The exhibition presents more than eighty medieval sculpted heads, half from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and half selected loans from American and European collections. Because historical events isolated these objects from their original settings, they became objects that could be collected, and objects whose lost histories curators and scholars would hope to recover. The works are arranged thematically, beginning with sculptural heads that were intentionally removed from the bodies of sculpture during periods of iconoclasm. During the French Revolution, for example, monumental figures on the facade of Notre-Dame were systematically destroyed or beheaded by government edict. Just as the king was subjected to the guillotine, the sculptures—seen as symbols of authority—were destroyed in parallel acts of vengeance. An outstanding example is the regal thirteenth-century limestone Head of a King of Judah, originally from Notre-Dame in Paris (Musée National du Moyen Âge, Thermes et Hôtel de Cluny).
Another section of the exhibition groups together stone heads representing figures from the Bible. Most of the figures in this section once adorned churches and cathedrals, and their identities—or original locations—have been established on the basis of historical records such as engravings. A particularly moving work is the extremely realistic late-fifteenth-century limestone Head of Christ (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), whose limestone crown of thorns was carved with small holes that once held actual thorns.
Ornamental heads were frequently used along the margins of church architecture and furniture for decorative—and sometimes even humorous—reasons. One example is the delicately carved bearded male head on the fourteenth-century oak misericord—which is the ledge on the underside of a hinged seat that provided support to a standing worshiper—from Wells Cathedral (Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution).
The faces on many medieval heads are often extremely generalized, but some depicted actual people. This exhibition includes portrait heads from the third through the early sixteenth century, demonstrating the changes in stone portraiture that occurred over time. The tender image of the young princess Marie de France carved in marble that dates to 1381, from the permanent collection, is a particular highlight. Her elegantly coiffed head was once adorned with real jewels.
The exhibition is made possible by The Florence Gould Foundation.
Additional support is provided by the Michel David-Weill Fund.