Mediaeval Sculpture In France

EARLY FRENCH SCULPTURE. In the Romanized portion of ancient Gaul, sculpture had followed the same style as in Italy during the fourth and fifth centuries. But the period that immediately followed the decay of early Christian sculpture was barren of works. Apart from a few Gallic versions of late Roman style, there is nothing that can be mentioned in the domain of monumental sculpture until we reach the Romanesque period in the eleventh century. The Carlovingian artistic revival was confined in sculpture to the industrial arts; and especially ivory-carving, which was practised with great success in the monasteries—the centres of art during the ninth century. In France, as in Italy, it was probably the lack of Byzantine models in sculpture that prevented any revival corresponding to that which took place in architecture, and especially in painting.

REVIVAL OF SCULPTURE. While a new period began for architecture in France at the very threshold of the eleventh century, a considerable time elapsed before a similar impulse was given to sculpture. It was not until the close of the eleventh century that distinct schools of figured sculpture may be said to have come into existence in different parts of France. The earliest provinces to feel the revival were those of the south. And from that time until the close of the Middle Ages a regular and progressive development can be traced. Comparing the works of France and Italy during the Middle Ages, we are struck by several fundamental differences. In Italy sculpture was, as a rule, confined to the lintels of the church portals and to articles of church furniture, such as pulpits, baptismal fonts, sepulchral monuments, etc. This precluded the development of great systematic cycles of sculptors, giving an inorganic character to the art, as well as shutting out much sculpture in the round. The French artist, on the other hand, had always a strong perception of the relation of sculpture to architecture and of their cooperative value. He crowded with life-sized or colossal statues the recesses of the church porches and the niches of the facade, while he filled the archivolts and tympana of the doorways with high-reliefs. In the south of France this display of sculpture reached the extreme of exuberance. At Angouleme and at St. Gilles the facades were almost entirely covered. Even in cloisters, statues were used as caryatides and were set against the piers. So early as the Romanesque period the French schools showed a clear-cut individuality with deep local distinctions, and they were able to give more individual expression to their figures than any other European school. The art may be somewhat hieratic, the figures architecturally still or artificially animated according to the schools, but there appears in the heads something unknown to other Romanesque schools in Europe—a study of character and portraiture that is more Latin in the south, more French and Gallic in the north and centre. Strange as it may seem, the heads of the stiff figures in the portals at Chartres, Corbeil, Le Mans—works of the middle of the twelfth century—are more true to the types among which the sculptor lived and worked than the heads of the far more advanced and artistically perfect statues of the Gothic cathedrals of the following century. For Gothic sculpture created types rather than reproduced models.

SCHOOLS OF THE SOUTH. The earliest of the French schools of the south are those of Toulouse, Limoges, Provence, and Burgundy. There is but little Byzantine influence shown in any of them. At opposite poles stand Provence and Burgundy, the former being influenced by the numerous Roman works still extant in the cities, while the latter owed nothing apparently to the study of the past. The sculpture of Provence was dignified and quiet. The rich decorative details in which it surpassed all other schools were welded with taste into a harmonious unity so as to conceal partly the defects of the individual figures, which, especially in the bas-reliefs, were often heavy and ill-proportioned. In Burgundy, on the other hand, the technique was far more highly finished, and the artists endowed with a more vivid fancy and invention. They seemed to struggle to express an irrepressible life and energy, and as a result often produced figures awkward and distorted. They were gifted also with a keen sense of the grotesque and the horrible. The school of Toulouse had not the repose, naturalness, and harmony of the Provencal, nor the fancy or energy of the Burgundian school. It united high finish with artificially studied postures and drapery, and attempted some-times dramatic effects. A fifth school extends from Cahors to Angouleme, adjoining the province of Poitou and occupying part of Perigord. This school was in certain ways an advance upon all others in France during the first half of the twelfth century. Its most representative works are in the portal of the Cathedral of Cahors and the facade of the Cathedral of Angouleme. In these works the double influence of the Carlovingian school and of Byzantine style is extremely striking. At Angouleme the entire facade is covered with groups and single figures in high-relief, belonging, with but few exceptions, to the grand scene of the Last Judgment, which was the favorite subject of Romanesque sculpture in France. The figure en aureole suggests the same sculptor as that of Cahors. The school hardly seems able to achieve the coordination of architecture and sculpture so well as the more southern schools. The sculpture is in no way organic. There is a tendency to violent action only less extravagant than that in the Burgundian school ; while in other figures there is a nearer approach to beauty, without any attempt at realism.

