Gothic Sculpture in England
History, Characteristics of 12th-13th Century Cathedral Art: Statues, Reliefs.

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Gothic statues of English kings.
Choir screen York Minster (c.1400);
built in the perpendicular style
of Gothic architecture.

English Gothic Sculpture (c.1150-1250)


First English Gothic Architecture
Early English Gothic Sculpture
Purbeck Marble
Column Statues
The Screen Facade
Wells Cathedral
Interior Decoration: Westminster Cathedral
Importance of English Gothic Sculpture

English 12th-century Gothic carving
of Adam & Eve, from the West front
of St.Mary's Cathedral, Lincoln.

Gothic sculpture in England,
(reliefs and column statues) like
that of France, was closely tied
to architecture since it was used
primarily to decorate the exteriors
of cathedrals, and other religious
structures, and illustrate the moral
messages of the Bible. Although
the style was superceded by the
more technically advanced
Italian Renaissance sculpture of
the quattrocento (15th century), it
persisted at least until the 16th
century in parts of Northern
Europe including England.

For the definition of certain
architectural terms, see:
Architecture Glossary.

For another decorative skill used
in Gothic cathedrals in England,
see: Stained Glass Art.

See Sculpture History.


The great English religious buildings before the Conquest belonged to three types of communities: the secular cathedrals such as Wells, Salisbury and Lincoln (composed of non-resident canons and administered by a dean and chapter), the monasteries (essentially Benedictine, Cluniac, Cistercian and Augustinian) and the episcopal priories which are unique to Britain (episcopal sees with a monastic community led by a prior). Durham is a typical example of the last-named and has groups of separate buildings for the bishop, to the north of the cathedral, and the prior, to the south.

First English Gothic Architecture

The first fully achieved example of Gothic architecture in England is traditionally regarded as the reconstruction work on Canterbury Cathedral after the fire which destroyed the Romanesque choir in 1174. Gervais, a monk and chronicler, has left a particularly detailed account of this undertaking for which the French architect William of Sens was called in. His replacement by an English architect after a fatal fall from a scaffold in 1178 marked a new orientation of English Gothic architecture, combining the new tendencies of Christian art from northern France and a national evolution with its own regional idiosyncracies; a form of medieval art dominated by the important role of the episcopate and royal patronage. English art historians have adopted their own terminology for the Gothic style, one which essentially goes back to the 19th century. The first Gothic architecture is called Early English, for which Episcopal style has been suggested as a substitute (Canterbury, Wells, Lincoln, Peterborough, Salisbury, Westminster). For more recent periods of Gothic art, we find the terms Decorated style (Exeter, York, Ely) and Perpendicular style (Cambridge) corresponding to the French styles of Rayonnant Gothic Architecture (1200-1350) Flamboyant Gothic Architecture (1375-1500) respectively. The period that concerns us here begins about 1150, extends over the second half of the 12th century and is illustrated by a gradual transition at the regional level from Romanesque to Gothic architecture. We find a variety of experiments that gradually become standardized during the first half of the 13th century until the opening of the worksite at Westminster, which marks a new aesthetic and cultural interpretation in the middle of the 13th century. See also: Gothic Cathedrals for the greatest examples of Gothic design in France.

High Cross Sculptures (c.750-1150 CE)
Medieval Sculpture (c.400-1000)
German Medieval Art (800-1250)
Romanesque Sculpture (1000-1200)
Gothic Sculpture (1150-1280)
German Gothic Art (1200-1450)
German Gothic Sculpture.

For bronzes - statues and reliefs,
see: Bronze Sculpture.
For marble and other similar
forms of carving, see:
Stone Sculpture.
For sculptures in wood,
see: Wood Carving.
For sculpting in clay, see:
Ceramic Sculpture.

For a list of the world's finest
works of three-dimensional art
see: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

For a list of the top 100 3-D artists
(500 BCE - 2009), please see:
Greatest Sculptors.

For another type of carving,
and modelling media, see:
Marble Sculpture
Pentelic, Carrara, Parian marbles.

Early English Gothic Sculpture

The first Gothic sculpture in England, and for that matter in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, does not play the same innovatory role in the development of medieval religious art as architecture and indicates a clear rejection of the model represented by the great facades of northern France. During the second half of the 12th century, sculpture is chiefly architectural and decorative (Worcester, Winchester). Apart from the portal of Rochester which includes and interprets, shortly after the mid-12th century, the type of column statues on the west front of Chartres, no great ensemble develops a cycle of facade sculptures similar to French creations. The novelties mostly come from the realm of architectural sculpture. Thus sculptures of exceptional quality appear in Wolvesey Palace in Winchester and at Glastonbury towards the middle of the century, under the patronage of Henry of Blois. And it is the study of capitals that enables us to follow the progress and tendencies of early Gothic art in England. The different types testify to the various influences on the buildings of each region during the second half of the 12th century. It has been rightly assumed that sculptors from France accompanied William of Sens to the Canterbury worksite, where we see the appearance in the Trinity Chapel of the crocket capitals destined to have an ephemeral success in England, but soon to be replaced by the stiff-leaf capital.

