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“Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture” by Charles T. Little. Also Published as “Witness to History: The Face in Medieval Sculpture”.
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DESCRIPTION: Hardcover with dustjacket. Publisher: Metropolitan Museum of Art (2006). Pages: 240. Size: 11½ x 8¾ x 1 inch; 3¼ pounds. Summary: 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."
CONDITION: NEW. HUGE new hardcover w/dustjacket. Metropolitan Museum of Art (2006) 240 pages. Still in manufacturer's wraps. Unblemished and pristine in every respect. Pages are clean, crisp, unmarked, unmutilated, tightly bound, unambiguously unread. Satisfaction unconditionally guaranteed. In stock, ready to ship. No disappointments, no excuses. PROMPT SHIPPING! HEAVILY PADDED, DAMAGE-FREE PACKAGING! Meticulous and accurate descriptions! Selling rare and out-of-print ancient history books on-line since 1997. We accept returns for any reason within 14 days! #8700a.
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REVIEW: The face in medieval sculpture was an exploration in human identity, marked not only by evolving nuances of style but also by the ongoing drama of European history. The 81 magnificent sculpted heads featured in this volume provide a sweeping view of the Middle Ages, from the waning days of the Roman Empire to the dawn of the Renaissance. Each sculpture bears eloquent witness to its own remarkable history, whether it was removed because of changing tastes or for political reasons, such as being cut off the head of a king on a grand cathedral facade.
The book is organized into seven thematic sections, including “Iconoclasm” and “The Stone Bible,” which explore the process of reconnecting these works to their origins using both traditional art historical methods as well as the latest scientific technology. An essay on medieval physiognomy by the distinguished scholar Willibald Sauerländer introduces the volume.
REVIEW: In a museum whose holdings are as vast and diverse as those of the Metropolitan, there is always the possibility that a visitor might take for granted some of the extraordinary elements of the permanent collection. Many treasures are hidden in plain sight, as it were, on continual view in the galleries, and may thus sometimes be passed by with no or too little notice taken of them. The Museum takes seriously its primary mission of preserving and studying its permanent collection, and thus we are constantly developing new ways of kindling the public's awareness of these diverse riches. "Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture" brings a specific focus to our superb collection of medieval art, as it also expands on important aspects of the collection through marvelous and generous loans. This is not the Museum's first exhibition to use the sculpted head as a theme. In 1940 an exhibition titled simply "Heads in Sculpture" drew on the Metropolitan's holdings of works from Egypt, China, and Western Europe.
In light of the chronological extent of the exhibition, which includes sculptures dating from the end of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance, the works gathered together are presented according to thematic and aesthetic criteria, rather than in chronological or geographic order, so that we may view this material through fresh eyes. While the holdings of the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters provide the core thread of the narrative, the story of the sculpted human face in the Middle Ages is augmented by key loans from public institutions in the United States and Europe. In particular, the exhibition affords several opportunities to reunite dispersed elements, some newly identified, from the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris and from the royal abbey of Saint-Denis. I wish to acknowledge the generosity of these lenders and express the Museum's hope that the featured juxtapositions mutually enhance our appreciation of the works of art. In addition, a number of private collectors kindly agreed to lend important sculptures, and to them I express our special gratitude.
REVIEW: Faces in medieval sculpture are explorations of human identity, marked not only by evolving nuances of style but also by the ongoing drama of European history. Many medieval sculpted heads became separated from their settings—often churches or other ecclesiastical monuments—by the seemingly endless destruction and displacement of art works in Europe during and after the Middle Ages. 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. Created from marble, limestone, polychromed wood, and silver gilt, the 81 sculpted heads featured in this volume—illustrated with 87 color photographs and an additional 114 black and white figures—date from the 3rd century AD through the early 16th and represent French, German, Italian, Spanish, Byzantine, English, and other medieval traditions. Each bears eloquent witness to its own history, whether it was removed from its original context for ideological reasons or because of changing tastes.
REVIEW: Issued in connection with an exhibition held Sept. 26, 2006-Feb. 18, 2007, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Includes bibliographical references and index.
