Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture

Little, Charles T., ed., with an essay by Willibald Sauerländer (2006)

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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (8)
Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture

The exhibition presents more than eighty medieval sculpted heads, half from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and half selected loans from American and European collections. Because historical events isolated these objects from their original settings, they became objects that could be collected, and objects whose lost histories curators and scholars would hope to recover. The works are arranged thematically, beginning with sculptural heads that were intentionally removed from the bodies of sculpture during periods of iconoclasm. During the French Revolution, for example, monumental figures on the facade of Notre-Dame were systematically destroyed or beheaded by government edict. Just as the king was subjected to the guillotine, the sculptures—seen as symbols of authority—were destroyed in parallel acts of vengeance. An outstanding example is the regal thirteenth-century limestone Head of a King of Judah, originally from Notre-Dame in Paris (Musée National du Moyen Âge, Thermes et Hôtel de Cluny).

Another section of the exhibition groups together stone heads representing figures from the Bible. Most of the figures in this section once adorned churches and cathedrals, and their identities—or original locations—have been established on the basis of historical records such as engravings. A particularly moving work is the extremely realistic late-fifteenth-century limestone Head of Christ (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), whose limestone crown of thorns was carved with small holes that once held actual thorns...