SCHOOL OF THE ILE-DE-FRANCE. The last born of these schools, that of the Ile-de-France, carried out from the beginning the most perfect alliance of the two arts of architecture and sculpture. Many of the figures on the old portals of Chartres, Le Mans, Bourges, St. Denis, St. Loup, etc., seem almost integral parts of the architecture, so well do the long and immovable figures, with their narrow parallel folds of drapery, harmonize with the general lines. The great advance made by this school is in the use of statues of considerable size in the lower part of all the recesses of the main portals, transferring to this part the centre of sculptural interest. It was inevitable that by this subordination sculpture should lose in part its freedom of form and that the interest of the details should be sacrificed to the general effect. But it was fortunate, for the sake of the completeness of Gothic art, that the new style of architecture arose in the very province where sculpture was best prepared to become its intelligent handmaid and fellow-laborer, and to carry out in plastic form the encyclopaedic conception of the builders of the great cathedrals. By a gradual change during the second half of the twelfth century, the severe stiffness of the early sculpture of the Ile-de-France was lost, a greater suppleness and freedom of action were introduced; and about 1210 to 1220 sculpture had become technically able in this school to express the great variety of artistic subjects that were given to it to execute in connection with the new buildings then being erected over the whole of northern France.

HISTORIC DEVELOPMENT. Among the earliest examples of the new Gothic style are the portal of the Cathedral of Laon, and the western portals of Notre Dame in Paris, finished about 1225. The next half-century saw the execution of a great mass of statuary and reliefs for the new cathedrals, and one stands amazed at the unexampled number and variety. Each cathedral had several thousand figures, as instanced in such structures as Chartres, Rheims, Amiens, and Notre Dame in Paris. In these works the irregular and unsystematic selection of subjects which prevailed during the Romanesque period had given place to an elaborate system and classification under the influence of the literary leaders of the scholastic period. In the study of this maze of sculptures the best key is that most universal of medieval encyclopaedias, the Speculum Universale, written by Vincent of Beauvais, the tutor of the children of St. Louis of France. The aim of the sculptors was to represent the creation, character, and history of the world, religious, symbolic, ethical, and historical, in a series of epics in stone. As in Byzantine painting, so in Gothic sculpture, every subject had its position in the cathedral, and was a distinct link in a long chain of kindred themes, to displace which would be to rob them of the greater part of their significance. The period of activity and perfection lasted from about 1225 to the close of the century. It is not easy to characterize the style, on account of the multitude and the multiplicity of work, and the almost complete absence of artists’ names around which to group any distinct class of works. There is, in a certain sense, a resemblance to the developed Greek art of the second half of the fifth century B.C. in these sculptures, and yet there is evidently no imitation of Greek models. It is also evident that both the human body and drapery were closely studied from models ; that, in fact, the Gothic figure was usually conceived by the sculptor at first without drapery. At the same time, it seems that, while a few artists went to nature and to models, they nevertheless sought to establish, as the Greeks did, canons of form. These canons were geometrical, and were so elaborated as to cover every usual attitude of the human body. By following these formulas fixed by the masters, even ordinary artists could obtain the same grace and poise of figure. An illustration of this fact is afforded by the drawings in the sketch-book of one of these artists—Villard de Honnecourt. It was in the study of drapery that the greatest success was obtained, a success almost vying with that of the Greek masters.

The sculpture of the late thirteenth and of the fourteenth century loses some of the dignity and repose of the earlier work. It is more humorous and more dramatic, and in seeking after effectiveness it often falls into artificiality. It is apt to charm by its quaint brightness, or by a touch of satire, and its figures, with their alluring smile, flexible grace, and high finish, evidently aim at the more seductive and realistic qualities of art. In fact, modern writers have seen in this later development of Gothic sculpture in the north of France a renaissance of psychological sculpture which anticipates in many ways the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century. At the close of this period the centre of artistic action shifts from the province of Paris northeastward to Flanders and Northern Burgundy.

