Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture

Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture

Little, Charles T., ed., with an essay by Willibald Sauerländer
240 pages
201 illustrations
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Faces in medieval sculpture are explorations of human identity, marked not only by evolving nuances of style but also by ongoing drama of European history. The eighty-one sculpted heads featured in this beautifully illustrated volume provide a sweeping view of the Middle Ages, from the waning days of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. Each masterful sculpture bears eloquent witness to its own history, whether it was removed from its original context for ideological reasons or because of changing tastes.

As a work of art, the sculpted head is a particularly moving and vivid fragment; it often seems to retain some part of its past, becoming not unlike a living remnant of an age. In antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages it was generally believed that the soul resided in the head, as articulated by Plato in the Timaeus. The head was thus understood to be a center of power, the core of individual identity, and the primary vehicle for human expression, emotion, and character.

Many medieval sculpted heads became separated from their settings—often churches or ecclesiastical monuments—by the seemingly endless destruction and displacement of art works in Europe during and after the Middle Ages. Political and religious ferment, neglect, shifts in taste, and simply time itself: all exacted a heavy toll. During the French Revolution, in particular, legions of stone figures lost their heads in a course of mutilation that paralleled the infamous guillotine. In many cases the artistic or aesthetic merits of a given fragment are all that remain of the original work's context, meaning, and significance. Some heads survived precisely because of their innate beauty, or perhaps out of reverence for the grand monuments to which they once belonged.

Seven thematic sections retrace the history of these heads using both traditional art-historical methods, such as connoisseurship and archaeology, as well as the latest scientific technologies. In his introduction to the volume, Charles T. Little provides an overview of these general themes, which include Iconoclasm, The Stone Bible, and Portraiture. An essay by distinguished scholar Willibald Sauerländer discusses the complex and fascinating issue of physiognomy in medieval art, from menacing or carnivalesque grotesques to the beatific visages of saints and apostles. Sauerländer presciently observes, "To learn about 'the fate of the face' in the Middle Ages—a period torn by strife, faith, and fear—may prove today to be more than a mere art-historical concern."

Met Art in Publication

Head of a Youth, Marble, French
ca. 1100–1120
Head of a Youth, Limestone, French
ca. 1150–75
Head of a Bearded Man, Limestone, French
ca. 1160–70
Head of a King, Limestone, French
ca. 1230–35
Head of an Apostle, Sandstone, German
ca. 1280–1300
Head of King David, Limestone, light fine-grained, French
ca. 1145
Head of an Angel, Limestone, French
ca. 1250
Head of an Angel (?), Limestone, paint, French
ca. 1250
Head of a King, Limestone, French
ca. 1220–30
Head of a King, Limestone, French
ca. 1180
Doorway from Moutiers-Saint-Jean, White oolitic limestone with traces of paint, French
ca. 1250
Head of a Youth, Limestone, French
ca. 1230–50
Relief of the Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus, Limestone with traces of polychromy and gilding, French
Head of a King, Limestone, French
ca. 1150–75
Head of Christ, Limestone, traces of wood thorns, Netherlandish
late 15th–early 16th century
Baptismal Font, Dark calciferous limestone, South Netherlandish
ca. 1155–70
Double Capital with Masks and Birds, White marble, French
ca. 1140–60
Head of a Grotesque, Limestone, French
ca. 1200–1220
Reconstructed Portal, Limestone, Spanish
early 13th century
The Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxembourg, Duchess of Normandy, Jean Le Noir , and Workshop French, Tempera, grisaille, ink, and gold on vellum, French
Jean Le Noir
before 1349
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View Citations

Little, Charles T., Willibald Sauerländer, and Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.), eds. 2006. Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture. New York : New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Yale University Press.