For a better understanding of this development, we may concentrate on the single work site of Wells, to which we shall return, and follow the elaboration of the type from the narrow separate leaves of the choir capitals executed about 1180-1185 to the full, deeply carved foliage with an effusive baroque air, endowed with an intense movement, of the west capitals of the nave dating to the early 13th century. Nevertheless, one should guard against generalizing insofar as regional developments retained a large measure of autonomy. In the north, for example, the capital with smooth leaves had a greater vogue and consequently the stiff-leaf capital did not appear there until later.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate English Gothic sculpture, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

Purbeck Marble

Much of the originality of the architectural decoration of Early English Gothic is based on the polychromy born of the use of a black marble, from the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. As early as the Romanesque period, English patrons had shown a predilection for dark stone exemplified in the importations of fonts and funerary slabs carved out of Tournai stone. The exploitation of Purbeck marble was already known in Romanesque architecture, but the opulence of the material really shines forth in the new construction at Canterbury, on the plinth of the shrine, the piers of the Trinity Chapel and especially the shafts in which the lie of the stone in the quarry was placed vertically when dressed. The last-named became characteristic of the Early English style.

Column Statues

If the Rochester portal remains an isolated phenomenon, the same is true of the column statues of St Mary's Abbey at York, now in the Yorkshire Museum, which stylistic analysis of the treatment of faces and drapery folds allows us to date to 1200-1210, based on comparisun with the French worksites of Senlis, Mantes and Sens. The best known and best preserved are the figures of John the Baptist and Moses with the rounded movement of the drapery folds that has become famous. The thirteen statues extant, including seven in a very good state, were discovered in January 1829 in the ruins of the conventual church. The stocky proportions of these statues are more easily understood today if we accept the theory that they may not have come from a portal, but from piers supporting the springing of the ribs of the chapter house, which was also sumptuously adorned with foliage capitals. Moreover, each pier must have included the typological figuration of an apostle surmounting a prophet. It is a portal arrangement (Bamberg) unprecedented for a chapter house, but it has the advantage of explaining the general aspect of the statues and it would confirm the pre-eminent role of chapter houses in the development of English Gothic.

The Screen Facade

During the first half of the 13th century, the principal English cathedrals under construction or reconstruction were given facades like immense screens which received vast cycles of sculpture, In marked contrast to French cathedral fronts, the emphasis was on their horizontal extension rather than the vertical soaring effect.

Although the Anglo-Norman tradition of facades with two towers persists. certain features also derive from the Romanesque facades of the west of France with their rich lode of sculpture. Contrary to the French tendency which favoured the splays of portals. England developed a flat conception of monumental sculpture in which each element or statue was incorporated until it seemed to merge into the immense decorative scheme of the facade.

Wells Cathedral

The main cycle of plastic art from the first half of the 13th century is that of Wells Cathedral, a building begun shortly after 1180 and so almost contemporary with the reconstruction of the Canterbury apse. Progress made on the works led the builders to the west front in the 1240s. Of gigantic proportions, with a double transept, the architecture of Wells Cathedral is distinguished from that of Canterbury by its linear conception. The building has an elevation on three levels patterned by the horizontal continuity of the triforium. The richest west front of all English cathedrals, Wells is impressive for the amplitude of its horizontal levels, for the increased breadth acquired by the towers projecting laterally over the side aisles, and for the quantity of sculptures displayed on it. The bare substructure is pierced by three doors which disappear between the buttresses. The tiers of arches on the central level display stylistic changes as they move upwards until they terminate in the Perpendicular style.

The skeletal appearance of the building was accentuated originally when the lancets of the lower parts of the towns were pierced. The portals play only a secondary role in the facade's iconographic program. The central portal, devoted to the Virgin, is surmounted by the scene of her coronation. The quatrefoils of the lower storey contain angels and episodes from the Old and New Testaments. The intermediate level is covered with statues of prophets, patriarchs, martyrs, confessors and various local saints. In the centre of the upper part, superimposed friezes display the resurrection of the dead, the orders of angels, the twelve apostles and Christ in Majesty dominating the whole at the summit: a supreme celestial vision, whose expressiveness was further enhanced in the Middle Ages by the statues' brilliant polychromy, many traces of which have been discovered. The execution of an ensemble like this undoubtedly lasted for one or two decades around 1240 (1230-1250), as the stylistic progress of the sculptures from below to above shows. The style testifies to an autochthonous development which was also aware of the great creations of the period, the west front of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris (1163-1345) and Amiens (1220-1270), and the south transept of Chartres Cathedral (1194-1250).

Roughly contemporary or slightly earlier, the facade of Lincoln Cathedral is of considerable breadth, but with a different pattern from that of Wells. The high towers stand in the background, enclosing the nave and its facade gable, while the latter broadens out on either side, beyond the side aisles. This section of the building, which reveals a high opening in the centre, made it possible to incorporate the old Romanesque facade in this new, essentially decorative conception. The skilful assemblage of blind arcades and bays which create the originality of this type of facade is also noteworthy, with proportions made taller and slimmer by the height of the porches, in the facade of Peterborough Cathedral. At Salisbury we again find the general equilibrium of the Wells facade, with which it is almost contemporary, with its translation on to the facade of the internal proportions, the towers that project sideways and the profusion of sculpture.

