There’s a figure of an unusual woman on the cathedral in Worms, Germany. She’s just above the south portal on the right hand side.
The front of the statue at Worms (photograph by Jivee Blau/Wikimedia)
She’s beautiful and there’s something about the luxurious folds in her dress and the crown sitting on top of her perfectly coifed hair that instantly tell you she’s rich, too. She smiles serenely into distance while a tiny knight clings to the hem of her dress. He gazes at her adoringly. She doesn’t seem to notice. He’s hierarchically scaled so his small stature lets you know this piece isn’t about him. It’s all about her. She doesn’t have any religious attributes, the symbols shown with saints that clue you in to their identity. So who is she?
She’s Ms. World, Frau Welt.
The back of Frau Welt at Worms (photograph by Jivee Blau/Wikimedia)
Take a look at her back and you’ll find her identifying feature — she’s covered in toads, an allusion to Revelation 16:13.
And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.
Her body is being eaten alive by snakes and worms. She’s an allegory for vanity, a symbol for all that’s evil and sinful in the world hidden behind a seductive façade. She was a favorite character in German morality tales and sermons around 1300, just after the cathedral was constructed.
A nude Frau Welt surrounded by poisonous plants, attempting to lure the viewer in a tent. (From a manuscript at the Badische Landesbibliothek)
Naturally she was often used to browbeat women into dressing modestly. So if you find that she plays too much to the misogynistic tendencies of the Middle Ages for your tastes, consider her male counterpart, Fürst der Welt. The Prince of the World or Prince of Darkness’s self-satisfied smirk belies the toads, maggots, and rotting flesh waiting for the viewer on the other side. You can a famous example of his image outside the cathedral in Straßburg.
Fürst der Welt next to three fallen virgins on the Straßburg Cathedral (photograph by Rama/Wikimedia)
Frau Welt embodying the seven deadly sins, circa 1490-1500. (From the British Museum)