Development and Character of Gothic Architecture/Chapter 7

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CHAPTER VII

GOTHIC SCULPTURE IN FRANCE


Thefact that during the twelfth century a remarkable school of sculpture was developed in the Ile-de-France, in connection with the Gothic art of building,—a school in some respects far in advance of all others of the Middle Ages—has not received the attention it deserved from students of the history of art. Modern writers, following Vasari, have so generally regarded the revival of the arts as having originally taken place in Italy, and the names of Pisano and Cimabue, as the pioneers of revival, have become so fixed in our minds, that we are naturally unprepared (so far as our knowledge is derived from the literature of the subject) to find that a no less remarkable revival had place in the west of Europe a hundred years before the great Italian awakening.

Attention has indeed been called by Flaxman,[1] and more recently by Cockerell,[2] to the fact that the façade of Wells Cathedral stands as a witness to the existence of an advanced school of sculpture in Western Europe contemporaneous with the art of Niccola Pisano; but the significance of this fact has made but little general impression. And neither Flaxman nor Cockerell appears to have recognised the further fact that nearly a hundred years before the date of the sculptures of Wells a school of sculpture existed across the Channel which had produced works at St. Denis, and at Chartres, of even greater merit.

The earliest schools of sculpture on this side of the Alps were those of Southern Gaul, where, more than elsewhere in the west, the ancient civilisation had retained its life and vigour. Here the country was thickly covered with Roman monuments including sculptures which, coarse and unskilful as they for the most part were, afforded models, in some measure characteristic, of ancient styles and modes of treatment.

But the productions of these schools abundantly show that other sources of instruction and inspiration were also open to them in the works of Byzantine art—an art which, in its best forms, was of a far more living and potent character than the provincial Roman art.

Fig 165-166 -Figures from Greek MS.png

FIG. 165. FIG. 166.

The principal examples of Byzantine design offered to the artists of the West were the manuscript illuminations and the carvings in ivory, that were possessed in considerable numbers by the great monastic establishments, especially those of Cluny and its dependencies, which were the active centres of artistic production in the early Middle Ages.

Of these manuscripts many are still preserved in the National Library of Paris and elsewhere; and the miniatures with which they are profusely adorned are worthy of attentive examination. These miniatures afford a very different notion of Byzantine art from that which is derived from the writings of Vasari, from the formalised productions of the school of Mount Athos, or even from the splendid mosaics of Venice and Ravenna. They exhibit little of the stiffness, inelegance, and want of life and movement that are commonly conceived to be characteristic of Byzantine design. In fact, they often display a remarkable degree of grace, action, and expression. Figs. 165 and 166, from a Greek manuscript of the tenth century,[3] will illustrate their qualities of design, though much of their beauty is lost by the absence of the colouring. The student of Greek art will hardly fail to perceive in these diminutive figures[4] some features that are of distinctly Hellenic origin. The influence of such works as these upon some of the early schools of Southern and Central Gaul, and afterwards upon the more Northern schools, will upon comparison become clearly apparent.

The degree of what may be properly called classic feeling and skill in design that was sometimes reached in these early schools is shown, for instance, in the sculptures upon the lintel of the Church of Notre-Dame du Port at Clermont-Ferrand, which date from the end of the eleventh century, and of which Fig. 167 is a single figure of remarkable beauty.

But the schools of art south of the Loire were not progressive; they hardly displayed any powers of original invention—they had little independent vitality.[5] They were essentially imitative schools—they gave birth to no important developments; and after the twelfth century they gradually passed into decline.

North of the Loire, however, the case was different In Burgundy the Abbey of Cluny, in the early part of the twelfth century, maintained schools of art in which sculpture, though still largely bound by former conventions, gave evidence of a new impulse derived from a fresh observation of nature. Of this sculpture the Abbey Church of Vezelay and the Cathedral of Autun afford, in the archivolts and tympanums of their portals, characteristic examples.

These schools of the South and of Burgundy, with perhaps also in some measure the schools that then existed along the Rhine, were the chief sources of stimulus and guidance to the early sculptors of the Ile-de-France. In this latter region the conditions for the growth of a school of art were, by the beginning of the twelfth century, exceptionally good. And not only was the character of the race, as we have before noticed, peculiarly fitted for artistic pursuits, and the conditions of climate also such as would naturally favour the development of a new art, but the very geological formation of the country was such as to meet all the requirements of this new art, both artistic and constructive. As Greece had her Paros and Pentelicus, and Italy her

Fig 167 -Sculpture of Notre-Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand.png

FIG. 167.

Carrara, so had France, in the basins of the Seine and Oise, among other materials, her beds of lias cliquart, a stone of fine grain and strong substance, easily cut, and suitable for slender shafts or delicate carving.

Of figure sculpture in the Ile-de-France we have few examples of an earlier date than the second quarter of the twelfth century. But from 1140 there are remains which show, associated with the imperfections peculiar to an immature art, a grace and mastery of design, a truth and tenderness of sentiment, and a fineness and precision of chisel touch, that are unparalleled in any other schools, save those of ancient Greece and the later schools of Italy.


FIG. 168.
Among the first of these works are the sculptures of the west portals and the portal of the north transept of the Church of St. Denis. In the portal of the transept are life-sized, full-length, figures of kings—one against each shaft of the jambs, which disclose merits before unknown in Northern Europe. At first sight these sculptures may not impress the beholder as much superior to those of the schools of the South; but on further study and comparison their superior qualities will be manifest to a discriminating eye. If they be compared, for instance, with the famous statues of the cloister of St. Trophime at Aries (Fig. 168), which are at least half a century later in date, the remarkably early advance of the schools of Paris and its neighbourhood will be strikingly apparent. In Fig. 168 it will be noticed that, notwithstanding the fine classical cast of the draperies, there is much of the rigid character that is peculiar to the formal types of Byzantine design. Traces of Byzantine convention in treatment of drapery are clearly apparent, especially on the breast, where folds are indicated by simple incised lines on a surface but very slightly, and by no means truthfully, modelled. In the heads and hands there is a degree of angularity and a tendency to model in planes which bespeak a comparatively rude art. In Fig. 169, a statue from the portal of the transept of St. Denis, these defects do not appear. In the heads and extremities there is no block-like clumsiness; the surfaces are finely and naturally modelled; the brows are delicately arched; the features carefully and truthfully
FIG. 169.
formed; the hair and beard softly massed and subdivided into orderly locks, as in a fine Greek coin. There is no undue elaboration or attempt to give the hard stone a look of real hair; but as far as the material would naturally allow the sculptor as suggested it. With special care and tenderness has he wrought the mouth, the thin, gently compressed, lips, the light parted moustache, and the well-formed chin. The drapery is as simple and severe in its lines as is that of the preceding figure; but there is a superior grace of arrangement in the folds, and although the work is wanting in the freedom and skill of later productions, there is no trace of Byzantine convention in its modelling. Altogether this figure, which dates probably from about the middle of the twelfth century, distinctly manifests a new and high order of genius. And it fully indicates those traits which afterwards became so conspicuously characteristic of the French Schools, and to which they owe their pre-eminence,—the disposition to profit by tradition, and at the same time to draw fresh materials from living nature.

