Much Roman sculpture had been destroyed as loot by victorious barbarism, or as obscene idolatry by nascent Christianity; something had remained, especially in France, to excite the imagination of barbarism tamed and a Christian culture coming of age. In this art, as in others, the Eastern Roman Empire had preserved old models and skills, had overlaid them with Asiatic conventions and mysticism, and had redistributed to the West the seeds that had come to it from Rome. Greek carvers went to Germany after Theophano married Otto II (972); they went to Venice, Ravenna, Rome, Naples, Sicily, perhaps to Barcelona and Marseille. From such men, and from the Moslem artists of his Regno, the sculptors of Frederick II may have learned their trade. When barbarism became rich it could afford to wed beauty; when the Church became rich she took sculpture, like the other arts, into the service of her creed and ritual. That, after all, was the way the major arts had developed in Egypt and Asia, in Greece and Rome; great art is the child of a triumphant faith.
Like mural painting, mosaic, and stained glass, sculpture was conceived not as independent, but as one phase of an integrated art for which no language has a name—the adornment of worship. Primarily the sculptor’s function was to beautify the house of God with statuary and reliefs; secondarily to make images or icons to inspire piety in the home; after that, if time and funds remained, he might carve the likeness of secular persons or adorn profane things. In church sculpture the preferred material was some lasting substance like stone, marble, alabaster, bronze; but for statuary the Church favored wood: such figures could be borne without agony by Christians marching in religious pageantry. Statues were painted, as in ancient religious art, and they were more often realistic than idealized. The worshiper was to feel the presence of the saint through the image; and so well was this end attained that the Christian, like the devotee of older faiths, expected miracles of the statue, and raised few doubts on hearing that the arm of an alabaster Christ had moved in benediction, or that the breast of a wooden Virgin had given milk.
Any study of medieval sculpture should begin with an act of contrition. A great part of that sculpture was destroyed in England by Puritan zealots—sometimes by act of Parliament; and in France by the Art Terror of the Revolution. In England the reaction was against what seemed to the new iconoclasts the pagan ornamentation of Christian shrines; in France it attacked the collections, effigies, and tombs of the hated aristocracy. All through these countries we find headless statues, broken noses, battered sarcophagi, smashed reliefs, shattered cornices and capitals; a fury of accumulated resentment against ecclesiastical or feudal tyranny vented itself at last in a Satanic demolition. As if enlisting in a conspiracy of ruin, time and its servant elements wore away surfaces, melted stone, effaced inscriptions, waged against the works of man a cold and silent war that never granted truce. And man himself, in a thousand campaigns, sought victory through competitive devastation. We know medieval sculpture only in its desolation.
We add misunderstanding to injury when we view its scattered members in museums. It was not meant to be seen in isolation; it was part of a theological theme and an architectural whole; and what might seem crude and ungainly in separation may have been skillfully suited to its context in stone. The cathedral statue was an element in a composition; it was adjusted to its place, and tended to follow, by elongation, the vertical lift of the cathedral lines: the legs were kept together, the arms were pressed to the body; sometimes a saint was thinned and stretched through all the length of a portal jamb. Less often a horizontal effect was stressed, and the figures over a door might be fattened and flattened as over the portal of Chartres, or a man or a beast might be crumpled into a capital like a Greek god cornered in a pediment. Gothic sculpture was fused in an unrivaled unity with the architecture it adorned.
This subordination of sculptural to structural line and aim especially marked the art of the twelfth century. The thirteenth witnessed an exuberant rebellion of the sculptor, who now ventured out of formalism into realism, out of piety into humor and satire and the zest of earthy life. At Chartres, in the twelfth century, the figures are somber and stiff; at Reims, in the thirteenth, they are caught in natural conversation or spontaneous action, their features are individual, there is grace in their pose. Many figures on the cathedrals of Chartres and Reims resemble the bearded peasants that still meet us in French villages; the shepherd warming himself at the fire on the west portal of Amiens might be in a Norman or Gaspé field today. No sculpture in history rivals the whimsical veracity of Gothic cathedral reliefs. At Rouen, crowded into little quatref oils, we find a meditative philosopher with the head of a pig; a doctor, half man and half goose, studying another phial of urine; a music teacher, half man and half rooster, giving a lesson on the organ to a centaur; a man changed by a sorcerer into a dog, whose feet still wear his boots.21 Funny little figures crouch under the statues at Chartres, Amiens, Reims. A capital in Strasbourg cathedral, since reformed, showed the burial of Reynard the Fox: a boar and a goat carried his coffin, a wolf bore the cross, a hare lighted the way with a taper, a bear sprinkled holy water, a stag sang Mass, an ass chanted the funeral service from a book resting on the head of a cat.22 In Beverley Minster a fox cowled like a monk preaches from a pulpit to a congregation of pious geese.23
The cathedrals are, among other things, menageries in stone; almost all animals known to man, and many known only to medieval fancy, find somewhere room in those tolerant immensities. At Laon sixteen bulls lower on the cathedral towers; they represent, we are told, the mighty beasts that through patient years transported the stone blocks from the quarries to the hilltop church. One day, said a genial legend, an ox laboring upward fell in exhaustion; the load was precariously poised on a slope when a miraculous ox appeared, slipped into the harness, drew the cart to the summit, and then vanished into the supernatural air.24 We smile at such fiction, and return to our tales of sex and crime.
