1902 Encyclopedia > Sculpture > Technical Methods and Materials Employed in Medieval English Sculpture.

(Part 6)

Technical Methods and Materials Employed in Medieval English Sculpture.

It may here be well to say a few words on the technical methods employed in the execution of mediaeval sculpture, which in the main were very similar in England, France, and Germany. When bronze was used—in England as a rule only for the effigies of royal persons or the richer nobles—the metal was east by the delicate cire perdue process, and the whole surface of the figure was then thickly gilded. At Limoges in France a large number of sepulchral effigies were produced, especially between 1300 and 1400, and exported to distant places. These were not cast, but were made of hammered (repoussé) plates of copper, nailed on a wooden core and richly decorated with champlevé enamels in various bright colours. Westminster Abbey possesses a fine example, executed about 1300, in the effigy of William of Valence (d. 1296). The ground on wdiich the figure lies, the shield, the border of the tunic, the pillow, and other parts are decorated with these enamels very minutely treated. The rest of the copper was gilt, and the helmet was sur-rounded with a coronet set with jewels, which are now missing. One royal effigy of later date at Westminster, that of Henry V. (d. 1422), was formed of beaten silver fixed to an oak core, with the exception of the head, which appears to have been cast. The whole of the silver disappeared in the time of Henry VIII., and nothing now remains but the rough wooden core ; hence it is doubtful whether the silver was decorated with enamel or not ; it was probably of English workmanship.

In most cases stone was used for all sorts of sculpture, being decorated in a very minute and elaborate way with gold, silver, and colours applied over the whole surface. In order to give addi-tional richness to this colouring the surface of the stone, often even in the case of external sculpture, was covered with a thin skin of gesso or fine plaster mixed with size ; on this, while still soft, and over the drapery and other accessories, very delicate and minute patterns were stamped with wooden dies (see MURAL DE-CORATION, fig. 17), and upon this the gold and colours were applied; thus the gaudiness and monotony of flat smooth surfaces covered with gilding or bright colours were avoided. In addition to this the borders of drapery and other parts of stone statues were fre-quently ornamented with crystals and false jewels, or, in a more laborious way, with holes and sinkings filled with polished metallic foil, on which very minute patterns were painted in transparent varnish colours ; the whole was then protected from the air by small pieces of transparent glass, carefully shaped to the right size and fixed over the foil in the cavity cut in the stone. It is difficult now to realize the extreme splendour of this gilt, painted, and jewelled sculpture, as no perfect example exists, though in many cases traces remain of all these processes, and show that they were once very widely applied. The architectural surroundings of ths figures were treated in the same elaborate way. In the 14th cen-tury in England alabaster came into frequent use for monumental sculpture; it too was decorated with gold and colour, though in some cases the whole surface does not appear to have been so treated. In his wide use of coloured decoration, as in other re-spects, the mediaeval sculptor came far nearer to the ancient Greek than do any modern artists. Even the use of inlay of coloured glass was common at Athens during the 5th century B.C,—as, for example, in the plait-band of some of the marble bases of the Erechtheum,—and five or six centuries earlier at Tiryns and Mycenae.

Another material much used by mediaeval sculptors was wood, though, from its perishable nature, comparatively few early ex-amples survive; the best specimen is the figure of George de Cantelupe (d. 1273) in Abergavenny church.
This was decorated with gesso reliefs, gilt and coloured in the same w ay as the stone. The tomb of Prince John of Eltham (d. 1334) at Westminster is a very fine example of the early use of alabaster, both for the re-cumbent effigy and also for a number of small figures of mourners all round the arcading of the tomb. These little figures, well pre-served on the side which is protected by the screen, are of very great beauty and are executed with the most delicate minuteness ; some of the heads are equal to the best contemporary work of the son and pupils of Niccola Pisano. The tomb once had a high stone canopy of open work—arches, canopies, and pinnacles,—a class of architectural sculpture of which many extremely rich examples exist, as, for instance, the tomb of Edward II. at Gloucester, the De Spencer tomb at Tewkesbury, and, of rather later style, the tomb of Lady Eleanor de Percy at Beverley. This last is remark-able for the great richness and beauty of its sculptured foliage, which is of the finest Decorated period and stands unrivalled by any Continental example.


559-3 Other effigies from Limoges were imported into England, but no other example now exists in the country.

559-4 In the modern attempts to reproduce the mediaeval polychromy these delicate surface reliefs have been omitted ; hence the painful results of such colouring as that in Notre Dame and the Sainte Chapelle in Paris and many other "restored" churches, especially in France and Germany.

559-5 On the tomb of Aymer de Valence (d. 1326) at Westminster a good deal of the stamped gesso and coloured decoration is visible on close inspection. One of the cavities of the base retains a fragment of glass covering the painted foil, still brilliant and jewel-like in effect.

559-6 The South Kensington Museum possesses a magnificent colossal wood figure of an angel, not English, but Italian work of the 14th century. A large stone statue of about the same date, of French workmanship, in the same museum is a most valuable example of the use of stamped gesso and inlay of painted and glazed foil.

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