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Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture

Museum Director Philippe de Montebello provides the historical context behind these medieval sculpted heads, recalling their importance as icons and symbols of power.


Charles Little: The sculpted heads in the exhibition Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art have lost their original contexts. Many of them were violently broken from their bodies or from the monuments they once adorned. One particularly vivid moment in history, in which monuments were destroyed and sculptures were defaced, was the French Revolution. When King Louis XVI was guillotined in 1793, the Commune of Paris decreed that all statues of kings on Notre-Dame Cathedral be destroyed. Here is an excerpt of the edict to remove the statues, read by Metropolitan Museum Director Philippe de Montebello.

Philippe de Montebello: "The General Council, informed that in contempt of the law, there still exists in several streets of Paris monuments of fanaticism and royalty; and that it is its duty to get rid of all monuments which recall the execrable memory of the kings; the General Council decrees that within eight days, the Gothic simulacra of the kings of France who are placed on the portal of the church of Our Lady will be toppled and destroyed, and that the administration of public works is given the responsibility of accounting for the provisions of the present decree."

Charles Little: Seen as symbols of the French monarchy, the sculptures were removed from their lofty positions and the heads were violently severed. For some, this parallel act of vengeance was not enough. The great Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David, who was a member of the art commission of the National Convention, proposed that the heads of the gallery of kings be used as the base for a monument to the French people, to replace the statue of Henri IV on the nearby Pont-Neuf. He addressed the Convention Nationale in November 1793.

Philippe de Montebello: "The kings, unable to usurp the place of the Divinity in the temples, had seized their portals; they had placed their effigies there, undoubtedly so that the people's adorations stopped with them before arriving into the sanctuary. Thus accustomed to invading everything, they dared to dispute with God even the incense which men offered Him. You citizens overthrew the usurping insolents; they lie on the ground that they soiled with their crimes, objects of the derision of the people.

"Citizens, let us perpetuate this triumph. Let us build a monument within the enclosure of the Commune of Paris, not far from this church of which they had made their pantheon, that transmits to our descendants the first trophy of its victory over the tyrants. Let the truncated remains of their statues form a durable monument of the glory of the people and the kings' debasement; that the traveler who will roam this new land, reporting back to his homeland lessons useful to people, says: 'I had seen kings in Paris; I passed by there again, they were there no more.' Thus, in Paris, the effigies of the kings and the remains of their foul attributes will be piled up in a jumble and will serve as a pedestal to the emblem of the French people."

Charles Little: That monument was never erected. Instead, the dislocated pieces of the statues were left as a pile of debris behind the church of Notre-Dame and used as a public latrine, according to one contemporary account.

Philippe de Montebello: "Do you remember, readers, those kings from the portals of Notre-Dame, those shapeless masses, as thick as elephants, that formed a long cordon in the niches of the frontispiece of the most important church in Paris? The whole of the foremost race was there, thoroughly blackened by time; but finally one made out the monarchs in contemporary stones, and which in a day were toppled over. Do you know what became of them? Piled on top of each other behind the church, they remain buried beneath the dirtiest filth. Their monstrous shapes attract attention; and when one sees them holding their great scepters, their various amusing deformations attract pitying smiles; but before long the onlooker reflects on the extraordinary turn of our times and the strange blows struck by destiny.

"Chance, no doubt, rather than malign intent, has ruled over their grotesque and humiliating degradation. But it is pointless for both sight and smell to be offended by the sight of them; already their history stinks.

"A grenadier, pipe in mouth, climbs over Charlemagne's well-rounded belly, and without fear of reproach knocks against his big nose—an emperor's nose. Calmly he surveys the other colossal figures whose heads still wear a crown. His comrade does the same and scorns knowing the name of the man whose effigy he treads on and soils with his tread. King Pepin is there, sword in hand, a lion beneath his feet in memory of the one he killed in a combat in the courtyard of Ferrières Abbey. His lion and sword are motionless in the presence of so many injuries done him.

"Thus it is today in Paris the new St.-Denis, or rather the museum of these ancient and royal statues. The curious visitor who crosses it pinches his nostrils and fears that these effigies that stink worse than corpses may provoke the plague."

Charles Little: Several of the regal thirteenth-century limestone heads originally from Notre-Dame are on view in the Metropolitan Museum exhibition Set in Stone through February 19, 2007. The more than eighty sculpted heads in the exhibition—all from the sweeping period of the Middle Ages between the waning days of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance—are fascinating for their origins and history, as well as for their artistic expression of human identity. The French Revolution was not the only moment to witness a "guillotine of history" against works of art. Many were damaged or destroyed by Protestant reformers in the sixteenth century. Others have been casualties of war, natural deterioration, or rebuilding and restoration. The fate of such works of art is a testament to the power of images over people, in our time as in the past.

The exhibition is made possible by The Florence Gould Foundation.

Additional support is provided by the Michel David-Weill Fund.

This has been an Antenna Audio production.

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