Gothic Sculpture (c.1150-1280)
What is Gothic
THE GOTHIC CATHEDRAL
HISTORY OF SCULPTURE
'Gothic' is a word with a strange history and even stranger connotations. Naturally the builders of Chartres or Canterbury had never heard the word. They may have thought of themselves as moderns (as compared with the builders of St Trophime or Durham), but they would have been surprised to know that four centuries later, men of culture looking for a word to describe their style of Christian art would choose one with the same connotations that the word Vandal has for us today.
To most people it implies neither scorn nor praise: it is just a technical term for the kind of building in which the arches are pointed. Or ask someone to go a little deeper and ignore pedantic tests of this kind and he will tell you rather hesitatingly that he supposes that Gothic art is on the whole a vertical style whereas Romanesque art is a horizontal style. And he will be correct as far as he goes. But if he suggests that vertical and horizontal are two irreconcilable systems of thought and that the first was the result of a sudden act of rebellion against the second, he will be wrong. Architecturally the possible shades of transition from Romanesque architecture to Gothic, and even from Byzantine art to Gothic, are infinite. Venice is full of buildings that are Gothic by definition, but Byzantine in spirit. The pointed arches of Monreale in Sicily are more closely related to Byzantium than the round arches of Durham.
We, however, are not concerned with buildings or arches, but with sculpture in stone. If the word Gothic has any permanent meaning it must be applicable not only to a cathedral, but to a statue or a relief. But if we isolate an angel from the cathedral of Rheims - from its architectural context - how are we to know whether it is Gothic or not? How, for instance, does Gothic sculpture differ from earlier Ottonian art (c.900-1050) or Romanesque sculpture? There is no neat answer to such questions. Gothic is a relative, not an absolute term. It is a flavour that can be either hardly detectable, or, in extreme cases, overwhelming. What began to produce the flavour was another outburst of that spirit of visual curiosity which is among the chief motive forces of European art.
Curiosity about the human body produced Greek art; another kind of curiosity was responsible for the Gothic spirit. Greek curiosity was that of a scientist: Gothic curiosity was that of a lover. It was an affectionate curiosity, full of little whimsies and extravagances. Instead of limiting itself to humanity it could range playfully and capriciously across the whole of creation, picking out details, a monstrous form here, a charming turn of the wrist there. Greece had developed in the direction of greater breadth and simplicity: Gothic developed in the direction of complexity and preciousness, and gaily mingled the grotesque with the elegant. It is this mixture that gives it its true flavour, and, for that reason it can be summed up in no single statue or painting. If Byzantine mosaic is like beer in that one needs a lot of it, Gothic art is like a cocktail in that its separate ingredients do not fairly represent its final flavour. It has all the complexity of life itself.
'Romantic' is the obvious word for it, but 'romantic', like 'beautiful', is a word that will not survive the process of definition. To see Gothic at its impressive best one goes, of course, to the great cathedrals, especially the cathedrals of northern France. (But see also German Gothic sculpture, as well as the differing styles of English Gothic sculpture.)
Those cathedrals are among man's most extraordinary and moving creations, whether one sees them from afar, rearing themselves proudly above the city that surrounds them and breaking upwards into spires and pinnacles, whether one examines them at close quarters, noting the restless infinity of sculptural detail and fretted texture, or whether one enters them to find oneself in a complex architectural system whose soaring pillars and ribbed vaults arrest the eye so effectively that the walls are hardly noticeable and the effect is rather that of a formalized forest than of an enclosed room.
What concerns us here is not their shape or their function but their capacity to provide an ideal setting for certain kinds of plastic art. The Gothic spirit is not merely vertical; it leaps and soars like a rocket. Its essence lies in its power to suggest, not the final perfection of classic reason, like a Greek temple, but a dynamic search for the unattainable. The secondary arts of sculpture and stained glass which it fostered so easily, seem to grow organically out of it rather than to be imposed upon it. Like a living plant, a Gothic building can enrich itself from its own roots, throwing out foliage, tendrils, and flowers without losing its central unity. And that same leaping, nervous energy on which the whole of a Gothic structure is based, communicates itself to every part of the building but particularly to those portions of it which, however firmly they may be embedded in the design of the whole, can at least be thought of as belonging to the separate category of sculpture.