In the cathedrals of the thirteenth century the sculpture was concentrated upon the exterior, and centred in and about the portals. The main portal on the western facade consisted, as a rule, of three great pointed arches. The side portals in the north and south transepts were sometimes single, some-times double; and besides these there were at times secondary doorways, always ornamented with sculpture. At first the recesses of the portals were opened up in the thickness of the facade walls (Notre Dame, Paris), but soon they were made to project more or less, as at Amiens and Rheims; sometimes they projected so far as to form closed porches, as at Chartres. In all cases large-sized statues were placed in single rows in the recesses, their heads reaching to the spring of the arch. To each figure there corresponded an archivolt above, in which the place of the primitive moulding was taken by a line of figures in high-relief, such as choirs of angels and series of the prophets and the apostles The tympanum which they encircled was filled with a large composition, and below it one of smaller size filled the lintel. Beside and between the portals there were inserted into the walls, especially so far as to form a dado around the base line, series of small symbolic compositions in low-relief. In the cathedrals of developed style a gable usually surmounted each arch of the portals, and within each one was a composition in relief or in the round. Above the main portal on the western front was usually a gallery filled with statues of the kings of France. Many disjointed compositions and single figures were scattered over other parts of the exterior.

VINCENT OF BEAUVAIS divided his encyclopaedia, or Universal Mirror, into four sections—Nature, Science, Ethics, and History. The order of his encyclopaedia is best followed in the Cathedral of Chartres, and here we have a good illustration of the artistic rendering of scholastic ideas. His first Mirror is Nature, illustrated in the northern porch by thirty-six reliefs and seventy-five statues, beginning with the creation of the heavens and the earth, and closing with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. The second Mirror shows the first step in the redemption of man in the natural order by labor. It is developed at Chartres in a series of one hundred and three figures on the north porch. Here are illustrated the labors of the country in their different seasons, the mechanical arts of the towns, and the liberal or intellectual arts. The third Mirror shows how man takes a still higher step in his regeneration in the spheres of morality and religion. This moral mirror is illustrated by one hundred and forty statues at Chartres, symbolizing four orders of virtues, the personal, the domestic, or family, virtues, the political or social, and the religious, to each one of which the contrary vice is opposed. Each one is typified by a figure and a symbolical composition. Finally, the fourth Mirror expresses the history of the world from the first scenes in the Old Testament to the Last Judgment, and aims at typifying the most important incidents in the career of mankind. It is natural that a much larger number of compositions and statues should be devoted to this part of the subject than to any other. The whole mirror, even in this partial reproduction at Chartres, is represented by nearly two thousand figures. Treated in this fashion, sculpture was made to represent, almost as completely as literary productions, the complex thought and knowledge of the period, and its study could not but be of extreme value.

MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUE. Metal work never attained in Northern France to the popularity that it had in Germany and Flanders. There is no great French Gothic school of gold and silver work, like the Rhenish school. Monumental casting in bronze reached, it is true, perfection, especially in sepulchral work such as the slab of Bishop Evrard de Fouiltoy, the founder of the Cathedral of Amiens. The Gothic artists were essentially stone-cutters, like the Greeks. They conceived their works in connection with the monument for which they were designed. If they carved them in their ateliers, they did so with strict regard for the exact position which the work was to occupy when in place, and modified the proportions of the figures accordingly to suit the perspective. But often the reliefs must have been carved on the spot. We must conceive of the clergy as exercising general super-vision over the selection and arrangement of the compositions, and we must imagine one artist having, as Pheidias did in the Parthenon, a general supervision of the whole work. In the thirteenth century, when so many architects were sculptors, it is probable that in many cases this man was the architect himself.

There is little to say of technical matters. The apprentice-ship in this was served during the Romanesque period, and the Gothic sculptor had, from the very beginning, the same mastery over the technical part of his art as the Greeks in the fifth century. Like the Greeks they were fond of polychromy, and a complete recognition of the pervasiveness and importance of this characteristic of Gothic sculpture is almost as new in art criticism as is the same recognition for early Greek sculpture. The restored statues inside the Ste. Chapelle in Paris, and a few statues over high altars, give some idea of the richness and strength of the coloring employed.

EXTANT MONUMENTS. Mediaeval French sculpture may be best studied in the cathedrals and churches throughout France. For comparative purposes, the collection of casts of monumental sculptures at the Trocadero and of smaller originals at the Cluny Museum, Paris, are invaluable.