The statues of the west front of the Cathedral of Chartres are probably of a little later date. They are more severely architectural in character than the figures of St. Denis; but they are not rigid like the sculptures of St. Trophime. In execution they are remarkably refined and
FIG. 170.
beautiful. The heads display a variety and life-likeness that plainly indicate the close observation of nature. Each one has an air of veracity, as if it were an individual portrait.[6] The treatment of hair and beards is perhaps even less formal than in the preceding example, and in drapery the modelling of folds is true, though it retains a good deal of archaic character. In fact, these statues are far from the stiff and immobile things which they are often thought, by inattentive observers, to be. Their severe restraint and exaggerated elongation are largely of definite architectural purpose, and not wholly the result of incapacity on the part of the carver to give them a more natural freedom and movement. This is evident from the qualities which they exhibit, notwithstanding their sternly conventional treatment. Within the limits fixed by his conditions the artist has managed abundantly to show his skill as a life-like and graceful designer. Take, for instance, the example, Fig. 170. Although standing erect, and facing forward, the upper portions of this figure are not wholly wanting in ease and apparent power of movement. Observe the positions of the arms, and compare them with the arms in Fig. 168. How natural and capable of movement they appear when thus compared! For beauty of changeful curves the head and hair are especially noticeable. The easy fall of that portion of the mantle which crosses the throat, the true modelling of the drapery over the breast and arms, and the careful rounding of the lifted hand and fingers, though hardly comparable to the work of Donatello or Ghiberti, are scarcely inferior to that of their Italian predecessors. The restraint of the figure is apparently self-imposed in obedience to the demands of its architectural position. The rigidity of the example from St. Trophime appears, on the other hand, to be inherent in its nature.

 

It is worthy of notice that the mediæval architect did not employ the human figure in the manner of a caryatid. The ranges of statues, which form such conspicuous and characteristic features of the vast receding jambs of the portals of French churches are placed each against a shaft which bears its archivolt. To make the figure itself an architectural support would not be in accordance with the rational spirit of Gothic art.[7] Nor, in true Gothic, are statues set in niches in walls. For in Gothic the wall spaces are small and contain no more substance than is necessary, leaving nothing to spare for recesses. The places occupied by the statues in the buttresses of the Cathedral of Paris are not niches; they do not diminish the mass of the buttress; they constitute really nothing more than decorative forms of set-offs. The true set-off is the level ledge from the corners of which shafts rise to support the sloping water table, thus forming a canopy within which the statue is placed. Nor can the canopies of the pinnacles of buttresses, in which statues occur, as at Reims, be properly termed niches. The nearest approach to niches in pure Gothic are those spaces between the mouldings of the archivolts in which canopies are set over statues, as in the portal of the Virgin at Paris. It is only after the beginning of the decline of Gothic that real niches occur, as in the façades of the transepts of Paris.[8]

Sculptured statues in Gothic art are thus so far independent of the construction as not to have any real mechanical office, and yet they are not independent in expression as are the statues placed in niches of walls in Roman and Renaissance buildings. They are, especially when occurring in the jambs of doorways, strictly in harmony with the construction—so much so, indeed, that they seem to be a necessary part of the composition. In no other style has the union, it may even be said the fusion, of the structural and ornamental elements been so perfect.

The conventional restraints of such sculpture in the twelfth century were severe; though still, as we have seen, it was not wanting in much expression of life. But the artists of the early thirteenth century were able to add more freedom to statues in the same positions without overstepping the bounds of architectural subordination. Before we pass on to the consideration of such works, however, we must examine a few other examples of the art of the twelfth century.

Besides the jambs and archivolts the tympanum and lintel presented, within easy view, admirably protected fields for the exercise of the sculptor's art,—fields where architectural restraints, though still imperative, were less narrow. Here was place for sculptured composition embracing many figures in free action, embodying some scriptural story or religious legend.

Among the earliest remaining examples of such compositions are those of the tympanums of the portals of the west front of St. Denis, and the tympanum of the south door of the west front of the Cathedral of Paris, which last formed part of the earlier works wrought under Maurice de Sully[9] which were destroyed to make room for the present façade. The preservation of this work, and its incorporation with the new edifice, speak well for the generous recognition of merit in the works of their predecessors, by the artists of the early thirteenth century. In these sculptures the qualities already noticed as characterising the early art of the Ile-de-France are conspicuous. A new spirit animates the old forms, and a corresponding increase of technical skill is manifest, though some of the older conventions of modelling and treatment are still naturally pronounced.

Of all the remaining works of this class which were executed in the twelfth century, those of the lintel of the Cathedral of Senlis are of surpassing beauty. They are two in number, the lintel being divided into two parts by a central shaft. The subjects are respectively, the Death and the Resurrection of the Virgin. The composition on the spectator's left, representing the death, is so much mutilated that it cannot be fairly judged of. But the one on the right (Fig. 171), representing the resurrection, though sadly broken in parts, is yet fairly complete as a whole. It is not easy to find terms in which to speak of so beautiful a work. In sentiment and grace it is equalled by few works of any school or period. And the archaisms of treatment which it exhibits, like those in the subsequent masterpieces of Giotto, which the composition in many points resembles, do but enhance its charm.

Fig 171 -Sculpture of Lintel, Senlis.png

FIG. 171.