REVIEW: Charles T. Little is curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Willibald Sauerländer is director emeritus of the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, Munich.
TABLE OF CONTENTS: Introduction: Facing the Middle Ages by Charles T. Little.
The Fate of the Face in Medieval Art by Willibald Sauerlander.
Iconoclasm: A Legacy of Violence by Stephen K. Scher.
The Limestone Project: A Scientific Detective Story by Georgia Wright and Lore L. Holmes.
The Stone Bible: Faith in Images by Jacqueline E. Jung.
What are Marginalia? by Janetta Rebold Benton.
Sculpting Identity by Stephen Perkinson.
Gothic Italy: Reflections of Antiquity by Christine Verzar and Charles T. Little.
Reliquary Busts: "A Certain Aristocratic Eminence" by Barbara Drake Boehm.
Director's Foreword by Philippe de Montebello.
Statement from the International Center of Medieval Art.
Contributors to the Catalogue.
Lenders to the Exhibition.
REVIEW: “Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture” is one of those revelatory close-ups at which the Metropolitan Museum of Art excels. The show brings together similar objects that are not so much little seen as little noticed, and proceeds to make you notice them, big time. It touches on history, connoisseurship, artistic discovery and the latest attributions and research techniques, the latter involving the geochemical matching of limestone isotopes. And the primary vehicle for this excursion is that most profoundly familiar yet persistently engaging motif, the human face.
The world glimpsed in this show is Europe in the 12th, 13th and early 14th centuries, when the Romanesque style was giving way to Gothic, as reflected in about 70 heads and related objects, in carved stone, wood and metal. These have been assembled by Charles T. Little and Wendy A. Stein, who are, respectively, curator and research associate in the Met’s department of medieval art and the Cloisters. Mr. Little has also edited the show’s excellent catalog.
Some of the heads are portrait busts; others are tomb effigies or reliquaries, including an astounding reliquary bust of St. Yrieix in bejeweled silver and gold and its humbler but more expressive walnut core. But the majority are immensely appealing, somewhat battered orphans in white limestone: heads that were lopped off stone figures and reliefs that cover facades or interiors of European cathedrals and abbey churches. Depicting everything from Old Testament kings and prophets and angels, saints and apostles, to actual kings and clerics as well as devils and grotesques, these carvings turned churches into Bibles in stone.
They were sometimes removed when tastes changed, but were more often the victims of iconoclasm during protracted struggles like the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the Protestant and English Reformations and the French Revolution. Most of the heads are missing a feature or two or three, usually starting with the nose. Two noseless apostles with customary flowing hair and beards from around 1230 once adorned the Cathedral of Thérouanne, a city on the shifting border between France and Flanders that the Flemish razed in 1553.
The medieval sculpture specialist Willibald Sauerländer writes in the catalog that while the pejorative term Dark Ages is usually avoided these days, the Middle Ages were genuinely dark in many respects. In sculpture the skills of the Greeks and Romans had been forgotten; the church was not interested in human likenesses or ideal bodies or much of anything to do with the flesh.
“The visible image represents an invisible truth,” a religious church text around 1000 directed, and those truths were generally of two kinds: good and evil. The sculptor’s job was to illuminate the difference for a largely illiterate populace, bearing in mind that evil was subhuman, and that spirituality was not to be sullied by overt expressions of emotion or suffering.
The core of the show is formed by nearly 40 limestone heads made in France during the 12 and 13th centuries, when Paris enjoyed its first heyday as an art center. The Gothic style emerged there and in other north-central cities and religious centers like Saint-Denis, Reims, Amiens and Chartres. Heads from these locations show most clearly the tug of war between the dictums of the church and the rising interest in naturalism. They often seemed to fight to a draw, resulting in a certain sameness of expression — solemn dignity — among the kings and apostles and an almost bland purity exuded by sculptures of Jesus.
At times most of the formal and psychic energy seem relegated to the periphery, into hair and beards, which are described in a fascinating array of parallel strands, snail curls, dangling spirals and S-curves. The hirsute reaches a kind of zenith of sculptural expressivity in two powerful German pieces, an Upper Rhineland head of an apostle in distinctive red sandstone from the late 13th century and, from early-14th-century Munich, a superb sculpture depicting the head of St. John the Baptist, decapitated but alert, looking heavenward, resting in a large dish as Salome requested.
