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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Medieval European Sculpture for Buildings

Much of the allure of medieval buildings derives from the sculpture that so frequently adorns them. Some of the most inventive art of the Middle Ages appears in the expansive portals of churches, on the rectangular sides of piers, and on the cramped contours of column capitals. While mosaics and wall paintings remained the preferred means of embellishing buildings in the Byzantine East, the Latin West came to rely a great deal upon carved stone. The very fabric of the building served as a field for a range of subjects, from complex theological ideas to biblical tales, from whimsical creatures to purely decorative foliate forms.

Architectural Sculpture and Classical Antiquity
Sculptural practices from classical antiquity had a large impact on medieval architectural sculpture. For example, the basic forms of the Corinthian capital, decorated with the acanthus motif, are persistently repeated and reinterpreted throughout the Middle Ages. Often the marble itself comes from ancient buildings. At times an ancient slab might be recarved by a medieval sculptor, while at other times a handsome relief was simply refitted as is into a medieval setting (Sangemini Doorway, 47.100.45). Architectural features not customarily embellished by the Romans and Greeks, such as the shaft of the column, might nonetheless receive ornamentation drawn from a classical repertory (Toulouse columns, 21.172.1).

The Character of Architectural Sculpture
Medieval sculptors were in no way impeded by the structural requirements of the stone they carved. In fact, they exploited the peculiar shapes of structural elements to create highly expressive forms. The narrow column permitted elegant, attenuated figures such as the Old Testament King from Saint-Denis (Column Figure of a King, 20.157). The slender folds of the figure’s drapery further emphasize the column’s elongated proportions. The four sides of a column capital, all of which could never be visible at a single glance, made it possible to present a biblical narrative unfolding in time. Figures carved on the capital could be presented as peeking around corners, thereby mimicking the actions of a viewer, who moved around the capital in order to follow the story’s sequence (Capital, with the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 25.120.60).

The Church Portal
As the face of a building to the outside world, doorways had always been a focus for sculpture in the Middle Ages, but a great explosion of sculpture on church portals occurred in the mid-eleventh century, expanding over time to include entire facades. In many regions of medieval Europe, the semicircular tympanum, or the space created between the lintel and arch over a doorway, became the site of spectacular medieval sculpture. The Last Judgment, showing events from the end of time, was a particularly favored theme. Depicting the fate of the righteous and the sinful as they appear before Christ as judge, the door served as a powerful reminder of the ultimate authority of God and the earthly authority of the Christian church.

The Monastic Cloister
With its rhythmic disposition of columns and piers, the confined space of the monastic cloister offered an ideal opportunity for an extended program of sculptural decoration (St. Ghilhem Cloister, 25.120.1-.134; The Cuxa Cloister, 25.120.398–.954). Sculptural embellishment might display a fascinating array of foliate forms. Other cloisters show a multitude of curious beasts, the sort of decoration that Bernard of Clairvaux, a twelfth-century monastic reformer, decried as “ignoble fancies.” Still others depict stories of saints and biblical heroes, tales no doubt meant to edify the monks who roamed these monastic courtyards.