The Face in Medieval Sculpture

See works of art
  • Head of King David
  • Marble Portrait Bust of a Woman with a Scroll
  • Head of a Man Wearing a Cap or Helmet
  • Limestone Head of Joseph
  • Head of an Angel (?)
  • Head of Emperor Constans (r. 337-350)
  • Double Capital with Masks and Birds
  • Reliquary Bust of Saint Yrieix
  • Steelyard Weight with a Bust of a Byzantine Empress and a Hook
  • Head of a Grotesque
  • Capital with Four Heads
  • Tomb Effigy Bust of Marie de France (1327-41), daughter of Charles IV of France and Jeanne dEvreux
  • Head of an Apostle
  • Head of a Cleric from a Tomb Effigy
  • Head of Christ

Works of Art (16)


The head was the chief symbolic part of the body for Western culture in the Middle Ages, from the waning days of the Roman empire to the Renaissance. Since antiquity it signified not only the intellect, the center of power, but was also regarded as the seat of the soul. The face is not only central to identity, but is also the primary vehicle for human expression, emotion, and character. As such, the depiction of the head becomes a true test of the quality of the artist and a telling indicator of style. Sculptured heads in museums have lost their original context, whether by violent breaking from their bodies and from the monuments they once adorned, or simply by being removed and placed in a museum. By focusing on this one genre of object, the Middle Ages can be seen in a new light.

Iconoclasm: The Legacy of Violence
In the same month that King Louis XVI was guillotined (January 1793), the Commune of Paris decreed that all statues of kings on the Cathedral of Notre-Dame were to be destroyed. Seen as symbols of the French monarchy, the sculptures were removed from their lofty position and heads violently severed (Head of King David, 38.180). The destruction of many monuments and the defacing of sculptures during the French Revolution was not fueled by mob unrest but by governmental decree. Iconoclasm was often sanctioned by those in charge. The French Revolution was not the only moment to witness this “guillotine of history” against works of art. Many were damaged or destroyed by Protestant reformers in the sixteenth century (Head of an Apostle, 2004.453). People sometimes saw such sculptures as the physical embodiment of religious or political power and sought to efface that power by defacing it. Iconoclasm—the breaking of images—goes back in history to the time of ancient Egypt and continues up to the present; it is a testament to the power of images over people, in our own time as in the past.

The Stone Bible: Faith Personified
The great Gothic churches and cathedrals of Europe, covered with hundreds of carved figures, present a compendium of biblical characters and stories. In the seventh century, Pope Gregory the Great wrote: “To adore images is one thing; to teach with their help what should be adored is another. What Scripture is to the educated, images are to the ignorant … they read in them what they cannot read in books.” This key declaration authorized images in the service of the Church. Their function was to lead the faithful toward contemplation of God. These stone figures served the uneducated, the majority of the population who knew only the vernacular language and nothing of the official Latin of the Church (Head of Christ, 1983.406; Head of an Angel, 1990.132). As one medieval text of around the year 1000 says, “this visible image represents an invisible truth …” It was such an understanding of the nature and value of representation that led to the profusion of images in the Middle Ages.

Marginalia—Images on the Edge
Like medieval books whose margins may contain whimsical creatures not obviously related to the words they frame, many areas of the church, the monastery, or the court feature carved animals, monsters, and humans—mainly those of the margins of society. They all offer a different language of decoration, with a different cast of characters from those in the Bible and Church history. High up on church walls, sometimes placed as supporting corbels, faces appear with expressive grimaces—possibly understood as punished sinners (Head of a Grotesque, 13.152.2)—unlike the severe and serene faces of the divine. Within the precincts of the cloister, monkeys grin on capitals (Double Capital, 28.81). Under the seats of the clergy, secular and fantastic figures appear. The modern viewer may delight in these images as evidence of the whimsy or freedom of the medieval artist, but they often relate to iconographic rules and traditions of their own. The monkeys, for example, may represent sin or the devil. Some figures drawn from popular culture have ancient pagan roots, while others may represent purposeful warnings meant to contrast with the solemnity of holy men.