But distinctions emerge. The great Romanesque sculptor Giselbertus’s small, fragmentary “Head of a King,” from around 1120, from the Cathedral of Saint-Lazare at Autun, is a triumph of nuanced consciousness. Nearby and made almost exactly 100 years later, an apostle’s head from Notre-Dame in Paris powerfully combines an elongated face; expertly handled hair, beard and mouth; and unnatural, masklike eyes that seem fixed on another world.
Mr. Sauerländer notes the “expressive revolution” that began in Reims in the 1230’s and spread to Paris: “the reappearance of the smile in French Gothic art.” It is appears most freely on angels like one made for Notre-Dame. The smile, between a pronounced chin and eyes too sharply defined, is winsome and mysterious but tinged with smugness. It lands somewhere between a Botticelli maiden and the “Mona Lisa.”
The exhibition benefits from certain side trips. One of its sections, devoted to Italy and antiquity, explores the rediscovery of Classical sculpture and its technical finesse. It includes several early Byzantine (or Eastern Roman Empire) marble portrait busts from the 4th and 5th centuries as well as some 13th-century works from southern Italy, also in marble, in which the sculptors head straight for the Renaissance without stopping at Gothic. Nicola di Bartolomeo da Foggia’s lavishly turned-out “Crowned Bust of a Woman” of 1272 is a showstopper. There is also an even more appealing (if damaged) queenly head from the same decade, and a slightly earlier bust (1225-50) of Julius Caesar whose long, powerful neck and trim, compact jaw evoke Michelangelo’s David.
Some of the best pieces play outsider art to the more accomplished French, German and Italian works. Two of these are extremely abbreviated, implicitly modern Celtic heads from the British Isles that date from the second to third century. One, owned by the Cleveland Museum, looks like a Modigliani, but better. The other, which the Met acquired recently, might almost be the work of the self-taught modernist William Edmondson.
A 13th-century Spanish corbel with a female head exists entirely in its own time zone; the blunt mouth, hutlike nose, incised eyes and triplicate uni-brow would have made Picasso proud. This slightly goofy face is framed by a headdress whose triple tiers of pleats or ruffles suggest stacked cobblestones. The devoted nurse of Romeo’s Juliet comes to mind. A similar blunts power emanates from a 14th-century Northern Italian baptismal font centering on St. Veronica’s veil, on which the face of Jesus miraculously appeared. Here that immensely kind face projects eagerly, a ship’s masthead; the suggestion is enhanced by the boardlike flatness of the wings of angels who grasp the veil in their enticing fat hands and hustle it toward the viewer.
The Middle Ages can sometimes seem dark when overshadowed by the shining achievements of the Renaissance, but here they emit their own kind of light. This marvelous show confirms that the close-up, in a given moment, can convey quite a bit of the whole picture.
REVIEW: "One of those revelatory close-ups at which the Metropolitan Museum of Art excels" wrote the New York Times of the show from which this beauteous book was drawn. They described these truncated statues as "immensely appealing, somewhat battered orphans in white limestone: heads that were lopped off stone figures and reliefs that cover facades or interiors of European cathedrals and abbey churches. Depicting everything from Old Testament kings and prophets and angels, saints and apostles, to actual kings and clerics as well as devils and grotesques, these carvings turned churches into Bibles in stone. They were sometimes removed when tastes changed, but were more often the victims of iconoclasm during protracted struggles like the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the Protestant and English Reformations and the French Revolution."
Proscribed from showing undue expressiveness in their venerable subjects (except for angels!), sculptors poured their creativity into intricate rivulets of hair, beard, mustache, and headdress. These limestone, marble, painted wood, and silver gilt objects represented French, German, Italian, Byzantine, English, and Iberian traditions. The essays are engrossing, and although the subject is a tad esoteric and the book from a university press, Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture will satisfy anyone interested in sculpture and the cultural influences that shaped—and almost succeeded in destroying—these commanding works.