It is not easy, therefore, to detach a given piece of carving, however expressive it may be, from its architectural parent without robbing it of a good deal of its meaning. Those nervous flowing rhythms which still remain in it even after it has been detached, were part of a larger, over-riding rhythm. Yet as we are concerned only with the fine art of sculpture, it is necessary to think of Gothic sculpture as being detachable.
In a purely physical sense, a great deal of Gothic sculpture can be removed from its architectural context and still claim our admiration not only for its vitality, its fantasy, and its grace, but also for its inherent, self-contained meaning. A host of carved statues of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries could be taken out of their niches and set beside the best of the statues of early Italian Renaissance sculpture without suffering by the comparison. But because the sculptors were largely anonymous and because their creations were almost invariably contributions to a conception that was greater than themselves (and because few appear in the best art museums), it is difficult for us to think of even the best of the Gothic sculptures as a series of masterpieces; yet masterpieces they are, both in the assurance of their craftsmanship and in the grace and nobility of their conception.
The anonymity of Gothic art in general and of Gothic sculpture in particular offers an obstacle to the art historian of which he himself is hardly conscious. The three great west doorways of Rheims cathedral alone contain 33 life-size and 200 smaller figures, each of which is the product of a passionately creative mind and a fully developed tradition of craftsmanship. And when one remembers that this amazing collection of medieval sculpture is contained within a comparatively small area of one among a hundred similar buildings, one is amazed at the extraordinary fecundity of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in north-western Europe.
Much has been written on Gothic carving since Ruskin's famous chapter on 'The Nature of Gothic' in the Stones of Venice. But inevitably the art historian, faced with a mass of anonymous sculptural masterpieces, tends to regard them as the products of a period rather than of a set of exceptional individuals. Despite himself, he takes refuge in generalizations. Doubtless there existed in medieval France, Germany, and England, individual sculptors, each of whom is as worthy of separate study as Nicola Pisano (c.1206-1278), Giovanni Pisano (c.1250-1314), Arnolfo di Cambio (c.12401310), Giovanni di Balduccio (c.12901339), Andrea Pisano (1295-1348), Filippo Calendario (pre-1315-1355), Jacopo della Quercia (1374-1438), and Donatello (1386-1466), but since they are nameless, their work lacks the spotlight that would direct the art historians full attention on to it.
In the Gothic period, the cathedral dominated the town not only by its lofty silhouette, but also through its religious, economic and political influence. The cathedral is the monument which defines what we call Gothic architecture. This term, given prominence by the Romantics, was applied to the new style of religious art that originated in the Ile-de-France and flourished first in northern France, spreading to the neighbouring lands during the second half of the 12th century and the two following centuries. The sculpture of the period of Gothic expansion was primarily conceived for the embellishment of cathedrals. (For Christian religious sculpture from a different era with a totally different function, see Celtic High Cross Sculptures.)
The interest that 19th-century Frenchmen showed in the study of Gothic cathedrals had dual roots in ideology and architectural technology. They saw in the cathedral and its decoration the symbol of a communal organization, of a secular spirit which had taken precedence over monasticism and feudalism. As neo-Gothic tendencies in architecture became very popular throughout Europe from the end of the 18th century, Viollet-le-Duc embarked on the study of the architectural structure, without which, as far as he was concerned, there could be no form in Gothic art: for him it was a dynamic system based on the interplay of thrusts and the study of the ribbed vault. Since then, many other approaches to the interpretation of the Gothic cathedral have been suggested - formal, symbolic and technical. Illustration of the Heavenly Jerusalem, image of Paradise, echo of scholastic philosophy, monumental embodiment of the postulate that God is light, the cathedral has been the subject of many attempts at a global interpretation.