Portraiture: Sculpting Identity
Rome gave a legacy of true portraiture to the Middle Ages. Distributed throughout the realm, relatively realistic imperial portraits promulgated the idea of empire (Head of Constans, 67.107). Private individuals also had their features depicted in sculpture. In the Early Byzantine period, this tradition persisted (Portrait Bust of a Woman with a Scroll, 66.25) but began to be eroded by expectations of the afterlife and distrust of the material world.

Few sculpted heads of the Middle Ages were portraits in the modern sense. The reasons for representing the human face were far more various than recording the physical likeness of an individual. During the High Middle Ages, portraiture did not rely on likeness so much as attributes, coats of arms, inscriptions, and other identifying signs. Thus individual selfhood was subsumed in broader forms of corporate identities. At the same time, the notion of a “true” portrait encompassed such miraculous images as the Veil of Saint Veronica, imprinted with the face of Christ.

By the fourteenth century, veristic portraiture reemerged as a supplement to symbolic representations of identity, especially in the main European capitals—Paris, London, Prague—and usually in royal funerary or commemorative images (Bust of Marie de France, 41.100.132). By the late medieval period, we once again find ourselves face to face with individuals with whom we can sympathize and identify (Head of a Cleric, 47.42).

Gothic Italy: Reflections of Antiquity
Several hundred years before the Italian Renaissance, a concerted effort to revive classical forms took place at the southern Italian court of Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen (r. 1215–50). Although it was neither widespread nor sustained beyond this period, in many ways it was similar to the Italian Renaissance. Historically, Italian artists frequently emulated the forms, and sometime the content, of antique art (Steelyard Weight with a Bust of a Byzantine Empress, 1980.416a,b). Frederick and his court not only collected ancient works of art but also commissioned new works inspired by ancient Rome.

A new interest is displayed in the human face rooted in the shifting balance between likeness and idealization, issues that played a significant role in both classical and medieval art (Capital with Four Heads, 55.66). Artists subsequently brought this interest in the antique to Tuscany in the mid-thirteenth century, where the “new” style was used for both civic and ecclesiastical commissions.

Objects of Devotion: Invoking Power
The image of the head or face can have the capacity to instruct, but in certain forms it can possess a special power to protect, to heal, or even do harm. In the ancient Celtic world, the head was not only the seat of the soul, and thus privileged, but was also associated with different roles, from trophy symbols in warfare to votive objects to be offered to a deity. They may represent surrogates for real heads and may have had a magic function (Head of a Man Wearing a Cap or Helmet, 2000.525.1).

The cult of relics is rooted in the first centuries of Christianity and came to be a defining feature of that emerging religion. Fragments of martyrs came to be honored as objects of power and as a way of knowing the divine. By the High Middle Ages, the treasuries of churches and cathedrals were filled with precious reliquaries, objects of devotion so powerful that pilgrims walked hundreds of miles to venerate them. Despite widespread destruction during times of war and reformation, body-part reliquaries are among the most important containers for the remains of holy persons to have survived to the present. Among these were head reliquaries, usually intended to house the skull of the saint represented (Reliquary Bust of Saint Yrieix, 17.190.352). These devotional objects were understood to direct the prayers of the faithful to that saint in heaven for their intercession. These heads and busts therefore carried an intrinsic power. In addition, the finest head reliquaries rank among the most important sculptures and goldsmiths’ work of their time.

Charles T. Little
Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wendy A. Stein
Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2006


Little, Charles T., and Wendy A. Stein. “The Face in Medieval Sculpture.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006)

Further Reading

Little, Charles T., ed. Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture. Exhibition catalogue. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Additional Essays by Charles T. Little

Additional Essays by Wendy A. Stein