REVIEW: More than 80 medieval sculpted heads - half from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and half selected loans from American and European collections - are the focus of the upcoming exhibition Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture, opening on September 26. The exhibition, which includes heads from the third century A.D. through the early 1500s, will consider such artistic and thematic issues as: iconoclasm and the legacy of violence, sculpting identity and the evolving notions of the "portrait," sculpture without context and the search for provenance, head reliquaries as power objects, and Gothic Italy and the antique. Created from materials as diverse as marble, limestone, polychromed wood, and silver gilt, the works represent mostly French, but also German, Italian, Spanish, Byzantine, English, and other sculptural traditions. By examining the works in different ways, the exhibition will raw together science and connoisseurship, archaeology and history. On view will be a recently acquired 13th-century limestone Head of an Angel, related to the sculpture from the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
REVIEW: The French Revolution was not kind to medieval art. During the Terror, sculpted heads rolled with a ferocity equal to those of the aristocrats of the ancien regime. In Reims' Saint Remi church, for example, the revolutionaries symbolically decapitated a statue of the little-known, 10th- century king Lothair I, on the same day that Louis XVI was guillotined in Paris. In the years following 1789, the dechristianisation campaigns of the sans- culottes meant the Church was under fire just as much as the ancien regime. And art, bound up in religious expression, suffered too: sculptures of the apostles, saints and angels were as suspect as those of kings and queens - all had to be destroyed.
Having already confiscated works of art from many monasteries, in 1793 the revolution's Commission des Arts ordered the removal of religious imagery from the facade of Notre Dame. As the fragments piled up, threatening to block the cathedral entrances, the artist Jacques-Louis David proposed that the stone be used as the base for a huge monument to the French people. Instead, most of it was sold off as building material. Iconoclasm was not, of course, unique to the French Revolution. Medieval sculpture came under attack during the dissolution of the monasteries in 16th-century England; art was embattled in the wars of religion in 16th-century France; in the Dutch war of independence in the same century; and, more recently, in the Spanish Civil War.
Through the centuries the destruction has continued. When medieval art was not itself the target, it has often been caught in the crossfire. Yet, against the odds, much work has survived. Sculpted stone heads and other fragments continue to resurface - and they now find a home in the world's great museums, lauded and treasured for their age and beauty. For art historians, these remains pose a challenge - in most cases the provenance of these pieces is a mystery. "Many fragments become collectable objects for their inherent beauty, but very little is known about their origins," says Charles Little, curator of medieval art at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "They are orphans looking for their parents, and we are doing our best to put them into a context."
Painstaking detective work is required and sometimes the conventional art-historical approaches - comparing style and iconography, for example - are inconclusive. The Met is one of a number of museums that is now adopting an inter-disciplinary approach: it has enlisted the help of scientists and gone nuclear to reconnect its ancient fragments to their past. An exhibition opening at the Met this month highlights the work of the Limestone Sculpture Provenance Project, which uses a technique called neutron activation analysis (NAA) to help curators understand the objects in their collections. "We were looking for an approach to complement the study of style and iconography, and the one we felt held the most promise was to look at the provenance of the material from which the work is made," explains Little. "Neutron activation analysis offered a new way to look at limestone."
Working out of the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, the Limestone Project has been doing chemical analysis on art and archaeological artefacts for more than 30 years. NAA enables scholars to pinpoint the area that provided the stone for a particular artwork. It works because limestone contains trace elements that vary in concentration from one quarry to another. The process involves drilling about a gram of powdered limestone from a sculpture - a sample too small to do any damage. The sample is then bombarded with neutrons in a nuclear reactor, which produces radioactive isotopes of the trace elements present. As the isotopes "cool", they emit gamma radiation, which can be read off to give a unique "fingerprint" for the limestone sample, and can then be mapped to known quarries. The results are stored in the project's database, which now contains about 2,600 samples.