The cathedral was an urban monument whose rise went hand in hand with the revival of the episcopate and the expansion of the town. Benefiting to some extent by the increasingly obvious decline of the monastic orders during the 13th century, the bishops played an important part in a spiritual reform in which the mendicant orders also shared. The Fourth Lateran Council, which in 1215 codified the new religious obligations of the faithful, while raising their minimal requirements, contributed to the increase in secular piety. Around the bishop, the canons lived in a quarter near the cathedral in individual houses which reduced community life to a strict minimum,. These chapters, which offered openings to the upper classes of the population, provided work for many town-dwellers. The cathedral, in its capacity of episcopal see, was also a centre of culture for it housed within its perimeter the episcopal school, which sometimes became a university, as in Paris.
So to understand the amazing rise of the Gothic cathedral whose heyday falls in the half-century known in France as the age of Philip Augustus, from about 1175 to 1225, we must grasp the setting in which it arose and the phenomenon of urban expansion in which it shared. There was indeed a widespread increase in building, as demonstrated by town walls, like those of Paris, Reims, Troyes, and Bourges, the multiplication of parishes aud the construction or reconstruction of many churches, and the renewal of public and civil architecture (collective buildings, bridges, markets), as well as private architecture (houses).
This growth had repercussions in the neighbouring countryside and reflected the city's new industrial and commercial roles. The cathedral worksite occupied an essential place among all this new wealth. Immense resources were needed which came from the fertile surrounding country, from gifts and alms, as well as from the increased pressure of feudal taxation on urban populations. But the worksite, too, contributed to the general economy by giving direct or indirect employment to a very large number of people.
Besides these social and economic factors, the cathedral was the centre where the essential inventions of Gothic architecture were worked out: the pointed arch, the cross-ribbed vault, the flying buttress. Treatment of the walls and openings led to a progressive enlargement of the latter which led in turn to the installation of stained glass windows that captured the light and transformed it into a transcendental expression of religious thought. But what made the monumental progress of the new style possible was primarily the new organization of the worksite, of its provision with stone and wood, and especially the standardized cutting and mounting of blocks of stone. Rational working methods affected both the project and its realization, and extended to sculpture which was put in place to keep time with work on the masonry. In this way a new bond was created between architecture and sculpture. (For a comparison with Gothic sculpture in Germany - notably wood carving - see: German Gothic Art.)
The Column Statue
in Gothic Sculpture
In the historiated portal of early Gothic,
the most original and innovative creation is the statue carved out of
the same block as the column. whose form and function it espoused. It
is known as the column statue. It confers a vertical dimension on the
porch and appears on the jamb, an integral part of the general program
of the portal.
Standing at the church door like the portico columns of King Solomon's temple, column statues have been the subject of different iconographic interpretations. They have variously been seen as the kings of France and biblical heroes; they have even been identified with legendary figures. Today we know that they fit into the typological iconography already mentioned. So we find column figures of prophets, patriarchs and kings: Abraham, Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Josiah, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, John the Baptist, and the Queen of Sheba among the women. The importance assigned to the Old Testament kings in these iconographic programs of northern France should be related to the progress of the monarchic institution, whose ideal portrait is the representation of Solomon. His judgment was interpreted in the Middle Ages as the image of the divine judgment between Church and Synagogue. The wisdom of Solomon attracted the Queen of Sheba, who stands for the Church. There are many iconographic variations between portals which portray Old Testament figures exclusively and those where the presence of Peter and Paul, who traditionally flank the door, confirms the connections between the two Testaments. The portals in which column statues fit into the framework of the iconography of the Virgin belong to a separate category. But when studying the disposition of column statues in cathedrals we should not forget that they have sometimes been moved from their original position: even in the Middle Ages the master masons had a tendency to move and re-use sculptured works at will (as in the St Anne portal at Notre-Dame in Paris. in the transepts at Bourges, in the north transept of Saint-Denis).
Origins of Gothic Sculpture
Three portals, with splays adorned with
eight column statues on the central portal and six on each of the side
portals representing Old Testament figures, comprised sculptured tympana,
arch mouldings and jamb shafts. The column statues of Saint-Denis symbolized
the imperium (the three French dynasties) in the guise of the sacerdotium
(kings, high priests and prophets of Israel), an interpretation confirmed
by Suger when, as Regent of France during the Second Crusade, he convoked
the peers, archbishops and bishops at Soissons in 1149 in the name of
"the indissoluble unity of the regnum and the sacerdotium."
