1902 Encyclopedia > Sculpture > French Sculpture - 12th and 13th Centuries; Cathedral Façades.

(Part 12)

French Sculpture - 12th and 13th Centuries; Cathedral Façades.

During the 12th and 13th centuries the sculpture of France was, on the whole, the finest in the world, and was there used in the greatest profusion. The facades of large cathedrals were completely covered with sculptured reliefs and thick-set rows of statues in niches. The whole of the front was frequently one huge composition of statuary, with only sufficient purely architectural work to form a background and frame for the sculptured figures. A west end treated like that of Wells cathedral, which is almost unique in England, is not uncommon in France. Even the shafts of the doorways and other architectural accessories were covered with minute sculptured decoration,—the motives of which were often, especially during the 12th century, obviously derived from the metal-work of shrines and reliquaries studded with rows of jewels. The west fagade of Poitiers cathedral is one of the richest examples ; it has large surfaces covered with foliated carving
and rows of colossal statues, both seated and standing, reaching high up the front of the church. Of the same century (the 12th), but rather later in date, is the very noble sculpture on the three western doors of Chartres cathedral, with fine tympanum reliefs and colossal statues j attached to the jamb-shafts of the openings (see fig. 10). These latter figures, with their exaggerated height and the long straight folds of their drapery, are designed with great skill to assist and not to break the main upward j lines of the doorways. The sculptors have willingly sacrificed the beauty and proportion of each separate statue for the sake of the architectonic effect of the whole fagade.The heads, however, are full of nobility, beauty, and even grace, especially those that are softened by the addition! of long wavy curls, which give relief to the general stiffness of the form. The sculptured doors of the north and south aisles of Bourges cathedral are fine examples of the end of the 12th century, and so were the west doors of Notre Dame in Paris till they were hopelessly injured by " restoration." The early sculpture at Bourges is specially interesting from the existence in many parts of its original coloured decoration.

In France, as in England, the 13th century was theThir-golden age of sculpture; while still keeping its early dignity teenth and subordination to its architectural setting, the sculpture centuTy reached a very high degree of graceful finish and even sensuous beauty. Nothing could surpass the loveliness of the angel statues round the Parisian Sainte Chapelle, and even the earlier work on the fagade of Laon cathedral is full of grace and delicacy. Amiens cathedral is especially rich in sculpture of this date,—as, for example, the noble and majestic statues of Christ and the Apostles at the west end; the sculpture on the south transept of about 1260-70, of more developed style, is remarkable for dignity combined with soft beauty. The noble row of kings on the west end of Notre Dame at Paris has, like the earlier sculpture, been ruined by " restoration," which has robbed the statues of both their spirit and their vigour. To the latter years of the 13th century belong the magnificent series of statues and reliefs round the three great western doorways of the same church, among which are no less than thirty-four life-sized figures. On the whole, the single statues throughout this period are finer than the reliefs with many figures. Some of the statues of the Virgin and Child are of extraordinary beauty, in spite of their being often treated with a certain mannerism,—a curved pose of the body, which appears to have been copied from ivory statuettes in which the figure followed the curve of the elephant's tusk. The north transept at-Rheims is no less rich : the central statue of Christ is a work of much grace and nobility of form ; and some nude figures—for example, that of St Sebastian—show a knowledge of the human form which was very unusual at that early date. Many of these Rheims statues, like those by Torell at Westminster, are quite equal to the best work of Niccola Pisano. The abbey church of St Denis possesses the largest collection of French 13th-century monumental effigies, a large number of which, with supposed portraits of the early kings, were made during the rebuilding of the church in 1264; some of them appear to be "archaistic" copies of older contemporary statues.


562-2 See Ruskin, The Bible of Amiens, 1878.

563-1 See Félibien, Histoire de l'Abbaye de Saint-Denys, Paris, 1706.

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