The cathedrals found place, too, for a botanical garden. Next to the Virgin, the angels, and the saints, what better ornament could there be for the house of God than the plants, fruits, and flowers of the French or English or German countryside? In Romanesque architecture (800–1200) the old Roman floral motives persisted—acanthus leaves and the vine; in Gothic these formalized motives yielded to an amazing profusion of indigenous plants, carved into bases, capitals, spandrels, archivolts, cornices, columns, pulpits, choirs, doorposts, stalls…. These forms are not conventional; they are often individualized varieties locally loved, and rendered to the life; sometimes they are composite plants, another play of Gothic imagination, but still fresh with the feel of nature. Trees, branches, twigs, leaves, buds, flowers, fruit, ferns, buttercups, plantains, watercress, celandine, rosebushes, strawberry plants, thistle and sage, parsley and chicory, cabbage and celery—all are here, falling from the never-emptied cornucopia of the cathedral; the intoxication of spring was in the heart of the sculptor, and guided the chisel into the stone. Not only spring; all the seasons of the year are in these carvings, all the toil and solace of sowing, reaping, and vintage are here; and in the whole history of sculpture there is nothing finer in its kind than the “Vintage Capital” in the cathedral of Reims.25
But this world of plants and flowers, birds and beasts, was ancillary to the main theme of medieval sculpture—the life and death of man. At Chartres, Laon, Lyons, Auxerre, Bourges, some preliminary reliefs tell the story of the creation. At Laon the Creator counts on His fingers the days left Him for His task; and in later scenes we see Him, tired with His cosmic toil, leaning on His staff, sitting down to rest, going to sleep; this is a god whom any peasant can understand. Other cathedral reliefs show the months of the year, each with its distinctive work and joy. Others show the occupations of man: peasants in the field or at the wine press; some guiding horses or oxen in breaking furrows or pulling carts; others shearing sheep or milking cows; and there are millers, carpenters, porters, merchants, artists, scholars, even a philosopher or two. The sculptor portrays abstractions through examples: Donatus is grammar, Cicero is oratory, Aristotle is dialectic, Ptolemy is astronomy. Philosophy sits with her head in the clouds, a book in her right hand, a scepter in her left; she is Regina scientiarum, Queen of the Sciences. Paired figures personify Faith and Idolatry, Hope and Despair, Charity and Avarice, Chastity and Lechery, Peace and Discord; a portal at Laon shows a combat of the Vices and the Virtues; and on the west front of Notre Dame at Paris a graceful figure with bandaged eyes represents the Synagogue, while opposite her is an even lovelier woman, with royal mantle and commanding air—the Church as the Bride of Christ. Christ Himself appears sometimes tender, sometimes terrible; taken down from the cross by His mother; rising from the tomb while near by, in symbol, a lion brings her cubs to life with a breath; or sternly judging the quick and the dead. That Last Judgment is everywhere in the sculpture and painting of the churches; man was never allowed to forget it; and here, too, only one intercessor could be relied upon to win forgiveness for his sins. So in the sculpture, as in the litanies, Mary took the leading place, the mother of infinite mercy, who would not let her Son take too literally those awful words about the many called, the few chosen.
There is a depth of feeling in this Gothic sculpture, a variety and energy of life, a sympathy with all the forms of the plant and animal world, a tenderness, gentleness, and grace, a miracle of stone revealing not flesh but the soul, that move and satisfy us when the bodily excellence of Greek statuary has lost—perhaps through our aging—something of its traditional lure. Beside the living figures of medieval faith the heavy gods of the Parthenon pediment seem cold and dead. Gothic sculpture is technically deficient; there isnothing in it that can match the perfection of the Parthenon frieze, or the handsome gods and sensuous goddesses of Praxiteles, or even the matrons and senators of the Ara Pacis at Rome; and doubtless those comely ephebi and pliant Aphrodites once meant the joy of healthy life and love. But the prejudices of our native creed, remembering its loveliness and forgetting its terror, bring us back again and again to the great cathedrals, and tip the scales to the Beau Dieu of Amiens, the Smiling Angel of Reims, and the Virgin of Chartres.