The central portal was organized around the Last Judgment relief
sculpture on the tympanum and the arch mouldings, and also comprised the
Elders of the Apocalypse and the Wise and Foolish Virgins. The leaves
of the door presented Passion scenes and a statue of St Denis occupied
the trumeau. The right-hand portal was devoted to the legend of St Denis
and his companions, and thus inaugurated the series of Gothic tympana
devoted to the history of the church's patron saint. The engaged piers
displayed a calendar, whose counterpart is on the engaged piers of the
left-hand portal representing the signs of the zodiac. The tympanum of
this portal was adorned with mosaic art
(an unusual technique in France at this period) portraying a theme of
the Virgin, to which the archivolts and column statues were also devoted
(royal ancestors of the Virgin).
The problem of the style of the stone sculpture on the west front of Saint-Denis is a highly controversial one. Certain features, such as the months of the year and the signs of the zodiac on the jamb shafts and the whole ornamental repertory surrounding them, are still firmly bound up with Romanesque art. Moreover, Sliger seems to have been aware of this influence from the past when he described the tympanum mosaic as "out of date." The essential novelty lies in the column statues, the decoration of the arch mouldings and certain basic stylistic features (calmer style, relief composed of independent volumes) of the older parts of the central tympanum. Henceforth the problem of the style of the column statues can be better understood with the help of the heads still preserved. After Wilhelm Voge's study at the end of the 19th century, the view persisted that the sculptors of Saint-Denis had been schooled at Toulouse and Moissac. Today scholars look exclusively northwards, because the best elements for comparison are in northern France, in the capitals of Saint-Etienne at Dreux, for example, or in the more international milieu of goldsmithing and metalworking. (See also: Celtic Metalwork art.)
This reassessment was initiated by the
cleaning of the portal of St Anne at Notre-Dame in Paris which, until
about twenty years ago, had been dated too late and was misunderstood
in consequence. This south portal of the present-day west front, which
should really be called the Portal of the Virgin, is a work from the years
1140-1150 designed for the church preceding Maurice de Sully's cathedral
(c.1160), then put back in place with numerous additions on the new facade
begun in 1210. For this operation, the builders proceeded not only to
add some necessary elements, but also to re-carve others, such as the
St Paul discovered in 1977 with numerous fragments which added their testimony
to the observations made when the facade was cleaned in 1969. Then what
scholars had begun to divine became factual evidence on the occasion of
the "de-restoration" of the only trumeau preserved from the
first great Gothic portals, the St Marcellus in the Musee de Cluny which
was removed from the centre of the portal of St Anne in 1857 by Geoffroy
Dechaume. The tight pleats with their supple movement and the high plastic
quality of the St Marcellus (headless today) entitle this portal to a
place of the highest order in early Gothic sculpture between Romanesque
(lintel) and contacts with Chartres (Virgin). Here a new problem is posed,
that of the existence of a project for the reconstruction of a cathedral
anterior to the present one and in which Suger himself was interested
enough to donate to it a stained glass window devoted to the Virgin before
Note: For details of Gothic sculptors, see: Medieval Artists.
of Senlis and the Marian Cult
In the monumental iconography of the Virgin,
western sculptured facades retained different themes, among which dominated
the representation of Mary, seat of wisdom, shown frontally, holding the
Child, associated with the Three Kings, or depicted in the centre of the
apse or the tympanum surrounded by a few favoured personages. Apse decorations
in Rome already show this Marian figure during the early Middle Ages,
then it became common in the Romanesque period on the sculptured tympana
of Corneilla-de-Conflent. Neuilly-en-Donjon, Anzy-le-Duc, and in the early
Gothic period on the portal of St Anne at Notre-Dame in Paris, the south
tympanum of the Royal Portal of Chartres, the north transept of Reims
and at Laon Cathedral - to mention a few examples. Moreover, each of these
images fitted into a context peculiar to it, into the framework of an
iconography which acquired its full dimensions in terms of the scenes
surrounding it. The Virgin also figures in the Ascension of Christ, presiding
over the apostolic college, at Cahors and Anzy-le-Duc; she becomes even
more autonomous in the representation of her own Assumption at La Charite-sur-Loire
where she is welcomed by her Son in the Heavenly Jerusalem. The novelty
of this image lies in the special emphasis put on the concept of bodily
assumption, belief in which spread from the beginning of the 12th century.