It is an instructive fact, not, perhaps, often enough commented upon, that the works of art in which the expression is most simple and sincere are in every school usually those of early masters, who have but imperfectly attained command of the means of expression. With the full attainment of technical skill there almost invariably comes a baneful degree of sophistication. Compare, for instance, Giotto's fresco of the Death of St. Francis with Raphael's Transfiguration; or Carpaccio's St. Ursula with Titian's Assumption.

In this lintel of Senlis there is at once a spiritual beauty and a natural expression in the eager group of welcoming spirits as they press forward, wing softly crowding wing, to aid the awakening soul. No self-consciousness is there, no ostentatious gesture, no vain display of curving plume, or studied fold of garment. All the angelic attendants are absorbed in joyful ministry to the rising spirit, and each figure holds its place in a group of marvellous beauty.

In composition of lines and masses the design is equally beautiful. There is a fine system of continuous, radiating, and encompassing curves in the wings and drapery; as well as an artful sympathy of position in the bodies, and repetition of masses in the placing of the heads. It would be difficult to point, in the whole range of plastic art, to a figure of more subtle beauty than that of the angel on the left, who stoops forward to support the shoulder of the Virgin—a figure which is at the same time adroitly employed by the artist to balance, by an opposing form, the rest of the composition. As in all noblest art, it is here evident that the artist's mind was encumbered by no merely theoretic ideal of beauty. No canonical type of head, hand, foot, or general form, is exhibited. The types are natural, varied, and simple. Individual parts, when taken by themseTves7 display no fanciful or conventional character. The charm of the work depends upon fundamental qualities of design; upon a graceful relation of forms, extending from the arrangement of the broad masses down to that of the least details. So, too, it was in the older art of Greece. It is the same principle that gives to the Harpy Tomb and to the Leucothea of the Villa Albani a kind of beauty that is wanting in the art of Scopas and Praxiteles. And so it was again with the subsequent works of the early Italian designers. The polished, but conventional types of form which belong to later developments of Italian art, and which Vasari has done so much to popularise, do not appear in the arts of Italy before the time of Raphael. The types of Giotto, of Angelico, and of Massaccio, were caught directly from the familiar men and women around them; but with such materials these masters, like those of France in the twelfth century, knew how to produce designs of exalted beauty.

I do not mean to imply that imperfections of form are necessary to the best art, or that more perfect forms than those of the earlier masters might not be employed with advantage, had the artist skill to produce them. More perfect forms were attained and employed by Praxiteles and by Raphael. But the integrity of feeling which was exhibited in the works of the early masters was lost before such command of form was reached. In the later art of Raphael, as compared with the earlier arts of Italy, more is lost in expression than is gained in form.

The plastic art of France in the twelfth century does not exhibit any of those superficial attractions which appear at a later date; but it is little inferior to that of any other time or school in expression and essential grace. And of such art there is hardly a more admirable work than this lintel of Senlis. In execution it is no less excellent than in design and sentiment. Wrought in a firm, close-grained stone—which takes a finish almost equal to that attainable in marble—every mass is finely modelled, and every detail is crisply cut.

The number of works of this epoch remaining is limited. The most extended, if not in all respects the most noble impulse in the art of figure sculpture, was yet to come. The foregoing examples will serve to show the state of development that had been reached in the Ile-de-France, before the great façades of Paris, Amiens, and Reims had come into existence.

Of the cathedrals that were begun in the twelfth century, few were completed so far as to include their façades before the thirteenth. The vast wealth of statuary which adorns these buildings is, for the most part, subsequent to the year 1200.

Gothic sculpture of the early thirteenth century develops into forms that are less cramped by imperfect technique, and that bear fewer traces of former conventions, than the works of the preceding century. Taught by the example of the earlier schools, imbued with the traditions of Byzantine design, but knowing how to reject its unessential peculiarities, and with increasing proficiency in execution, the artists of the Royal Domain began to give freer play to their own observation and imagination, and to produce works of art which, in all but sentiment—in which the works of the twelfth century cannot be surpassed,—remain unrivalled among the productions of the Middle Ages.

The portion of the Gothic building where figure sculpture is chiefly displayed is the western façade, though other parts of the exterior are also more or less profusely adorned with figures. In a cathedral of the first order, such as Paris, Chartres, Amiens, or Reims, there are altogether many hundreds of sculptured figures. Gathered principally within the widely splayed portals, there is often, in addition, as at Paris, Amiens, and Reims, a row of colossal statues just above them extending across the entire front. And beside these there are figures under canopies of the buttresses, as well as gargoyles, and grotesque creatures projecting from the cornice, or ranged upon the parapet.

Of all the great façades that of the Cathedral of Paris is the most important in point of sculpture. Begun in the very first years of the thirteenth century, it exhibits the finest work of the French carvers during the entire first quarter of that century. No other church, not even that of Amiens, affords so fine a display, notwithstanding that a great part of it has perished by violence. Of its three great portals nearly all the sculptures of the tympanums and archivolts remain substantially unimpaired. The north door is the earliest, dating from about 1205,[10] it being here that the erection of the facade was commenced. The sculpture of the tympanum is thus in date not long subsequent to that of Senlis; but in point of freedom and skill in the rendering of form there is a marked advance. This tympanum is divided horizontally into two compartments. In the upper compartment is represented the coronation of the Virgin, and in the lower compartment (Fig. 172) her entombment. Such skilful treatment of form and such beauty of modelling had not before been seen since the classic times of antiquity. The remarkable likeness to certain qualities of Greek art here exhibited is both noticeable and instructive. This does not result from imitation; for original Greek art was, of course, not known to the carvers of the time, and the likeness is not superficial (as it would be in imitative art), but fundamental. It came rather through the free study of nature, which, with men constituted like the mediæval artists of France, and disciplined as they were by the Greek traditions that had come through the Byzantine channel, naturally led to results having much in common with those that had before been reached in a similar way by the Greeks. Not, however, that the mediæval outlook into the world of nature, or the mediæval apprehensions of beauty, were the same as those of the Greeks. They were, of course, in many respects so widely different that in some aspects of the matter we might almost conclude that there was nothing in common between them. The Greek demanded physical beauty. In drawing his material from nature he rejected all that was not outwardly beautiful.

Fig 172 -Sculpture of tympanum, Portal of the Virgin, Paris.png

FIG. 172.

