And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 26. januar 2011

Faces in Stone

                             (...) below the huge temple, he took in
All its details, marvelling at how that city had prospered,
Noting the artists' skill, the combined success of their labours.
- The Aeneid, Vergilius

While I was delighting myself with looking
At the images of such great humilities,
Which were dear to us for their maker's sake.
- Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri

A Medieval cathedral is a marvellous and awe-inspiring construction in many respects. York Minster is frequently - and quite rightly - praised for its spectacular glass paintings, which make a visit at daylight very rewarding. However, another aspect that is less emphasised at York Minster, but no less impressive, is the carved figures decorating various architectural features both on the inside and the outside. There is, to my knowledge, no leaflet offering any overview of the various figures in the Minster, as is the case regarding the glass paintings.

As nothing about art in the Middle Ages is coincidental carvings of figures and faces served a series of purposes, ranging from warding off evil spirits, as would be the case with water-spewers and gargoyles, to educational depictions of Heaven and Hell, as would be the case of tympana, corbels and column capitals. A Medieval cathedral was not solely a place of worship, but a place of educating the soul, learning to follow the way of God and also the keep away from the way of the Devil. The carvings would be just one element of the many-layered didactic comprised in the cathedral along with glass paintings, wall paintings, music, sermons and processions, all meant to lift the soul of literate and illiterate alike nearer God. In our day and age, daily and excessive exposition of images has rendered us blind to the awe felt by the Medieval man and woman entering the cathedral, but the work of Medieval craftsmen can nonetheless inspire a number of impressions even today.

Some figures are to the modern eye difficult to interpret, being either too arcane or void of that meaning it once conveyed to the Medieval spectators. It can be difficult enough to map the messages found in cathedrals still standing, far more difficult is it to understand the full depth of carvings from destroyed churches as these carvings are removed from their original context.

My knowledge of the topic is insufficient for a lecture, and I have not been able to tour York Minster extensively to experience the Medieval communication of the carvings there. This blogpost will therefore not revolve around the York Minster carvings solely, but give a few examples of stonework of the Middle Ages found in the Minster, Yorkshire Museum and Whitby Abbey.

York Minster

The first three pictures are taken during a tour of the Minster tower. Apart from the possible purpose of warding off demons I do not know whether any of these figures contain additional symbolism or depict figures common to the Medieval mythology and folklore, but I admire them nonetheless as works of craft. 


Whitby Abbey

These carvings are from the 12th and 13th century abbey whose ruins now can be admired at Whitby. They are kept in the Whitby Abbey Museum.


 These carvings - commonly called grotesques - were 12th century corbels supporting the roof timbers and would therefore have been situated on the inside of the building. Whether they were meant to ward of evil spirits who had entered the church or whether they had a different function is beyond my knowledge. Nor do I know what - if anything in particular - they are meant to portray.

The architectural function of these two carvings were not explicitly clear in the information given at Whitby Abbey Museum, but judging from features similar to the grotesques these may very well be corbels. The first is possibly depicting a knight, whereas the second may be an abbott. Their symbolic meaning is not clear. 

These heads are drip-stones from the 13th century. Placed above doors and windows to steer away the raindrops they are weathered quite severely, and it is exceedingly difficult to determine what they depict and what message they convey. An uneducated guess from my side would be - judging from what is extant of their eyes - that they appear to be tormented souls whose office as drip-stones thus becomes a metaphor for eternal suffering.

This picture depicts a winged lion, possibly the emblem of Saint Mark. It was carved in the 13th century and served as a painted and gilded boss for the vaulted ceiling of the presbytery.

Saint Mary's Abbey

These carvings are exhibited at Yorkshire Museum and comes from Saint Mary's Abbey, destroyed in the dissolition of the monasteries in the 16th century. The museum offers no information or suggestions as to their architectural purposes or what they portray and the meaning thereof.

This fellow seems to emerge from his column. Judging from his slightly disfigured face and his disproportionately large head he may be a fool or a midget serving a comical purpose. A tragic idea but mentally challenged or physically different people often served such purposes in Medieval iconography. 

This figure appears to be a manticore, a legendary beast from Persian mythology with the body of a tiger, head of a man, three rows of teeth and the tail of a scorpion.

Tympanum carving depicting a soul being tortured in Hell. Considering something is being stuffed into his mouth he may be punished for gluttony.

4 kommentarer:

  1. You don't know how much of the Minster stonework is Medieval, do you? I gather from the Wikipedia that it, like its Nidrosian counterpart, has suffered many damages throughout the years, but I was unable to find any information on the exterior decoration.

    Oh, and speaking of sculpture, just to remind you there's actually some cool stuff going on in Trondheim as well: a Medieval Seminar tomorrow, on some of the oldest Nidarosdomen statuary. Don't tell me you're not a little bit envious?

  2. According to my leaflet the exterior decorations have been subject to "extensive restoration". Exactly what ramifications this have had for the design of the sculptures I cannot say, and it might be erroneous, or at least misleading, to juxtapose these figures with those of Whitby and Saint Mary's Abbey. However, judging from similar decorations on the nearby church of St. Michael le Belfrey which clearly are old and weatherbeaten, they figures of York Minster are Medieval at least in their essence if not in origin.

    As for the seminar, I must confess I am a bit envious, but all the more happy on behalf of you fortunate few who have the ability to attend. I expect to hear from you on the subject.

  3. Yeah, I never got the impression restoration workers were sloppy (with the odd exception, cf. the woman on the ladder and Bob Dylan on our local cathedral), so I figured they'd use authentic period carvings as inspiration. The facade of the York Minster looked rather pristine, though, as far as I recall (which is to say, not far at all), so I got the impression it was renovated fairly recently.

    Anyway, thanks for checking it out for me. And I've naturally taken notes from the seminar, so just remind me, and I'll give you a quick resume.

  4. I will certainly take you up on the resume, I look forward to that.

    As for the York Minster facade I'm quite certain the carvings and sculptures are renovated quite recently, perhaps some years prior to our arrival given or take. They are currently working on the east front and there recently was an auction selling off the stone removed during the restoration, as can be read about here:

    I was very tempted to buy home some York Minster stone, but given the amount of books I'll have to carry, it's just as well I didn't.