A History of English Art in the Middle Ages

By O. Elfrida Saunders | Go to book overview

Chapter XV GOTHIC ART: SCULPTURE AND WOODCARVING

AS the Gothic cathedrals rose in England in the first half of the thirteenth century, there developed at the same time a new type of figure-sculpture suited to their decoration. During the Romanesque period sculptured reliefs had been used to decorate the tympana and jambs of doorways, and also on fonts and capitals. But now for the first time freestanding statues in niches became a regular feature of the external decoration of churches. Although no English cathedrals have, or ever had, such a wealth of statues as Chartres or Reims, it is perhaps not generally realized how many medieval statues still remain, notably at Wells, Exeter, and Lincoln. In the interior of churches tomb-effigies supplied further opportunities for figure-sculpture in the round, and the rapid advance in technique among the Gothic 'imagemakers' is readily explained by the quantity of work they were commissioned to undertake.

It is at Wells that English Gothic sculpture can best be studied in its first phase. Between the years 1220 and 1242 Bishop Joscelin built the west front, and caused it to be covered all over with statues and reliefs. About 180 out of the original total of 340 sculptures still remain, some much broken and crumbled, but many in good condition. Traces of colour have been found on them; those round the central doorway were fully coloured in green, red, blue, and black, and on the other statues the eyes and hair were picked out with black and the lips with red, the rest being washed over with ochre, while some of the niches were coloured red as a background to the figures. In all our imaginative reconstructions of medieval art, we have to remember that colour played an only slightly less important part in sculpture and architecture than it did in stained glass and illumination.

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