Note: For details of Gothic sculptors, see: Medieval Artists.


Gothic Sculpture As Interior Decoration: Westminster Cathedral

The variety of styles that flourished in England towards the middle of the 13th century can best be seen in the sculptured decoration adorning church interiors: rood screens and architectural sculpture. but also funerary sculpture in which England was outstanding, The use of Purbeck marble produced a polish close to that of bronze (tomb effigy of King John Lackland. Worcester, 1225-1235). The drapery style with small tight parallel pleats of the first half of the century gave way about 1270 to a more voluminous design with full supple folds (tomb of Bishop Giles de Bridport, Salisbury). Iconographically, the chief novelty lies in the presenting of the tomb effigy, no longer immobile, but slightly turned on to one side with hand on hip. This tendency to movement culminated in the effigy with crossed legs characteristic of the following period, to which we shall return.

The evolution of monumental sculpture is the result of a constant dialectic between native apprenticeship to the craft on long-lived worksites and receptivity to the forms worked out on their great continental counterparts. The headless statue of a woman from Winchester, variously identified as the Church, the Synagogue or one of the Cardinal Virtues, is a good illustration of this play of exchanges, because its antiquizing character, which reveals the influence of Reims (Queen of Sheba) or Chartres (north porch), allows us to date it to about 1230-1235, on the strength of these French analogies. Many other examples could be cited, but they are all eclipsed by the opening shortly after 1240 of the worksite of Westminster, which, on the initiative of King Henry III, brought sculptors of various origins together to adorn an edifice conceived as a monumental reliquary and which was to be richly adorned in the interior, like a shrine treated with goldsmith's work. A large number of later works derive from this great worksite in which Roman mosaicists worked side by side with artists from the most reputable circles. Important elements of the sculptured decoration have been preserved, including the Annunciation group from the niches flanking the inner portal of the chapter house, which still poses many problems because of the differences in style between the two statues on the one hand and the iconographic differences in comparison with French groups on the other. The treatment of the bodies and the rendering of the draperies in large hanging folds recall the queens on the west front of Wells Cathedral. and are comparable to the style of certain English manuscripts, notably the Douce Apocalypse illuminated shortly afterwards in the circle of the palace and Westminster Abbey. The influence of these sculptures, which have been associated with a payment made in 1253, reached as far as Scandinavia, as shown by the St Michael slaying the Dragon in the museum of Trondheim, Norway.

Westminster also saw the fruition of a plastic conception which became characteristic of English sculpture and which consisted in fitting great sculptured figures into the spandrels of arches inside buildings. Beginning with this period, angels invade the upper parts of the Gothic church and embody the idea of the basilica as the image of paradise. Those adorning the triforium of the Westminster transept (c.1250-1259) have affinities with the Annunciation group by the treatment of the bodies and draperies, but their timid smile and facial structure betray knowledge of innovations from Reims or answer to parallel international tendencies. The artist who carved these masterpieces was probably involved in the execution of the three key-stones of the hall of the archives, the sculptures on the west spandrel of the arcature of the Chapel of St Paul. on the spandrel in the middle of the arcature of the Chapel of St Edmund, and of the keystone of the Annunciation. The base of the apse triforium which shows a man laughing, sometimes identified as a portrait of the first architect mentioned, Henry of Reyns (1244-1256), might also be attributed to him. It is an output of astonishing richness, characterized by the vigorous handling, the way bodies stand out from the background, and the dexterity of the style, although the sculptor's task was not made any easier in the case of the spandrels by the position of the sculptures. The fragments from the wall arcade of the Chapel of St John Baptist illustrate once again around the middle of the century the artistic ambition underlying the introduction of an iconographic program which already appears in the Lady Chapel shortly after 1220.

Importance of English Gothic Sculpture

These artistic tendencies, which arose in a royal setting, show that the importance of 13th-century English sculpture has too often been underestimated in favour of illumination. The fragments discovered prove the quality of an output attested by the corbel heads from the nave of Gloucester Cathedral and the head from Clarendon Palace preserved at Salisbury. During the twenty years following the middle of the century, the influence of Westminster reached the Last Judgment portal at Lincoln Cathedral, whose sculpture, especially the statues on the engaged piers, illustrates by the modelling and the elegant treatment of the draperies a handling common to the art of the illuminators working at Crowland Abbey. A second ensemble, the famous Angel Choir at Lincoln, begun in 1250 and consecrated in 1280, gathers the fruits of all this heritage and announces the new paths of the last third of the century, already observable in the Virtues and Vices in the vestibule of the chapter house at Salisbury and especially in the Christ in Majesty at Rievaulx Abbey, or again in the censing angels from Sawley (Derbyshire) today in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from the seminal work on early European Sculpture, namely Sculpture: From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Edited by G. Duby and J-L Daval (1989-91) (published by Taschen GmbH), a book we strongly recommend for any serious students of English Gothic sculpture and architecture.


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