As the skill of the medieval sculptor grew, he aspired to free his art from architecture, and produce works that could please the increasingly secular taste of princes and prelates, nobles and bourgeoisie. In England the “marblers” of Purbeck, using the excellent material quarried in that Dorsetshire promontory, earned high repute in the thirteenth century for ready-made shafts and capitals, and for the recumbent effigies they carved on the sarcophagi of the affluent dead. About 1292 William Torel, a London goldsmith, cast in bronze the images of Henry III and his daughter-in-law Eleanor of Castile for their marble tombs in Westminster Abbey; these are as fine as any bronze work of the age. Remarkable schools of sculpture gathered in this period at Liége, Hildesheim, and Naumburg; and some unknown master, about 1240, made the strong and simple figures—with magnificent drapery—of Henry the Lion and his lioness in the cathedral of Brunswick. France led Europe in the quality of her Romanesque (twelfth-century) and Gothic (thirteenth-century) statuary; but most of it is integrated with her cathedrals, and is best studied there.
Sculpture in Italy was not so intimately bound up with architecture, the commune, and the guild as in France; and there, in the thirteenth century, we begin to get individual artists whose personality dominates their work and preserves their names. Niccolò Pisano embodied a diversity of influences fused into a unique synthesis. Born in Apulia about 1225, he enjoyed the stimulating air of Frederick II’s regime; there, apparently, he studied the remains and restorations of classic art.26 Moving to Pisa, he inherited the Romanesque tradition, and heard of the Gothic style then at its apex in France. When he carved a pulpit for Pisa’s baptistery he took for his model a Roman sarcophagus of Hadrian’s time. He was deeply moved by the firm but graceful lines of the classic forms; though his pulpit showed Romanesque and Gothic arches, most of its figures bore Roman features and dress; the face and robes of Mary in the panel of the Presentation were those of a Roman matron; and in one corner a nude athlete proclaimed the spirit of ancient Greece. Jealous of this masterpiece, Siena (1265) engaged Niccolo, his son Giovanni, and his pupil Arnolfo di Cambio to carve a still finer pulpit for the cathedral. They succeeded. Standing on columns with Gothic flowered capitals, this pulpit of white marble repeated the themes of the Pisan work, with a crowded panel of the Crucifixion. Here the Gothic influence won over the classical; but in the feminine figures that crowned the columns the antique mood found voice in the frank portrayal of rosy health. As if to underscore his classic sentiments, Niccolò chiseled upon the tomb of the ascetic St. Dominic at Bologna virile forms in pagan style, full of the joy of life. In 1271 he joined his son and Arnolfo to carve the marble font still standing in the public square of Perugia. He died seven years later, still relatively young; but in one lifetime he had made straight the way for Donatello and the rebirth of classic sculpture in the Renaissance.
His son Giovanni Pisano (c. 1240-c. 1320) rivaled him in influence, and surpassed him in technical skill. In 1271 Pisa commissioned Giovanni to build a cemetery fit for men who were then dividing the western Mediterranean with Genoa. Holy earth was brought from Mt. Calvary for the Campo Santo, or Sacred Field; around a grassy rectangle the artist raised graceful arches in mingled Romanesque and Gothic styles; masterpieces of sculpture were brought in to adorn the cloisters, and the Campo Santo remained a monument to Giovanni Pisano until the Second World War shattered half its arches into a neglected ruin.* When the Pisans were defeated by the Genoese (1284) they could no longer afford Giovanni; he went to Siena, and helped to design and execute the sculpture of the cathedral façade. In 1290 he chiseled some reliefs for the bizarre face of the Orvieto Cathedral. Thence he returned north to Pistoia, and carved for the church of Sant’ Andrea a pulpit less virile than his father’s at Pisa, but excelling it in naturalness and grace; this, indeed, is the loveliest product of Gothic sculpture in Italy.
The third member of this famous trio, Arnolfo di Cambio (c. 1232-c. 1300), continued the Gothic style under the patronage of the popes, several of whom had a French background. At Orvieto he shared in cutting the façade, and made a handsome sarcophagus for Cardinal de Braye. In 1296, with the multidextrous versatility of Renaissance artists, he designed, and began to execute, three of the glories of Florence: the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the church of Santa Croce, and the Palazzo Vecchio.
But with Arnolfo and these works we pass from sculpture to architecture. All the arts had now returned to life and health; the old skills were not only restored, but were breeding new ventures and techniques with almost reckless fertility. The arts were united as never before or since—in the same enterprise and the same man. Everything had been prepared for the culminating medieval art that would combine them all in perfect co-operation, and would give its name to a style and an age.