Working with Limestone: The Science, Technology and Art of Medieval Limestone Monuments

By Fawcett, Richard | The Sculpture Journal, June 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Working with Limestone: The Science, Technology and Art of Medieval Limestone Monuments


Fawcett, Richard, The Sculpture Journal


Vibeke Olson (ed.), Working with Limestone: The Science, Technology and Art of Medieval Limestone Monuments (AVISTA Studies in the History of Medieval Technology, Science and Art, vol. 7), Ashgate, Farnham and Burlington, 2011, 288 pp., 1 colour 115 b/w illustrations, £65, ISBN 9780754662464 (hbk).

This volume consists of a collection of papers on the use of limestone in medieval architecture that were presented at sessions sponsored by AVISTA (Association Villard de Honnecourt for Interdisciplinary Study of Medieval Technology, Science and Art) at the Kalamazoo International Congress on Medieval Studies and at the Leeds International Medieval Conference. As such, they significantly extend the picture of the state of understanding that had previously been offered in Gesta 33/1 for 1994. Several of the papers are either by - or build upon the work of - Annie Blanc of the Centre des Recherches des Monuments Historiques in Paris, and Lore Holmes and Garman Harbottle of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the United States. As a consequence, the complementarity of Blanc's work on thin section analysis and of Holmes' and Harbottle's work on neutron activation analysis is made fascinatingly clear. The chapters are grouped in two sections, the first on the science and technology and the second on the technology and art, although, as those headings suggest, there is a considerable degree of overlap.

The first chapter, by Holmes, Harbottle and Blanc, is the most technically challenging in the volume for those who are neither scientists nor statisticians, but provides an invaluable starting point. It offers an account of what is involved in the neutron activation analysis of limestone, followed by discussion of the range of ways in which the data that are subsequently incorporated into the limestone database can be interrogated. This is followed by a chapter by Georgia Sommers Wright, co-director of the Limestone Sculpture Provenance Project, to which Holmes and Harbottle have also contributed. In this case the authors attempt to establish a provenance for a number of displaced carved heads that have found their way into American collections. The application of the methodology is fascinating, but it will be a solace to art historians to read that 'Compositional analysis will not answer all questions of provenance. . . . It must always be guided by stylistic analysis.' A similar conclusion is drawn at the end of a paper on the Lincoln West Front frieze by Tomas E. Russo, written together with Holmes and Harbottle. Following a discussion of evidence that might point to parts of the frieze being attributable to Remigius's work of around 1090, rather than to Alexander's of the 1140s as is more generally supposed, it is concluded that neutron activation analysis 'does not present a compelling case against the art historical dating of the frieze to the 1140s'.

Two chapters by Blanc, Jean-Pierre Gély and Michaël Wyss discuss the sources of the stones used in churches to the south and east of Paris and at the abbey of Saint-Denis, bringing in questions of the economics of production and transport, as well as the suitability of the stones for particular functions. …

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