Medieval Sculptors at Glencairn Museum

Glencairn Museum News | Number 5, 2016

A view of Glencairn's Medieval Gallery.

Figure 1: This sculpture from the Romanesque cloister of Girona Cathedral in Catalonia, Spain, shows two masons dressing ashlars with pick axes, with the squares they used to create right angles at their sides. Photo: Julia Perratore.

For most of the medieval sculptures in Glencairn’s collection, their creators’ specific identities have been lost forever. In part, this is because medieval artists frequently did not sign their works. Yet even when they did, on occasion, attach their names to their finished products, they often left behind little more information than that (Figure 1). To a certain extent, this legacy of anonymity reflects medieval perspectives on artists and the visual arts.

Artistic creation was celebrated during the Middle Ages, and artists and architects were well respected. The work itself, however, was not considered to be intellectual, and so was not valued as highly as other pursuits. Perhaps as a result, medieval authors did not immortalize artists’ lives and deeds in the way that modern writers do. Moreover, medieval sculptors left behind no instruction manuals describing their working practices, since they learned their craft on the job and learned it by heart. Yet while we may not know personalities or life stories, we do know something of sculptors’ working practices and even of their life experiences. In fact, the sculptures in Glencairn’s collection reveal a wealth of information about their creators and their methods of work. Examining the traces they left behind, it may seem they are in the room with us, their hands still moving deftly over the surface of the stone.

Most of the medieval sculptures in Glencairn’s collection were architectural, in that they were integrated into the fabric of a stone structure to decorate doorways, windows, and interior spaces. Such buildings were designed, built, and decorated by a team of creative minds. A project generally began as the vision of a patron, who stipulated the concept and provided funds. The plan, design, and decoration might be elaborated further by advisors, including educated clerics who chose the subjects to be included in architectural decoration. Given instructions, sculptors interpreted these subjects in their own style, perhaps adapting models already known to them.

Sculptors worked together with stonemasons, who were in charge of cutting and arranging ashlars, the finely dressed blocks of a building. In many cases, masons were also sculptors. Where more complex carvings were called for, however, sculptors with specialized skills were hired.

The production of medieval sculpture began at the quarry, where stone was excised from living rock in transportable blocks. Most medieval churches were built of local stone if available, as it was less labor-intensive and less expensive to carry over short distances. In France, limestone was often the local stone of choice, as attested in a number of examples at Glencairn, for example the Dives and Lazarus capital from Moutiers-Saint-Jean (Figure 2). In the Pyrenees of southern France, however, a mottled pink-and-white marble abounds. At Glencairn, in a capital from this region depicting winged lions (Figure 3), the stone’s soft swirling patterns enliven the figures. On the other hand, imported stone, while more expensive, offered a certain prestige. For instance, a dark stone associated with Tournai in Flanders, seen at Glencairn in a fragment of a baptismal font (Figure 4), was valued in England as well as locally for its deep color, fine grain, and ability to come to a high polish. Blemish-free, fine-grained stone was preferred for sculpture, as details could be carved more legibly and resist erosion.


Figure 3: A capital carved from marble depicting confronted, winged lions from the 12th-century Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa in France. Glencairn Museum 09.SP.168.


Figure 4: This fragment of a baptismal font, carved from a dark stone associated with the city of Tournai in Flanders, dates to the 12th century. Glencairn Museum 09.SP.1.


Ashlars could have been dressed at the quarry before being shipped, and it is also possible that architectural decorations occasionally were carved at the quarry. Often, however, it seems the stone designated for sculpture was brought to the worksite before it was cut. Sculptures could be created inside the masons’ lodge, the shelter in which the building’s design, planning, and preparation were carried out, before being set into the building itself. In some select instances, it seems that architectural sculptures were executed only after a stone was inserted in its place within the fabric of the building—though this would not have been as easy as working comfortably on the ground.

Sculptors may have formulated the images they were commissioned to create using models circulated in manuscripts, known as pattern or model books. This would account for the fact that sometimes very specific and very similar compositions are found in places hundreds of miles apart. At the same time, however, it is clear that most sculptors traveled for their living, finding work by moving from site to site. Their itinerance suggests they had ample opportunity to observe what their contemporaries were doing and share ideas with artists they met along the way. Glencairn’s capitals from Toulouse, depicting lions caught in thick vines (Figure 5), are examples of a popular decorative motif found in many buildings across France and Spain. They attest to sculptors’ interest in observing and emulating work that they encountered in their travels.


Figure 5: This 12th-century capital from Toulouse, France, carved from marble, depicts lions caught in thick vines. Glencairn Museum 09.SP.6.


By the later Middle Ages, some sculptors may have begun their work by creating two-dimensional preparatory drawings, though the prevalence of this practice is debated. The actual carving of a sculpture began with the rough shaping of forms, first with an axe, then with chisels, gouges or picks struck by a mallet. The basic contours would then be refined through the use of tools that gave the sculptors more flexibility, such as the claw-tooth chisel (Figure 6), which removes material quickly but with more control, leaving a grooved surface.


