The greatest achievement of French medieval art, even greater than the architecture of the medieval cathedrals, was the sculpture which slowly evolved from Romanesque types. The monks of Cluny gave the first impulse to the development of medieval sculpture and from the mid-twelfth century, French sculpture soon reached such impressive works of art that can only be compared with those of Greek sculpture… The first works of French Gothic sculpture, which could be called archaic within the style, are represented by some statues in the churches of Saint-Denis and Chartres, with figures wearing straight robes similar to those of the primitive sculptures of Greek art (the Kórai). In Chartres, the evolution of Gothic sculpture is evident when studying the figures decorating every door, since they were built at different times. The facades of Amiens, Reims and Paris are decorated with one of the most extraordinary works of medieval sculpture: see for example, the column or mullion that divides the door of the Cathedral of Amiens with a statue of Jesus Christ sculpted around 1230 and called by French le Beau Dieu d’Amiens. This statue is by itself a marvel of French Gothic sculpture: his pointed chin, straight hair and eye expression, are all a great representation of a gentleman from the north of France of Medieval Europe.
The masterpieces of Gothic sculpture decorating French medieval cathedrals are exposed to weather and protected from the rain only by small cornices. Some of these statues are hidden between the buttresses or are placed at a height so great that it is impossible for the crowd walking the streets beneath to watch them and admire. Many have gone unnoticed until today, because since they were put in place no one had stopped to contemplate them; there, almost hidden, they continually receive
the caresses of sun and wind. One of these wonderful sculptures is the Saint Theodore of Chartres representing a young knight with shield and spear and considered one of the most ideal creations of the sculpture of all times. The repertoire of the Gothic sculptors who decorated the French cathedrals included some topics that slowly evolved by following the same model, in the same way the sculptural types in ancient Greek evolved until reaching the perfection of the classical styles. For example, the sculpture of the Christ standing and blessing of the mullion of the main portal at Amiens’ facade followed the type of the figure of Christ of the southern door of Chartres. Another type was that of the Virgin with the Child in her arms, a theme that was also perfected within the artistic law that always dominates in all artistic styles through the history of art, that is, emphasizing naturalism with the passing of time. This progression towards naturalism in French gothic sculpture is exemplified from the still and rigid figure of the Madonna of the north gate of Chartres (from the twelfth century), to the figure of the Madonna from the southern facade of the same cathedral (from the thirteenth century), to end with the statue of the Golden Virgin of the cathedral of Amiens (fourteenth century) which was represented almost as a soubrette, or maiden, moving coquettishly and with a mischievous smile.
Jesus and the Virgin, the two fundamental types of medieval iconography, decisively changed during the Gothic period. The Lord is no longer the Almighty figure from the Romanesque period, always surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists, but was then the Son of Man during His preaching years holding a closed Bible as if it was a theological text.
The Virgin, always portrayed young, was usually standing or sitting but was always represented with the Child resting on Her left arm or left knee. At first, the Divine Mother was represented with a long robe, a reminiscent of the type of the Virgin of the Romanesque period, and was portrayed uncrowned, like the Byzantine Virgin was; but in the mid-thirteenth century, sculptors covered Her head with a headdress and a royal crown. Mary’s story was artistically described with ineffable tenderness, from the Annunciation, the Visitation and the birth of Jesus, to the Calvary and Her triumphant ascend to heaven where Her Son is waiting to crown her and sit Her at His right.
The repertoire of French Gothic sculptors, like that of the ancient Greek sculptors, admitted only some slight variations in the way the figures were represented for each of the Gospel scenes. Certain themes were preferred over others, for example, the Annunciation was preferred over the Visitation and the Adoration of the Magi was more frequently represented than the Adoration of the Shepherds. The theme of the Visitation potentially became a scene of French hospitality, and the Three Kings were compared with an emblem of the Christian monarchy. Those mysterious Kings were not identical: the first of them, always portrayed old and bald, deposes his crown while kneeling at the foot of the group of the Virgin and Child; the second king, mature, slender, tall and with large mantle, holds up the coffer with offerings, while the miraculous star points at the third King, the youngest of them all, beardless, looking with curiosity and wondering to the completion of the Holy Prodigy.