Selection with him was an inborn principle and a constant habit. The mediæval French artist, on the contrary, saw the beauty that may coexist with imperfection; and, although he also exercised a spirit of choice, this spirit was of a more penetrative nature, and had a correspondingly wider range. But in understanding of the form chosen, and in apprehension of just that treatment of it which the ends of plastic art demand, there was the closest similarity between the Phidian sculptors and those of the Ile-de-France in the thirteenth century. It is this which gives the likeness to Greek art that we recognise in the sculpture of the portal of the Virgin; but it is only in form that this tympanum is of such high excellence. The expression of the lintel of Senlis is by no means equalled in this design.

Rather finer in spirit, as well as in quietness and breadth of treatment, are the sculptures, representing the Last Judgment, of the tympanum of the central doorway. Indeed, there is hardly another tympanum of the time in which such charming sculpture so happily embosses a field of stone. Viewed broadly its effect as an enriched surface is most admirable. Taken in detail there are, in this design, figures of unusual beauty in which fine form and execution are displayed with remarkable temperance and grace. Most noticeable, for instance, are the majestic angel in the central compartment, who holds the balance for weighing souls, the figures in the upper compartment, on the right and left of the Saviour, who hold the instruments of the passion, and, for their freedom of movement, which yet is enough restrained to accord harmoniously with the general quietness of the whole design, the figures rising from the graves in the lower compartment. In comparison with these the figures of the Judgment in the tympanum of the central doorway of Amiens are coarse in conception and treatment. In such comparison these last impress the beholder rather as hasty, though grand and impressive, sketches in stone than as finished sculptures.

Passing to the works of the second half of the thirteenth century, we have an elaborate example, dating from about 1257, in the door of the south transept of this same cathedral. It may be noticed in passing that constructive propriety is not strictly observed in this doorway. The archivolts are not sustained by shafts and capitals, but in place of shafts four slender mouldings rise, without imposts, to the crown of the arch. In this and other respects this portal belongs to a class of constructions which at this epoch first introduced the elements of decline into Gothic architecture. And in addition to this the statues which adorn these jambs are now placed in the niche-like intercolumniations, and have a degree of independent character which is in contrast to the stern architectural submission of the statues of the earlier times.

The subject of the sculptures in this tympanum is the history of St. Stephen. They contain much beautiful carving—figures of life-like freedom, technical excellence, and refined finish; but the design is somewhat scattered, and the action a little confused. The sculptor, moreover, has become in a measure conscious of his art; and mingled with thought of his subject there is an apparent desire to display his skill. To the mind of the spectator is suggested something akin to the feeling produced by a tableau vivant.

Returning now to the consideration of statues ranged against the jambs, or placed upon the dividing pillars[11] of the doorways, one of the finest of the early part of the thirteenth century is the statue of the Virgin upon the dividing pillar of the south door of the west front of the Cathedral of Amiens. As I have already remarked, the artists of the early thirteenth century were able to give more freedom and natural modelling to such figures than had been the case with those of the preceding century, and yet to maintain in them a strictly architectural character. In this Virgin of Amiens the archaisms of Chartres and St. Denis give place to a more natural treatment. The head is well set, the features are regular and perfectly cut, the wimple falls in graceful lines upon the shoulders, the pose of the body is unconstrained, though very quiet, and the simple draperies are cast into easy folds. Few examples of mediæval art exhibit more calmness, or more sweetness of expression.

More strikingly graceful and queenly in bearing, though still temperate in conception and treatment, is the statue (Fig. 173) of the Virgin in the portal of the north transept of Paris. In the earlier Gothic statues, as a rule, the weight of the body rests equally on both legs, keeping the shoulders level, and producing a formal cast of draperies, as in Figs. 168, 169, and 170; but now, as in this figure, an easier posture is assumed. Resting mainly on the left foot, the lower part of the body is thrown slightly to the left, while the right knee is naturally a little bent, the right arm and shoulder a little lowered, and the head inclined a little to the right. The subtle mingling of simple nature and skilful art in this statue is especially shown where a portion of the mantle is cast over the left arm, and falls vertically in a heavy fold to the foot of the figure. A line is thus obtained of twofold value in its sympathy with the upright lines of the architecture, and as a contrast enhancing the beauty of the
FIG. 173.
curves. This, or some kindred artifice, is indeed as old as the history of sculpture, having been employed, in one form or another, in innumerable draped statues of antiquity. But it is here employed with a spontaneous sense at once of beauty, and of truth to nature, without any approach to affectation, and hence with admirable effect.

If we now pause to consider what had by this time been accomplished, and reflect that in Italy Giotto was yet unborn, that the sculptures of St. Denis and the west front of Chartres antedate, by nearly a century, the art of Niccola Pisano, and that a considerable time was yet to elapse before Italy should produce a figure equal in beauty and perfection to this Virgin of the transept of Paris, we can hardly fail to be impressed with a new sense of the remarkable character of the Gothic schools of France, which at this early date had reached so high a state of development.

This Gothic sculpture is further remarkable as being the first art which the world had seen in which expression as a motive predominates over form. It can, perhaps, hardly be said that the sculpture of Greek antiquity was always wanting in expression; but it is generally true that such expression as it had was subordinated to the quality of corporeal beauty. By expression I mean more or less indication in face, movement, or attitude, of some thought or emotion. We may not be always able to read the intended thoughts or feelings with precision; but we are, in the best Gothic sculptures, impressed with a sense that the minds of the personages represented are in some way definitely exercised. And often we can divine almost with certainty the nature of the thought or emotion with which the artist endeavoured to animate his figures. What we have seen in the lintel of Senlis is but a conspicuous instance of what is in some measure apparent in most of the works wrought by Gothic hands.

And this development of expression as the chief motive of the art is, indeed, the natural outcome of the mediæval, as compared with the ancient, genius of the Christian as opposed to the pagan idea of humanity. In the arts of the earlier ages of Christianity this characteristic hardly appeared, perhaps because the requisite skill to produce it was wanting. Gothic sculpture was, indeed, the first Christian art to attain the technical advance required to enable it to become a medium of varied expression.

