Medieval Monday – Written in Stone

In the Middle Ages, art was highly accessible to the masses.  Stained glass windows filled cathedrals with light and stories.  Any peasant attending mass on a Sunday could sit and stare at these light-filled wonders.  But they weren’t the only objects of beauty in the cathedrals.  Just as prevalent and telling were all of the different stone carvings.

9th Century sculpture of the passion story

Much of the time we think of stonework as statues.  The ancient world produced some of the most stunning and beautiful statues that have ever been carved.  Works like the Elgin marbles and masterpieces of Greek and Roman expression are as highly regarded today as they were in their own time.  They were also prized by people in the medieval world, although the vast majority of them had never seen a single one of them.

As I’ve mentioned before, when the Roman Empire collapsed it did not vanish from the memories of the people of Europe.  It merely went underground.  Stone carving was as much a part of the rural, tribal cultures of Europe as it was of Rome.  Everyone from the Celts and Norsemen to the Germanic tribes had some sort of stone carving.  Rome as a concept also continued to exist in the mind of the Church, which attempted to uphold some of its traditions.

As with many other parts of civilization, when the rural arts of tribal people met the Church again at the dawning of the High Middle Ages, stone carving experienced a whole new flowering.  At the same time, it was distinctly medieval.  The classical emphasis on perfection and realism of form was secondary to the depiction of story and symbolism.

Some of the most striking medieval sculptures are the amazing Last Judgment scenes that were carved into the walls of churches and cathedrals.  A lot of the time these scenes were carved right in the doorway where everyone entering or leaving the church could see them.  And there was lots to see!

Last Judgment scenes generally consisted of the figure of God in the center with a depiction of the good being sent to heaven on His right and the evil being cast into hell on His left.  This popular medieval motif was particularly exciting when carved in stone.  It’s nice to see the good being welcomed into Paradise, but it’s much more fun to take a look at all of the gruesome punishments in store for the evil.  Wild creatures being fed sinners by vicious devils always made an impact on the humble church-goer.

Carvings of the fate of the good and the evil, of stories from the Bible and the virtues it teaches were all over churches.  I’m a particular fan of the thousands of fascinating capitals that can be found at the top of the pillars that held up cathedral, cloister, and castle walls.  Capitals have a certain sense of movement to them as you walk around to view the whole thing.  Stories placed in capitals have a progression of scenes as you circle them.  And sometimes they are just fun.

Following along these same lines, everyone loves a good gargoyle.  Gargoyles were carved on the outside of buildings.  They were clever disguises for structural necessities, like drains and waterspouts.  The point of any medieval building was to impress, after all.  Gargoyles have perhaps the most personality of any kind of medieval stone carving, from the grotesque to the humorous to the downright terrifying.  For that reason they have taken on a mythology all of their own.

When I was in Oxford in 2010 I was so impressed by the sheer number and variety of gargoyles on all of the medieval buildings.  Also because so many of them were farcical or unflattering depictions of monks or priests or maybe old professors at the school.  I remember thinking then that if the insides of sacred and important buildings had to be so reverent, it was no wonder the outsides let loose.

And of course there were straight-up statues.  Many of these were depictions of saints, particularly Mary, often portrayed with a baby or child Jesus.  Often times these statues would be painted with bright colors and gilded with gold to make them appear even more lifelike and precious.  They would have presented an intimidating and awesome sight to a humble medieval person.

The tomb of Thomas Becket. He looks seriously real!

Last but not least, a significant amount of medieval stone carving can be found on the representational tombs of kings and queens and nobles.  I have always been impressed by how lifelike some of these tombs are considering that the come from a time that isn’t known for realism.  It’s almost as if you have a snapshot of the deceased to visit, even hundreds of years later.  I can totally understand why so many pilgrims would feel the need to travel to the tomb of Thomas Becket, for example.  It would almost be like visiting the man himself.Considering how filled with art the lives of medieval people were, it boggled my mind every time someone accuses them of being uncultured.  If you think about the access to fine art that many, even most, people in the modern world have, it’s a wonder that we aren’t considered backward and uncouth.