It was around 1135 that Peter the Venerable defended it in a letter addressed
to one of his monks. The special veneration in which the Virgin was held
at Chartres was of long standing, while in England, Marian devotion and
more especially the cult of the Immaculate Conception was celebrated even
before the Conquest. So it is not the growth of the cult of the Virgin
as such which is in question at the beginning of Gothic art (we should
remember that late southern Romanesque had represented the miracle of
Theophilus at Souillac and the episode of the Virgin's girdle at Cabestany),
but rather the transition from the theme of the triumph of the Virgin
to that of her coronation and more especially the creation of a type of
portal entirely built up around this iconographic theme.
According to our present state of knowledge,
the iconography of the Virgin broke new ground on the west portal of the
cathedral of Notre-Dame at Senlis, where we find the fully worked out
theme of the crowned Virgin for the first time. The two known dates (1150-1155
under Bishop Theobald for the decision to rebuild and 1191 for the consecration)
are too far apart to fix the chronology of the facade accurately. Stylistic
comparisons. on the other hand, favour a dating of about 1170, although
the style, formed of supple curves full of nuances in contrast to Chartres
verticality, is original enough to make it a somewhat isolated phenomenon
and one that had little following.
Introducing the ensemble, the eight column statues, heavily restored and completed by the sculptor Robinet in 1845-6, represent, from outside to inside, John the Baptist, Aaron, Moses and Abraham on the left, and David, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Simeon on the right. They all bear the attributes indicating their role as prophets of the Incarnation (right) or foreshadowers of Christ the Redeemer (left) and, in this capacity, refer more to Christ than the Virgin. Doubt still exists about the identity of the figure that might have occupied a putative trumeau which has disappeared today: Christ or the Virgin? A very similar arrangement of column statues is found on the portals of Saint-Nicolas of Amiens (destroyed during the Revolution) and of the north transept of Chartres (central portal), there with Peter and Melchizedek. It will be noted that the statues on the splaying pose a general problem it would be interesting to study, namely the nature of the changes these series originally conceived for portals with the iconography of the Redemption might have undergone when they had to accompany the new iconography of the coronation of the Virgin in its early stages.
The west portal of Senlis is completed by the arch mouldings carved with figures representing the genealogy of Christ and the Virgin (Abraham, Jesse, David, Solomon) amid the branches of a Tree of Jesse. This lineage culminates symbolically in the Virgin and the Christ on the tympanum. Thus the general program of the Senlis portal becomes clear through the different stages of the history of Humanity redeemed by the blood of Christ, stages in which the Church played an essential part. By comparing the Virgin of the tympanum sitting beside Christ to the betrothed of the Song of Songs, the virtual equation of the Virgin with the Church becomes stronger. The essential novelty is that the place the Virgin occupies on the tympanum puts her on the same footing as Christ. The corporal resurrection of Mary, which is based on belief in the Assumption of the Virgin, is accompanied here by the celestial glorification of the Mother of God.