"With neutron activation, you subject a sample to nuclear bombardment and come out with an analysis of 15-30 elements," explains archeological scientist Garman Harbottle, the Limestone Project's chief scientist. "One or two elements won't tell you much but, if you get 20, you get matches that are really very reliable." What initially hooked the Met was a 1980s study by the art historian Jean French, of Bard College in New York, who focused on the Dordogne. Using NAA, French was able to show that nine Romanesque reliefs dispersed among four museums on the east coast of the US all came from the same stone source. In doing so she was able to disprove a prevailing theory that the Dordogne had not produced large-scale figural sculptures during the Romanesque period. "Jean French put all the pieces together," says Harbottle. "It was a major triumph, and as the icing on the cake she went back to the area and located the exact quarry the stone had come from by talking to local people in Sarlat. It was a fantastic piece of detective work and it gave the project a huge shot in the arm."
The Met has been building its medieval collection for the past century - most of the works are housed in The Cloisters, a separate gallery in northern Manhattan. NAA has enabled curators systematically to investigate the provenance of these works. One of the showpieces of the new exhibition will be a head of King David from the Saint Anne portal on the western facade of Notre Dame, which the museum acquired in 1938. A question mark had hung over its attribution until NAA confirmed it had the same "fingerprint" as stone found elsewhere on the portal.
For the Met, NAA is also opening up debates and lines of inquiry where art historians had assumed they already knew the history. One example involves two angels' heads. Carved in the round, with thick curls framing the face, the pair look very similar. The first had been in the collection for some time. The curators' speculation was that it had come from the choir area of Notre Dame - vandalised during the wars of religion because the congregation wanted greater participation in the eucharist. NAA proved their assumption correct. The second angel recently came up for auction in London, and the Met bought it. "I proposed that it was another head of an angel from Notre Dame," says Little. "It was the same size, same style and seemed to match exactly."
NAA revealed a different story. "The fingerprints show that the angel we just bought doesn't fall into the Notre Dame quarries at all. It comes from a quarry near Rouen. So it's back to the drawing board." Little is clearly excited by these new riddles: "Why does the angel look like it's from Paris? Maybe artists working on Notre Dame had access to this quarry - we don't know. Also, artists moved around: maybe a sculptor either brought material from another source, or transported the Paris style elsewhere. NAA is throwing everything wide open again. And that makes art history more dynamic and more interesting."
For Harbottle, the larger potential of NAA remains untapped; given the widespread use of limestone, NAA offers a methodology for understanding both the construction of Egypt's pyramids and the great civilisations of Mesoamerica, he says. However, a leak at the Brookhaven reactor has led to its closure, and the project is in the process of starting again from Missouri. Harbottle is a much-lauded scientist, but he's cool about his discipline's future: "The show at the Metropolitan proves that neutron activation is a powerful tool for art history," he says. "But not everyone has a nuclear reactor in their back pocket, and you do need to have a trained staff who can handle radioactivity safely and do the measurements properly. It's not trivial to assemble a group like that. Other equipment is now slowly coming on line that will replace the nuclear reactor and do essentially the same job of multi-element analysis."
REVIEW: The handsome catalogue, with its excellent color illustrations, a probing essay by Willibald Sauerlander, investigative catalogue entries, concise thematic discussions, extensive bibliography, and a thorough index, is a model of its kind. Its subject is well served by the expertise of the authors and the astute editorial supervision, so that this volume is not only valuable for future reference but is also easy to use in the exhibition itself. [The Burlington Magazine].
REVIEW: The book enjoys the excellent production values of the Metropolitan Museum in high-quality images. Though geared toward the specialist, these objects in this exhibition have a natural attraction that also fosters an appeal to the general audience. [Choice Reviews Online].
REVIEW: In this scholarly exploration of faces in medieval sculpture, Little (curator, dept. of medieval art & the Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) provides a captivating survey of 81 masterly works of art, dating as far back as the Roman Empire. Why the fascination with the human head throughout so much our art history? Because the head was understood to be "a center of power, the core of individual identity, and the primary vehicle for human expression, emotion, and character. [Library Journal”].
REVIEW: I found this volume to be wonderfully written, exquisitely illustrated, and reflective of the best scholarship available. [Sixteenth Century Journal]l
REVIEW: Fabulous photography. The text is insightful, informative, quite readable and enjoyable.
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