But though the expression of character was the leading motive of Gothic sculpture, it does not follow that bodily beauty was ignored by the Gothic artists. The production of such beauty was distinctly one of their aims, yet, since in the Gothic ideal physical perfection did not count for everything, many imperfections were admitted into a composition, and skilfully subordinated to a general scheme of beauty. The idea that this art was generally animated by an ascetic spirit which was incompatible with beauty is a misconception. The Christian doctrine of self-abnegation did not, with the lay artists of the Ile-de-France, at all preclude the joyful contemplation of all that was regarded as becomingly fair; and though, in the representation of terrestrial beings, beauty was often associated with deformity, the illustration of conceptions of the supernatural led often to the production of very exquisite types of beauty. But the mediæval motives were so different from those of pagan art that there could be little likeness between the respective forms produced. The Christian sentiment naturally excluded everything that savoured of bodily charm alone; it demanded a fitting modesty and sobriety; and it, as a rule, admitted the clothed form only.

The representation of physical beauty being, with the Gothic carver, subordinated to the purpose of enforcing the idea that the soul is more than the body, and of illustrating the doctrine of the salvation of the soul by goodness of life, and the loss of the soul by evil life, it was necessary that beings and things not beautiful should enter into his compositions. The evils that beset the lives and tempt the souls of men had to be in some way set forth, no less than the good things which he is permitted to enjoy. The unhappy lot of the wicked had to be figured as well as the felicities of the good. Hence conspicuous elements in Gothic sculpture, especially after the beginning of the thirteenth century, are the monstrous and the grotesque. Elements which, in true Gothic—though sometimes, perhaps, introduced in a playful spirit,—have, in the main, a serious purpose. And these elements have a value apart from their moral significance, as affording contrasts to the forms of beauty.

The Romanesque imagery—consisting of those fantastic creations of animal life which reflected something of the Roman mythology, combined with forms originating in the grotesque imagination of the Northern races—was soon rejected by the Gothic artists, and in its place motives for ornament were employed which were mainly derived from plant forms.

In the early Gothic the representation of imaginary creatures was, for the most part, confined to the symbolic animals described in the Bible, such as those seen by St. John in the Apocalypse. Instances of these occur on the tympanums of the central doorways of Chartres, Le Mans, and elsewhere. These symbolic creatures were employed as signs of the four Evangelists,[12] but gradually other imaginary creations were introduced, until finally the animal life of the Gothic edifice became more extended in range than that of the richest Romanesque building had been. But during the twelfth century this range was not great.

In the thirteenth century, however, a new fauna was created, which derived much, perhaps, from the old conceptions, but which had also so much that was new as to constitute a different class from what had preceded. A popular belief had long existed in the symbolic character of animals and imaginary creatures;[13] and as symbols of human qualities, both good and evil, they were now wrought, for encouragement or for warning, upon the stones of the sacred edifice. A further purpose of this fauna, joined with that of the flora, and with the vast range of human life, both natural and supernatural, was that the Gothic edifice might form a compendious illustration of the known world of creation, imagination, and faith.

A remarkable quality of the grotesque creations of Gothic art is the close and accurate observation of nature which they, no less than the images of real things, display. However fabulous the imaged creature may be, the materials out of which he is made are derived from nature. Whether it be vertebra or claw, wing or beak, eye or nostril, throat or paw—every anatomical member displays an intimate familiarity with the true functional form, and an imaginative sense of its possible combinations with other members. Take, for instance (Fig. 174), one of the grotesque creatures which play among the leafage under the hood-mould of the archivolt of the portal of the Virgin in the Cathedral of Paris, or one of the gargoyles of the lateral façades, or of the terrible beasts and demons of the parapet of the west front, and see with what vitality it is imbued.

And besides functional truth there is always a subtle and highly ornamental play of lines and surfaces in these fanciful creatures. There is, too, in early Gothic a comparative restraint of posture and movement in this animal life, as in everything else. Contorted forms and extravagant writhings belong mostly to the times of the declining Gothic, when such extravagance appears in obedience to the demands of jaded sensibilities.

With the figure sculpture of French architecture is associated a rich profusion of carved leafage which, inwrought with the leading structural members of the building, softens and enriches its rigid lines, hard angles, and blank surfaces, with a beauty akin to that which clothes the hardness of the framework of the earth.

The carved ornaments of the Romanesque builders had been, for the most part, derived from ancient conventional designs as exhibited in Roman and Byzantine art. In France these motives had been wrought over and modified,

Fig 174 -Sculpture of the Portal of the Virgin, Paris.png

FIG. 174.

sometimes clumsily, and again with much ingenuity and even lively fancy, but with little real invention. Fresh motives, however, appear at an early date—the inspiration of nature transforming the conventional elements, and soon imparting to them a living expression of a kind peculiar to Gothic art.

The Cluniac sculptors of Burgundy appear to have been the first to break away, in some measure, from lifeless traditions in the carving of leafage. The capitals of the porch of Vézelay, begun in 1132, and those of the nave of the nearly contemporaneous Cathedral of Autun, distinctly exhibit, in the acanthus-like foliage with which they are

Fig 175 -Capital of sanctuary, Noyon Cathedral.png

FIG. 175.

adorned, the fresh influence of nature, while, at the same time, they retain a large measure of the old conventional character. But it was reserved for the artists of the Ile-de-France to develop the art of foliate sculpture in complete emancipation from the old and outworn conventions.

In the capitals and other carved members of the early transitional buildings of France two leading types of Romanesque ornament appear—the interlacing patterns of mingled Byzantine and Norman origin, and the conventional Corinthianesque leafage. To these may be added a third, of less frequent occurrence after the beginning of the new style of architecture, consisting of figures and grotesque animals. The interlacing patterns, incapable of further and more living development, soon fell into disuse. The ornament consisting of figures and animals was also soon abandoned. But the Corinthianesque leafage naturally lent itself to those amplifications and transformations which the suggestions of nature soon prompted the French carvers to effect.

Fig 176 -Capital of the Abbaye-aux-Dames.png

FIG. 176.

The earliest remaining instances of ornament in which the influence of nature is apparent occur in the choirs of the Cathedrals of Noyon and Paris. The capitals of the great columns of the sanctuary of Noyon (Fig. 175) may not appear to exhibit a very striking likeness to nature in their broad and simple leaf-like forms; they are, indeed, but refinements upon a characteristic early Norman type, like Fig. 176, from the Abbaye-aux-Dames, in which the expression of nature is not strongly marked. But the qualities of line and surface, which render them superior to the Norman example, are qualities derived from nature. The vigorous curves and fine surface flexures which they exhibit are without parallel in the older carvings wrought by workmen who derived none of their inspiration directly from living things.