Even if the term Coronation of the Virgin does not exactly fit the scene on the tympanum of the main portal of Senlis, this figuration subsequently becomes the major theme of Marian tympana. The central portal of the west front of the collegiate church of Notre-Dame at Mantes, whose dating must be very close to that of Senlis, if slightly later, presents a monumental version of the Senlis images, although with certain differences (a richer cycle of the Virgin, a slightly different Assumption). In contrast, the theme of the tympanum and arch mouldings is revived on it with a complement which serves to reinforce the meaning of the Senlis portal: a cross appears above the central couple. The west front of Laon Cathedral has two portals devoted to the Virgin executed at the very end of the 12th or during the first few years of the 13th century; they complete the right-hand portal dominated by the Last Judgment. The central portal takes up the Senlis scheme again, whereas the left-hand portal breaks new ground in Marian iconography, heralding the north transept of Chartres and Amiens. The tympanum represents an Epiphany with the familiar formula of a lintel adorned with the Annunciation, the Nativity and the Annunciation to the Shepherds. The arch mouldings deserve attention insofar as they contain prefigurations of the virginity of Mary. Figures and symbols of the chosen people arc assembled on the third arch moulding: the new Eve, Daniel in the lion's den, Habbakuk, Gideon, Moses before the burning bush, the Ark of the Covenant, the Temple, Isaiah. The fourth exhibits figures and themes from pagan Antiquity associated or not with the history of Israel: the unicorn, Virgil, Isaac blessing Jacob, Balaam, Simeon, the statue in Nebuchadnezzar's dream, Nebuchadnezzar asleep, the coronation of David, the Sibyl, the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace. Typologically speaking, we find here a summation of the testimonies of Jews and Gentiles about the virgin birth of Christ and the coming of his kingdom on earth, which is portrayed at Laon in the scenes on the lintel and tympanum. At Saint-Yved at Braine, shortly before the dedication of the church in 1216 the Virgin turning towards Christ is shown in profile in the attitude of prayer. The subsequent evolution of Marian iconography assigns an essential place to the coronation proper and repeats this scene ad infinitum as We see it even before the end of the first decade of the 13th century on the central portal of the north transept of Chartres. Then the Annunciation and the Visitation take their place among the column statues on the splaying of the left-hand portal of the same transept.
During the 13th century statues of the Virgin holding the Child and standing became common in the Ile-de-France and elsewhere. In monumental sculpture, the tradition of the seated Romanesque Virgin holding the Child continues and culminates about 1180 on the trumeau of the central portal of Noyon Cathedral. The appearance of the standing Virgin and Child on the trumeau poses a problem. It is recorded at Moutiers-Saint-Jean in Burgundy at a date close to that of the Virgin and Child on the right-hand splaying of the west portal of Notre-Dame of Vermemon (c.1170). The role of Paris in the diffusion of the trumeau Virgin must have been decisive, judging by the crowned Virgin trampling the snake underfoot, accompanied by saints on the splays, who figured about 1210 on the left-hand portal, below the Coronation of the Virgin, of the west front of Notre-Dame in Paris. This model (destroyed during the Revolution) was taken up again at Amiens and then in many monuments. The figure of St Anne holding Mary in her arms (portal of the Coronation of the Virgin, north transept of Chartres) stands out as an important stage in the Marian iconography of the facade shortly before 1210, insofar as it refers to the story of Mary's childhood, quite apart from the presence of relics of St Anne at Chartres, formerly the Annunciation to Joachim could be seen on the plinth. The imroduction of the monumental iconography of the Virgin testifies by its great popularity to the theological elaboration which, during the second half of the 12th century, governed the cult of this Lady, mother of Our Lord, fiancee of Christ and embodiment of the Mystery of the Church. It is one of the major innovations in Gothic cathedral sculpture.
in Northern France (c.1200)
The stylistic experiments at Laon and Sens lead to the north transept of Chartres, especially the statues on the splaying of the central portal. The monumental formula which consisted in treating the extremities of transept arms as genuine west fronts was perfected on the worksite of Chartres Cathedral. To help fix the chronology, we know that the head of St Anne was given to the cathedral in 1204-1205 and that the trumeau of the north portal must be dated very similarly. The cathedral of Chartres was rebuilt after the fire of 1196 and the canons were already installed in the new choir in 1221. The comparative chronology of the building and stylistic study of the portals and porches show that the central portal is the oldest, the others dating only to the second decade of the 13th century. During these early decades, Chartres was a centre producing quite exceptional sculpture which reached a peak about 1230 and even a little later with a monumental rood screen illustrating the childhood and Passion of Christ, many fragments of which have been preserved. It was one of the finest monuments of all Gothic sculpture in the 13th century.
When dealing with the stylistic mutation
of the first decades of the 13th century, one of whose major currents
led to the marvellous antiquizing statues of the central portal of Reims
Cathedral, we should take into account the vast worksite which the reconstruction
of the west front of Notre-Dame represented in Paris, from about 1210.