The same themes were interpreted in the same way in both, the monumental sculpture as well as the small ivories, miniatures and stained glass. For example, the scene of the Coronation of the Virgin with two kneeling angels as witnesses is found in the tympani of the doors of the cathedrals of Paris, Chartres, Senlins, Sens and Amiens, as well as in the wonderful ivory case belonged to Saint Louis or his mother Blanca de Castilla today in the Louvre. When there was no room to place the angels (like in some panels of small ivory triptychs), the composition was reduced to the representation of the two main protagonists, Jesus and the Virgin.
French sculptors of the Gothic period were subject to follow certain fixed types a situation that, as we have seen before, has always had incalculable consequences for the artistic development in all periods of time because it allows the collaboration of several generations. A work like the Golden Virgin of Amiens, or the Coronation ivory of the Louvre were not produced by the mere inspiration of one sole genius. Both painters and sculptors followed the same repertoire and perfected it throughout the years.
These Gothic artists such those of classical Greece, respected these types but without being subject to a strict canonical accuracy. In addition, they tenaciously studied not only nature, but everything that involved shape and color. The album of Villard de Honnecourt represents the most obvious proof of their insatiable desire to study and learn the natural world and the creations of man. This profound yearning for the study of nature and its forms is exemplified in the four famous statues of the portico of the cathedral of Reims, that include the Annunciation and the Visitation. The group of the Virgin and the Angel was carved with a simplicity of Gothic lines that strongly contrast with the figures of Mary and Elizabeth. The latter two seem inspired by antique marbles: the execution of the robe’s folds would seem inspired from a Hellenistic funerary statue.
The creative force of Gothic artists is seen in full force especially when representing the legends of local patron saints. The evangelical repertoire of the life of Jesus and Mary, extended by the Apocrypha, had a history in the Romanesque and Byzantine art: the types of Christ and the Virgin were already created and Gothic artists did nothing more than transform them. But the Gothic period was an era of familiarity with saints and patrons of everyday life and activities, and in order to represent their legends it was necessary to create a special iconography peculiar to the Christian West. The traditions described in the Calendar of Saints’ Days were summarized by a bishop of Liguria, Jacopo de Voragine, in his book entitled The Golden Legend, which became the most popular book of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Painters and sculptors created their reliefs and altarpieces based on the stories of Voragine’s book. Every Saint was also portrayed accompanied by an attribute that distinguished him from his peers. In the Byzantine repertoire we have seen that all the holy knights were portrayed similar and were only recognizable by the inscription besides them, like the Apostles and the Doctors of the Church. On the contrary, the Latin West was more concrete and expressive: Saint George, for example, was portrayed accompanied by the dragon; Saint Anthony was accompanied by a pig; Saint Jerome was in turn by a Lion. The Apostles also each had their own attributes: Peter, the keys; Andrew, the cross; Paul, the sword; Stephen the deacon carries the sacred texts… When there were no fixed symbols, at the foot of the saint was placed a relief representing a scene from his particular legend.
Very rarely the sculptures of the cathedrals included scenes of profane history, of Charlemagne’s legends or of the Crusades. The World history of the time was solely centered on Jesus. He and his doctrine filled it all and condensed it all. Nevertheless, there are some sculptures of members of the royal family intended to be portraits, though they were rare. These sculptures are funerary statues of princes and ecclesiastical dignitaries. The most notable group of these sculptures is located at Saint-Denis, in those times the pantheon of the kings of France. The oldest of these monuments is the tomb of Philip the Bold, done between 1298 and 1307 by Pierre de Chelles.
The French Gothic sculpture not intended for decorative purposes has to be admired on the ivories. Artists repeated in these ivories the favorite devotional themes of those times; there are ivory plates with evangelical scenes and the glorification of Holy people, and even exist many statuettes of whole body that repeated on a smaller scale the large images decorating the cathedrals. These ivories also provide us with representations of profane scenes that reveal the sentiment and customs of common people. Gothic ivories often came in the sides of small boxes used to store jewelry or incense; others were plates that held the leaf of burnished silver serving as a mirror for women. These objects were decorated with representations of daily life, the pleasures of hunting, social games, tournaments, courtship and even seduction. Sometimes, these same themes were copied in illustrations of Medieval books telling gallant and chivalry stories.