The Norman example appears to be a rude simplification of the Roman-Corinthianesque type—a simplification in which the subdivisions of the acanthoid leaves are omitted. The Noyon capital has a superior grace and beauty, and shows something of the best qualities of the ancient leaf forms, though its immediate prototype is the Norman rather than any ancient example.

This Corinthianesque type of capital became at once the leading type in Gothic architecture, and almost countless varieties of it were wrought in the Ile-de-France during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The outline of the leaf was soon changed from the form A, Fig. 177, which is that of

Fig 177 -Acanthoid Leafage.png

FIG. 177

the Noyon capital, to the form B, one more in conformity with the ancient acanthoid leaf C. Fine examples of the simpler types of such capitals occur in the triforium of the nave of Senlis (Fig. 178), in St. Julien-le-Pauvre, at Paris, and in other early churches.

In none of the earliest capitals does the influence of nature do more than give a new and more vital beauty to the curves and the modelling of motives that are, in all their parts, derived from ancient forms; but very soon the more direct study of nature leads to further changes. The naturalistic elements extend beyond mere abstract lines, and include something of specific forms. Thus in the triforium of the choir of Paris the crockets of certain capitals (Fig. 113) terminate in unfolding leaflets which, though of a severely conventionalised character, are yet unmistakably drawn freshly from the fields. This sculpture dates from the third quarter of the twelfth century, and the same motive is often repeated, but never without some change. The triforium of Paris alone exhibits a wide variety of designs in its capitals—some of them retaining more of the older characteristics, but nearly all showing something of the new spirit that was at this time so strongly animating the art, from the largest structural forms down to the smallest ornamental details.

Fig 178 -Capital of friforium of nave, Senlis.png

FIG. 178.

In the nave of the same building the influence of nature is still more distinctly marked. In the triforium, which dates from about 1190, are capitals which may be considered as marking the culminating point of Gothic art in both sculptural beauty and structural form. The general type (Fig. 114) is so varied that no two capitals in the arcade are in all respects alike. I have already[14] referred to the variety of the profiles of the abaci of these capitals. The variety in the foliate ornament is still greater. The crockets, of which five examples are given in Fig. 179, are of exquisite beauty. The inspiration of nature has, in these designs, completely taken the place of traditional motives. No mere recasting of old types could ever result in the production of forms like these. The unfolding leaves of the field or forest could alone supply the elements.

But it required genius of a high order to lay hold of these elements without, at the same time, becoming entangled in a myriad of details that were unsuitable to the purposes of architectural sculpture. To simplify nature, and yet to retain what is most expressive, to bring out in sculpture the

Fig 179 -Crockets of triforium of nave, Paris.png

FIG. 179.

full value of what nature suggests, and at the same time to preserve a strictly lithic and architectural expression, is something that has never been done, before nor since, so perfectly as it was done in the art of the French sculptors of this time, as we see it in the triforium of the nave of Paris, and in a few other monuments of the same class. The Gothic carver of this time never imagined that he was called to emulate with the imperfect means of art the infinite complexity of nature. To win applause by imitative dexterity was not his aim; but to catch a new grace from expanding bud or broad leaf-outline, his fancy and his eye were ever ready, and his hand ever skilful.

In this sculpture is always manifest the feeling with which the work was done—a feeling of delight in natural beauty as exhibited in the least forms of vegetation no less than in the forms of men and animals; and this feeling appears now in its fulness for the first time in the history of the arts. The ancient regard for lower nature, as far as the witness of art attests, was far more limited and was subordinated to interest in the human form. Special attention to the beauties of vegetation, or any definite expression of delight in them, will, as a general rule, be sought for in vain in the arts of antiquity. Antique foliate ornamentation is usually cold and formal in its studied curves and surfaces; but in this Gothic foliage a warm sympathy with every varying beauty of living form is constantly apparent.

It is interesting to notice that the plant forms first employed for ornamental motives were those of springtime—the opening buds and newly-formed leaves of familiar plants, fern, arum, hepatica, plantain, and many others. It was both natural and appropriate that this spring herbage, more than anything else, should stimulate the fancy of men in whose hands the Gothic style was growing; for in the leafage of spring there is an expression of living energy that accords, as nothing else could, with the vital spirit of the new art of building.

To his subtle feeling for nature and wise acceptance of the limitations of art, the French carver joined the highest excellence of execution. The skilfulness of his hand was not the least of his qualities; and it was employed by him as fully in foliate as in figure sculpture. The skill and delicacy of hand exhibited in the work of a great artist have a noble fascination, arising from the feeling and intelligence which direct every touch. The finest sculpture, like the finest painting, is always delicately wrought. The ornaments of the capitals and archivolts of the portals of Paris, for instance, are cut with a delicacy equal to that of the frieze of the Parthenon, or the shrine of Orcagna.

The fine characteristics of the art are exhibited in the capital, Fig. 114, in which the carver's sympathy with nature, his power of abstraction and adaptation, and his skill in execution, are fully manifest. The Corinthianesque motive is still clearly apparent, though the entire form has become modified and the ornament changed. The ornamentation consists of four great compound leaves rising against the bell, one under each angle of the abacus, with four lesser leaves in the intervals. The grooved mid-ribs of the greater leaves terminating in crockets form vigorous springing curves which, rising from the astragal, seem by their inherent energy to support the corners of the abacus. The forms of the leaves are simple, each consisting of a central member with a five-lobed leaflet on each side of it. In outline they are full of the spirit of nature without direct imitation of real leaves, and though symmetrical in form and arrangement, they are not rigidly so. In Gothic art symmetry is never absolute, as in a geometric figure. It always exhibits irregularities which give to every part of the form treated a living expression. In modelling this ornamentation presents surfaces which afford pleasant gradations of light, while the deep depressions and intervals produce effective lines and spaces of vigorous shade; there is no deep cutting anywhere, nor any excessive projections; the form of the bell is strictly preserved and clearly apparent; no unmodelled masses nor unfinished contours anywhere appear—every ridge is smoothly rounded, and every furrow carefully hollowed. This extreme refinement of finish does not always appear in Gothic sculpture, though it is characteristic of the best. In the Cathedral of Paris, in the parts that belong to the early thirteenth century, it appears everywhere.