There we find the result of antiquizing research (angel's head in the
Musee de Cluny) and of the forms perfected at Laon and Sens. The Last
Judgment on the central portal and the Coronation of the Virgin on the
north portal embody a formula of wide superimposed registers that are
more clearly integrated with the rhythm of the arch mouldings. A greater
verticality characterizes the style of the sculptures, which have already
abandoned the antiquizing mode and announce the expressiveness of the
Amiens statues. The extraordinary discovery of 1977 has improved our knowledge
of certain stylistic aspects of the Notre-Dame facade, in particular the
heads of the arcade of kings which date to the latest stage, around 1230.
The chronology of the west front of Amiens Cathedral remains in question. Work was thought to have proceeded, more or less, according to a linear evolution, which would have brought the workmen to the facade only ten years or so after the beginning of the nave. After a colloquy organized in 1974 by the Societe Francaise d'Archeologie, the facade was judged to be not particularly coherent and later in date, with successive additions marking the progress of its attachment to the main body of the cathedral. This point of view is opposed to a chronology in three building campaigns, from 1220-1235 to 1248-1263. Apart from the fact that it takes into consideration the numerous technical observations made in the 19th century during the radical restoration undertaken by Viollet-le-Duc (1844-1847), it brings the sculpture of the west front into line with that of the portal of the Vierge Doree of the south transept. Thus the role of the Amiens workshops is essentially concentrated on some ten years around 1240. Certain sculptures might belong to an initial facade design; for example, the statue of St Ulphia on the lefthand splay of the St Firmin portal, with its antiquizing air due to the employment of damp-fold drapery. With that remark, we return to the general problem of the differences of style between the sculptures on the great facades. Are they evidence of different moments in the execution of the works or do they simply point to the presence of sculptors with varied origins and training? Because, when looking at the facade of Amiens Cathedral, we observe, in addition to the innovating hand of the Master of the Beau Dieu, whose style is comparable to the Christ on the trumeau of Notre-Dame in Paris, the hand of several masters at work on each of the portals.
The west front of Notre-Dame of Amiens, with two towers and rose window, has an devation on several levels. The monumental sculptures are concentrated on the arcade of kings and the three portals. Each portal is designed with trumeau and tympanum, and flanked by deep splayings. The unity of the whole is due to the fact that the statues and the reliefs in quatrefoils on the substructure continue without interruption onto the splays and buttresses. As a result the ground floor of the facade offers a close symbiosis between architecture and sculpture. As in Paris, the tympanum of the central portal is devoted to the Last Judgement; its program is set out on three large registers. The separation of the Chosen from the Damned continues on the lower part of the first arch moulding. The program unfolds on the arch mouldings with angels, martyrs, priests, women, the Elders of the Apocalypse and the Tree of Jesse. As in Paris, the trumeau depicts Christ blessing one of the major works of sculpture at Amiens, while the apostles, much restored, occupy the splays. The right-hand portal is devoted to the Virgin, who is standing on the trumeau and crowned on the tympanum. The statues on the splays represent the Three Kings, Herod, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba on the left, and the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Presentation in the Temple on the right. The left-hand portal is devoted (henceforth the established norm for the great programs) to local hagiography: on the trumeau, St Firmin, first Bishop of Amiens, whose story unfolds on the registers of the tympanum; the statues on the splays represent twelve saints. On the buttresses are arranged prophet statues, forming an original composition in conjunction with the reliefs of the substructure.
Together with the bronze plaque from the
tomb of Bishop Evrard de Fouilloy (d.1222), in a style without direct
relation with that of the facade and an important example of Gothic bronze
sculpture, Amiens Cathedral possesses another major work of 13th-century
sculpture: the St Honoratus portal of the south transept. Today the evolution
of the worksite and the style of the sculptures enable us to date it to
the years 1235-1240 (possibly even 1245), with the additional help of
an architectural study of the actual installation of the portal. The latter
is famous for the so-called Vierge Doree on the trumeau. As an innovation,
the apostles, grouped in conversing pairs, stand out in the round on the
lintel. The originality of the program of the arch mouldings is enhanced
by that of the tympanum which recounts the life of St Honoratus, former
Bishop of Amiens, on four registers. The style of the sculptures on the
portal of the Golden Virgin offers many points of comparison with that
of the sculptures on the west front. It had been wrongly assigned a later
date than the west portals of Reims and the transept of Notre-Dame in
Paris. However, the present chronology has the advantage of placing the
originality of the lintel and the style of the Virgin more accurately
in the framework of the evolution of 13th-century sculpture.
