Tuesday, September 20, 2011

“Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture”

Head of an Apostle
Upper Rhineland, probably Strasbourg, ca. 1280–1300
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
"One of those revelatory close-ups at which the Metropolitan Museum of Art excels" wrote the New York Times of the show from which this beauteous book was drawn. They described these truncated statues as "immensely appealing, somewhat battered orphans in white limestone: heads that were lopped off stone figures and reliefs that cover facades or interiors of European cathedrals and abbey churches. Depicting everything from Old Testament kings and prophets and angels, saints and apostles, to actual kings and clerics as well as devils and grotesques, these carvings turned churches into Bibles in stone. They were sometimes removed when tastes changed, but were more often the victims of iconoclasm during protracted struggles like the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the Protestant and English Reformations and the French Revolution."

Head of an Angel
France, Paris, ca. 1250
possibly from Notre-Dame Cathedral
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Proscribed from showing undue expressiveness in their venerable subjects (except for angels!), sculptors poured their creativity into intricate rivulets of hair, beard, mustache, and headdress. These limestone, marble, painted wood, and silver gilt objects represented French, German, Italian, Byzantine, English, and Iberian traditions. The essays are engrossing, and although the subject is a tad esoteric and the book from a university press, Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture will satisfy anyone interested in sculpture and the cultural influences that shaped—and almost succeeded in destroying—these commanding works.

Head of Saint John the Baptist on a Charger
Germany, Munich, ca.1330
Polychromed sandstone
Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich
Head of a Woman (ca. 1500-25). Limestone. Provenance unknown. Private collection.

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