As we approach the west end of the nave of Paris there is a marked increase of direct likeness to nature in the foliate ornamentation, until the limit of naturalism consistent with architectural fitness is almost overpassed in the Chapel of the Catechists in the South Tower. Here, in the south-east angle, the vaulting shaft has a capital (Fig. 180), in which actual forms are represented with close approach to exactness. It is hard to qualify our admiration for so beautiful a work, but certainly this ornamentation is not, so much as that of the former example, an integral part of the capital. It has somewhat the effect of real leaves laid up against the bell. The undercutting is so deep that a look of detachment is produced which impairs the solid, monumental expression so desirable in a capital. The leaf represented is apparently the same as that which supplied the motive for the capital of the triforium, but in place of the treatment whereby the foot-stalks of the leaflets there become

Fig 180 -Capital of the Chapel of the Catechists, Paris.png

FIG. 180.

mere mid-ribs in broad lobate leaves, the independent foot-stalks are here given, and are wrought with almost natural slenderness, the stone being deeply cut away on either side of them. But apart from this momentary and partial forgetfulness of monumental exigencies in enthusiasm for natural beauty, this sculpture, as much as any other in the building, exhibits the peculiar merits of the best work of the time.

Among capitals which, though less finely wrought, show great beauty and variety of naturalistic design, are those of the Cathedral of Laon, of which Fig. 115, from the triforium of the south transept, is one of the most characteristic. The

Fig 181 -Sculpture of archivolt, Paris.png

FIG. 181.

variety of beautiful designs to be seen in this triforium almost exceeds that of all other churches except Paris. They invariably show a keen enjoyment of nature, and wonderful skill in the adaptation of naturalistic motives. The types are quite distinct from those of Paris, but they are hardly inferior to the finest of those which that cathedral presents.

Passing to the foliate sculpture of other members, the running leaf patterns of the archivolts of the façade of Paris are conspicuous examples of the very finest. A portion of one of these is shown in Fig. 174; and Fig. 181 is another bit of great excellence.

In the triforium string-course (Fig. 182), and the cornice of the exterior of the nave (Fig. 182 bis), of the Cathedral of Amiens, the compound trefoil ornament is noticeable for its beauty of outline, which is natural and ornamental at once, while its finished and exquisite modelling, to which no words can do justice, renders it especially worthy of study. When we come to examine the foliate sculpture of other countries, we shall find this among the most instructive examples for comparison. The finished hollowing

Fig 182 -Sculpture of triforium string, Amiens.png

FIG. 182.

of the lines which mark the larger veinings, and the refined modelling of surfaces, are in strong contrast to what is generally found elsewhere than in France. Every leaf is full of living expression, and throughout the entire length of the string there is no repetition, no formality of design. The dull reproduction of formal patterns, such as are often met with in more recent design, finds no counterpart in the art of the Gothic schools. A further quality of this, and of all other fine ornament, is the orderly and sequent arrangement of even the smallest details, as in the bunches of berries that alternate with the leaves of this string-course. It will be seen that the berries fall into regular series, following the spiral arrangement around the supporting stem which is characteristic of nature. We have here another illustration of that kinship to Greek art which this sculpture shows in so many other points. Such order as this appears, indeed, under an almost infinite variety of forms, and it is sometimes but obscurely manifest; but in one way or another it is a constant law alike of organic nature and of good art. In Greek and Gothic art it is invariably conspicuous.

Such are some of the leading characteristics of French foliate sculpture. Its finest types, illustrated by the capitals of Paris and the string-courses of Amiens, hardly appear after

Fig 182 bis -Sculpture of Cornice, Amiens.png

FIG. 182 bis.

the second quarter of the thirteenth century. From this time onwards the direct imitation of nature becomes too much the artist's aim, and architectural adaptation is more and more lost sight of. A few illustrations of the change from the one condition to the other may afford a better understanding of the qualities which characterise the finest types.

Fig. 183, a portion of a string-course from Noyon, shows in a marked degree the tendency to over-naturalism which had set in by the middle of the thirteenth century. There is great beauty in this design, and its execution is excellent, but it has lost the architectural appropriateness that characterises the strings of Amiens. A proper sense of the abstraction, in treatment of nature, which the material demands was wanting in the mind of the carver. The close relation, too, which had formerly existed between structural members and their carved ornaments, soon ceased under the naturalistic treatment that was now coming into vogue.

In Fig. 119, p. 209, a capital from one of the chapels of the choir of Amiens, for instance, the leaf ornament which adorns the lower part of the bell has no expression of integral relation with it. It is merely a leaf applied to the surface. It does not rise from the astragal in sympathy with the form of the bell, enriching its surface, and harmonising with its outline.

Fig 183 -Sculpture of string-course, Noyon.png

FIG. 183.

The bell is treated as an independent surface, a considerable portion of which is entirely unoccupied by the ornament, and the independence of the leaf is further emphasised by the imitative treatment of its foot-stalk, which shows, at its base, the natural enlargement, and the portion of clinging fibre which adheres where a leaf is torn from its parent stem.

Other instances of misadaptation and over-naturalism marking departure from the best types of Gothic sculpture, are those of the leaf ornaments upon the lower portions of the twisted shafts of the porches of Chartres. And finally, as among the still more pronounced examples of over-naturalism which occur before the time of what may be called debased Gothic (such as some of the capitals and cornices of Nevers exhibit), we may notice the delicate running ornaments (Fig. 184) in the archivolts of the Porte Rouge of the Cathedral of Paris.

Fig 184 -Sculpture of archivolt, Porte Rouge, Paris.png

FIG. 184.

There is thus a marked difference between the adapted naturalism which gave life to early Gothic ornament, and the imitative naturalism which marks the decline of Gothic art.

How, it may be asked, are we justified in ascribing to this early Gothic ornament such supreme merit? Why is it, if the influence of nature adds anything of value to art, that direct and complete imitation, so far as possible, is not good? How can there be any such thing as over-naturalism in sculpture? What, more precisely, is meant by the expression architectural fitness so frequently made use of in these pages? The answer was shortly given in Chapter I. p. 23, where it was remarked in substance that the conventions of ornament grow out of obedience to the inherent conditions of architecture and the materials of which buildings are wrought. A true artist in ornamental sculpture is known by his ready recognition of these conditions, and by his unqualified and willing acceptance of them.