Figure 6: A modern carved capital in the masons’ lodge at York Minster roughly finished with a claw chisel, photographed in the summer of 2014 by Julia Perratore.


Most architectural sculpture is relief sculpture, in which carved forms appear to emerge from a background. Different effects were achieved in varying the depth of excavation into the surface of a block. Glencairn’s capital depicting the martyrdom of St. Andrew (Figure 7) reveals a work process in which the stone carver stayed close to the surface of the block, suggesting depth through progressively receding planes created by a series of shallow cuts across the surface of the block. Greater volume could, however, be achieved if the artist so desired. Drills undercut forms to stand free of a background, creating delicate designs such as the curling vines of Glencairn’s capital from Saint-Guilhem (Figure 8).


Figure 7: This limestone capital depicts the martyrdom of Andrew the Apostle, also known as Saint Andrew. Glencairn Museum 09.SP.3.


Figure 8: This limestone capital from Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert depicts a wide variety of figures, plant forms and ribbon patterns orchestrated in playful compositions. Glencairn Museum 09.SP.106.


To finish the work, intricate details would be picked out with flat chisels and drills, while rasps and pumice would smooth surfaces. An entirely smooth surface was not always desirable, however, as most medieval sculptures were not finished until they were brightly painted, and the white preparatory base coat that preceded the colors adhered better to a slightly rough surface.

Medieval architectural sculptures thus emerge from the subtractive removal of stone from large blocks. In fact the initial shape of the quarried block sometimes determined the appearance of the finished product. For example, many French limestones had to be extracted from the quarry in blocks that were long, perhaps six or seven feet, but not thick—around one foot. This restricted the degree of depth with which figures such as the beloved “Slim Princess” in Glencairn’s great hall (Figure 9) could be carved, perhaps inspiring the columnar appearance of the figure’s pose and dress.


Figure 9: Affectionately called the “Slim Princess” by the Pitcairn family, this 12th-century limestone statue column of a haloed queen is installed in the great hall of Glencairn, enclosed by a stone portal with crosses.


The process of sculpting was a team effort. Sculptors formed workshops in which artisans of varying levels of skill and ability were overseen by masters who imposed styles and techniques upon all work. Master sculptors would have been instrumental in finishing the sculptures, as their greater experience brought finesse to the carved surface. Presumably, however, masters would also oversee the beginning of the process in order to ensure the carved forms were properly shaped from the block. The least experienced members of the workshops were the apprentices, who learned alongside the more seasoned carvers and gradually assumed greater responsibilities as they learned. It is possible that more experienced workshop members took on specific kinds of carving—for example, some might have been charged with carving figures, others with flowers and vines—though this need not have been the case in all workshops. It is unclear whether sculptors also painted their carvings, or whether this task was separately assigned. Degrees of specialization may have depended on the size of the workshop.

We may observe the dynamic of the workshop in a tiny fragment of sculpture in Glencairn’s Medieval Treasury gallery—one of the few medieval works in the museum with an artist’s name attached to it. The limestone Head of a King comes from the Cathedral of Saint-Lazaire in Autun, France, perhaps from the west portal or from inside the church (Figure 10). At Autun, a twelfth-century carving of the Last Judgment surmounting the west portal is inscribed in Latin, Gislebertus hoc fecit, or “Gislebertus made this.” It is generally believed that Gislebertus was the master sculptor charged with the decoration of the entire church. But did Gislebertus himself carve this little face? Perhaps—its shape is consistent with the standard of style he set for the church. Yet this head, which may depict one of the three Magi or one of the twenty four Elders of the Apocalypse, would have been a detail within a much larger ensemble worked by many hands. It is thus possible that this was the attentive work of an accomplished assistant. We cannot know. The sculpture does, at least, suggest the greater extent of the workshop and its skill set, which included proficiency in drill work and fine chiseling, as well as attention to detail in sculptures that, placed high inside the church or over the doorway, may have been difficult to see.


Figure 10: This 12th-century limestone head of a king from the Cathedral of Saint-Lazaire in Autun, France, may have been carved by the master sculptor Gislebertus or one of his assistants. Gislebertus is generally believed to have been charged with the decoration of the entire church. Glencairn Museum 09.SP.2.


Glencairn’s medieval sculpture collection provides insight into a craft that was challenging and at times back-breaking, requiring flexibility and ingenuity. Sculptors had to adapt familiar forms to unfamiliar surfaces, confronting the particular challenges posed by different kinds of stones and their properties. They had to work as a team, and they had to travel for their work, shuttling from quarry to building site, and from building site to building site. We may not know their names, but we can see their labor in the drill holes, the chiseled grooves, and the elegant forms they crafted.

Julia Perratore, PhD
Mellon Curatorial Fellow
Metropolitan Museum of Art

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