in 13th Century Gothic Sculpture
During the first decades of the 13th century, Gothic sculpture made innovations in many fields. Statues, for example, owing to a twisting movement which made the legs face in an opposite direction to the torso, or a slouching from the hips with the weight on one leg (the Gothic sway), tend to stand out visually from the architectural setting. Again, statues began to smile and there was a growing taste for the anatomical study of the nude. We have already dwelt on the novelties in the iconography of the Virgin. Parallel to them, from the beginning of the 13th century, monumental Gothic sculpture shows a predilection for the representation of crowned kings, for a royal iconography. The west portals of Saint-Denis and Chartres had already established the type of the royal biblical statue on the splay, with the book or rotulus as attribute. Generally, the figures wear an open cloak, held in on the right shoulder, which falls in straight tight folds. During the first half of the 13th century, the robe falls to the feet and is drawn in at the waist; an open cloak is held in over the chest. But the main novelty is the appearance of royal figures aligned on the upper part of the facade: the famous arcades of kings.
In April 1977, 364 sculptured fragments
from the cathedral of Paris were discovered during restoration work on
the Hotel Moreau, Rue de La Chaussee-d'Antin. In 1793 in the desire to
suppress emblems of royalty after smashing the crown on statues, the revolutionaries
decided to pull them down and destroy them. Out of religious and undoubtedly
monarchic respect, many fragments were buried and so faint was the memory
of them that Viollet-le-Duc had to use his imagination when restoring
them. Among the pieces found in 1977 were twenty-one heads from the arcade
of kings at Notre-Dame, which establish the Parisian style of the years
1225-1230, that is to say an intermediary period little known before,
and supply valuable information ahout the polychromy of medieval statues.
Their formal aspect is fairly coherent: a crown with fleurons that have
disappeared, hair divided into long strands often hiding the ears, beard
and moustache nearly always abundant. In contrast, only a very few fragments
were found of the bodies, from which the heads had been carefully removed.
When looking for the origin of the arcade of kings, a distinction should be made between the architectural motif and the iconography, because the row of figures under arches developed very early in medieval art, in painting and mosaics, at the back of apses or sculptured on facades in western France and northern Spain. Many Spanish facades display aposolados or registers of apostles, as at Santiago de Compostela, Moarves, Carrion de los Comics, Sanguesa and later at Ciudad Rodrigo, a monumental transposition of a theme frequently found on altar frontals. Incidentally, the Epiphany is incorporated into the frieze at Carrion de los Condes. The arcade of kings of Notre-Dame, Paris, as well as those of Chartres (south arm of the transept and west front), Amiens (west front) and Reims (buttresses and transept towers) signify the emergence and diffusion of a new theme in which the royal ancestors of the Old Testament were very soon confused with the "ancestors" of the kingdom of France. The fact is that the emerging theme of the arcade of kings cannot be dissociated from the growing prestige of the Capetian dynasty beginning with the reign of Louis VI, from the shaping of the notion of royal legitimacy, from the reflection on the image of the king which was a central concern in the aulic circles of the France of Philip Augustus. The royal statues in the upper parts of the transept of Reims show, by the artistic and iconographic scope of the cycle, the close connection deliberately sought between religious iconography and the idea of royalty through its symbols. The important ecclesiastical and political personalities who intervened in commissioning works were directly involved in the emergence of an architectural motif which illustrates the culmination of thinking about medieval genealogies. As a facade theme, the arcade of kings also enjoyed an obvious and rapid success outside France (Burgos, Wells, Lichfield, Exeter, Lincoln).
Late Gothic Sculptors
The following are among the greatest Late
Gothic artists north of the Alps:
For more facts about sculptors, see: Art Encyclopedia.