A stone leaf, for instance, he feels must be confessedly of a stony character; and rather than lose anything of this appropriate character, he will not in his carving approach anywhere near to an imitative rendering of natural forms and details. All deep undercutting and all finer veinings he instinctively omits. He has to regard, moreover, what will be the effect of his work upon the eye when viewed, as an architectural feature, at a greater or less distance. Hence, by mere obedience to these and other conditions which govern the art, ornamental sculpture becomes unlike nature, though it may owe its highest beauty to elements derived from the woods and fields. It is from just regard to all the conditions involved, and not from any arbitrary purpose, that the conventional character of Gothic sculpture results.

In Chapter I. the quality of breadth was mentioned as among the leading characteristics of Gothic sculpture. This ought to be emphasised, for there is no quality to which more of the impressiveness of such sculpture is owing. Multitudinous as are the details which enter into the design of any great cathedral front, there is rarely any scattered effect in the total impression. An harmonious relationship of mass to mass, from largest things to smallest, is maintained. Such breadth is, indeed, a fundamental quality of all good art; but its manifestation is perhaps more remarkable in Gothic architecture than in any other, because of the multitude of subdivisions through which it has to find expression.

The attainment of this breadth by the Gothic designers is the more remarkable in view of the individual freedom of the vast armies of men who were employed upon the mediæval buildings. Of this freedom there is evidence enough in the work itself. The range of invention in the designing of figures and ornaments is, in any given building, far too wide to have been compassed by any single mind. There was, of course, a master builder, or architect, whose general directions were followed, but there was no individual who, like a modern architect, strictly determined every detail.

The conditions were all different from those of modern times. The bands of laymen, by whom these great buildings were wrought, and who, at this period, went about from place to place wherever important architectural works were to be undertaken, had, in the first instance, been trained in the monastic art schools. In these schools they had learned not only their craft, but also how to work together for common ends. There existed among them a strong esprit de corps; and each individual in the fraternity felt the ardour, the pleasure, and the freedom in his work that are inspired by mutual confidence and a common enthusiasm. So perfect was the concord of feeling, so imbued were all the members with the general principles of the art, that individual freedom had no tendency to produce insubordination in design.

The art schools of the Middle Ages were such in the truest sense. Nothing akin to modern academic methods existed in these schools. They were strictly schools of practice, where the novice learned his art by taking part, according to his capacity, in the actual construction and adornment of buildings. He was, of course, taught by his seniors such general principles as had been acquired by tradition, or derived from experience; but fresh experiment ever afforded fresh instruction to both pupil and master. A great public monument in progress formed naturally and unconsciously a true school of art. And so far as concerns artistic production no other kind of school has yet proved of much avail.

One conspicuous element of effect in the sculpture of the Middle Ages is now entirely lost, and hence the aspect of even the best preserved examples remaining is very different from that which it must have originally displayed. The colour with which these sculptures were formerly enlivened has wholly disappeared, with exception of some faint traces in sheltered portions which serve to show that colour was, beyond question, extensively employed. Such traces remain in the portals of Senlis, Paris, and many other churches. But although colour was undoubtedly employed, there is nothing to indicate that it was carried to the extent of producing any imitative effect. The patches of colour still to be seen show, on the contrary, that it was employed merely to afford a pleasant play of quiet hues such as might relieve the monotony of the uniform stone and satisfy the mediæval craving for colour harmonies. It is impossible that anything more than this should have been accomplished; for the art of painting was not, at this time, enough developed to admit of realistic treatment.[15] Judging from the character of this painting, the colouring of the sculpture must have been very simple. The heads, hands, and feet were of a uniform yellowish-white, the cheeks and lips being slightly reddened. In the eyes a pale blue or brown colour may have been given to the iris, the pupil being black. Hair and eyebrows were black, brown, or golden; and draperies were of various hues, mostly red, blue, and purple, with white and black, while ornaments, as jewels and embroideries, were gilded. Foliage and animals were coloured in a purely conventional way, as in the ornamental borders of illuminated manuscripts, without regard to the colouring of nature. Such naturalistic colour treatment as that of the sixteenth-century choir screen of Amiens Cathedral was not only impossible, but it would have greatly offended the taste of the early Gothic sculptors.

Certainly no correct conception of the original colouring can be formed by reference to any of the styles of painting that have been practised since the thirteenth century.


  1. In his Lectures on Sculpture, 1829.
  2. Iconography of the West Front of Wells Cathedral.
  3. National Library, Paris, MS. No. 64.
  4. Figs. 165 and 166 are reproduced of the exact size of the originals.
  5. With a few exceptions, perhaps, as in the case of one branch of the school of Toulouse. See Viollet-le-Duc, s.v. Sculpture, pp. 125, 126.
  6. M. Viollet-le-Duc, s.v. Sculpture, p. 118, calls attention to this veracity and remarks upon the distinctly Gallic types presented by these heads.
  7. It is true that corbels are often carved into the forms of crouching figures, as at Amiens; but these are on a small scale, and are never treated like the caryatid, where the weight rests on the head.
  8. "The real niches that occur in the gable of the central portal of the west front of Bourges are exceptions to the general rule. See Viollet-le-Duc, s.v. Niche, p. 414, et seq.
  9. See the Itinéraire Archéologique de Paris, par M. F. de Guilhermy, pp. 68, 69.
  10. See Viollet-le-Duc, s.v. Porte, p. 421. Guilhermy, Itinéraire Archéologique de Paris, says, p. 24, that the west façade was not begun till near the end of the episcopate of Pierre de Nemours (1208-1219).
  11. After the eleventh century the principal portals of great monastic and cathedral churches were commonly divided into two openings by trumeaux, or pillars of stone, affording place for sculpture, which consisted usually of a statue with more or less subordinate carving.
  12. See Viollet-le-Duc, s.v. Animaux, p. 20.
  13. See the Mélanges d'Archéologie of Cahier and Martin, tome i. p. 106, et seq.
  14. Page 207.
  15. See the Chapter on Gothic Painting and Glass-Staining.