to look like flames (Vermeule 1988, p. 127).

In various contexts, references to lions occur in the Bible. The lion, as the strongest of the beasts, was referred to as a positive symbol of power and royalty (Proverbs 30:30). Images of lions decorated the throne of Solomon (1 Kings 10:18-20). When depicted with a book of Gospels, the Lion is associated with the Evangelist St Mark. Sometimes it can even be regarded as an image of Christ. In the Revelation, the Lion of Judah (as the symbol of the Jewish tribe) is used as a direct reference to Christ (Revelation 5:5).

The doorknockers from Freckenhorst, just like other examples, symbolise Christ and deliverance from sins (Mende 1983, p. 151). In this respect, rings held by lions in their teeth can also be interpreted as important elements. In pagan Germanic cultures a ring was recognised as a symbol of an oath or law; knights took or reaffirmed oaths on rings (Bley 1990, pp. 190-191). Rings at the doors of ancient temples and Christian churches were symbols of asylum. For instance, a fugitive clasping a ring at the doors of a temple or a church would have been granted protection from his chasers. Metaphorically, Christ was seen by the faithful as a refuge, as one of the Psalms says: ‘The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge’ (Psalm 18:2). In this respect, a doorknocker in a form of a lion head, holding a ring in its teeth would have been associated with Christ the lawgiver and formed a strong reference to church as an asylum for the faithful.

The conception of a church as an asylum, where the faithful can shelter from sin and the devil, is reflected at Hildesheim Cathedral on its bronze doors and in the Freckenhorst doorknockers. The Bernward Doors at Hildesheim have a representation of the Hand of God, which is paralleled to a master’s hand. It appears exactly at the level of the ring of the lion head doorknocker, and is shown as if it is going to clasp it claiming for an asylum inside the church (figure 3). This may convey the maker’s message that he repulses sinful life and wishes to stay in the church and to be saved by Christ. 

Figure 3.Bernward Doors, ca 1015. Fragment with the Hand and the Ring of the Doorknocker. Hildesheim Cathedral, Germany. Photo:
The position of Bernhardus’s inscription on the ring-shaped handles of the Freckenhorst doorknockers ensured that it followed their circular shape and allowed a parallel to be drawn between Bernhardus’s words and an oath. Being reaffirmed endlessly, like the shape of a circle, an oath would never be broken and Bernhardus’s petition will be reiterated permanently. But there is also another important aspect to Bernhradus’s doorknockers and inscription. It is related to the reception of bronze as a special material, which is able to animate images or make inscribed petitions sound and reach Christ in a sonorous form. For medieval minds, bronze was resonating, ever-changing composite material that possessed almost magical power; and some medieval treatises emphasise the significance of material qualities of bronze objects to resonate and sound (Weinryb 2016, pp. 98-99).

The distinct echoing sound of the Freckenhorst bronze doorknockers would literally signify Bernhardus’s name and his petition being pronounced. In other words, the text inscribed by the artist at the handles would acquire signification through sound. As a result, the person who used Bernhardus’s doorknockers and heard their sound would have recalled the maker and, supposedly, pray for him. But, most importantly, the sound of the doorknockers would be addressed directly to Christ, whom Bernhardus had mentioned in his inscription. Metaphorically, it may be equated to knocking on the doors of Paradise and asking for salvation.

The position of Bernhardus’s petition to the Saviour at doorknockers of church doors was not an accidental choice; in the medieval period church doors were assigned various symbolic meanings. A church was perceived as an asylum from sin, whereas liminal spaces, the entrance to a church and its doors, were commonly associated with the Gates of Heaven and with the Saviour (figure 4). As Christ said: ‘I am the gate. If anyone enters through Me, he will be saved’ (John 10:9). Similar to many other artists and bronze casters, Bernhardus meant his doorknockers and the inscription on them as a manifestation of his petition to Christ and believed that his work may open him the doors to life eternal (Frazer 1990, p. 273). 

Figure 4. Bernward Doors, ca1015. Fragment with the Hand and the Ring of the Doorknocker.  Hildesheim Cathedral, Germany. Photo:

Works Cited


Bley, H. ‘'Bernhardus me fecit': die romanischen Löwenkopf-Türzieher in Freckenhorst,’ Westfalen 68 (1990): 185. 
Frazer, M. ‘Church Doors and the Gates of Paradise Reopened,’ in Le porte di bronzo dall’antichita al secolo XIII, ed. S. Salomi, 271-279, (Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, 1990), 273.  
Mende, U. (1983). Die Bronzetüren des Mittelalters, 800-1200. Munich: Hirmer.
Vermeule, C. (1988). Sculpture in Stone and Bronze: Additions to the Collections of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art, 1971-1988, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston: The Museum.
Weinryb, I. (2016). The Bronze Object in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] I am grateful to Dr Patricia Brignall for her advice on the translation of this inscription.

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