Gothic Sculpture in England (c.1150-1250)
ENGLISH GOTHIC STYLE
HISTORY OF SCULPTURE
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.
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, combining the new tendencies of Christian art from northern France and a national evolution with its own regional idiosyncracies; a Gothic art dominated by the important role of the episcopate and royal patronage. English art historians have adopted their own terminology for Gothic architecture, 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 Rayonnant and Flamboyant styles of French terminology 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.
TYPES OF 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.
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
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.
The main cycle of sculpture 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 in Paris and Amiens, and the south transept of Chartres.
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.
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.
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.
For more facts about the "plastic arts", see: Homepage.