A Centennial Exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art February 12-May 10, 1970
AGAINST a blank museum wall, two broken torsos of stone have been thoughtfully placed in an exhibition of medieval sculpture. These fragments survive a sculpture of Christ's descent from the cross. His naked torso, with delicately lined ribs, looks across a gaping space of wall to another torso, clothed, with a hand on its shoulder. You attempt, a little prosaically, to visualize the arm connecting the two figures. But the eye cannot imagine an original sculpture more beautiful than the fragments. They speak cloquently in their incompleteness.
The crumbling surfaces of medieval figures, many without heads or hands, emanate a sense of the centuries they have endured. Revolutionaries knocked them from cathedral walls: some have lain buried: wind has eaten away at others; now the exhaust from tourist buses threatens them with ruin. In their present state, where moments of perfect carving flow between interruptions of broken stone, these pieces symbolize our fragmentary knowledge of art of the Middle Ages.
Even today the discovery of a new work can refocus the picture of medieval art constructed by scholars. Often the layman innocently accepts as truth myths that the historian has conjured from a scattered pile of facts. Fragments appear in odd places, and he can only tentatively identify them by grasping at close comparisons. But questions fly up when the dusky medieval art books are opened.
Recently science has offered aid to the historian with devices that analyze stone, specify the quarry it came from and describe how long it has been smothered with dirt. Works of art wait in line for a meeting with these machines which attempt to abolish some of the misconceptions about the Middle Ages.
Working for this active reevaluation of medieval art, the Metropolitan Museum is currently presenting an exhibition, The Year 1200, which offers a new theory of stylistic eras to the public as well as the scholarly world. With European works from 1180 to 1210 rarely seen on this continent, the museum recognizes its unique ability with financial means, space, and organization to initiate a new point of view with an exhibition.
The directors of the exhibition assert that the time bridging the traditional periods of Romanesque and Gothic has its own style, distinct from the other two. With an aesthetic between the geometric conception of Romanesque and the lush stylization of Gothic, the artists of the era 1200 depict graceful, expressive bodies that never overstep the refinement of their form.
The relationship among the different styles is not easily comprehensible to the viewer: Also the continuity of the style of 1200 is not clearly maintained through the different media of stone, stained glass, metalwork and manuscripts. The exhibition refuses to oversimplify its new conception of the 1200 style by limiting the examples. Three hundred objects-carved, inlaid and painted-seem almost strangers to each other, particularly on first approach.
THE PRECISE selection of The Year 1200 for the title startles our hazy impression of the Middle Ages, by pinpointing a specific year in an age we usually think of as stretching indefinitely. Even as the arbitrary beginning of a century, 1200 connotes activity. People traveled on crusades and pilgrimages. It was the time of the first universities, of new poetry, drama and the rediscovery of Aristotle. In this age artists made their work for the church.
Nicholas of Verdun, one of the few to sign his pieces, molded a large ornate gilt box with a sloping roof, as a shrine to the Virgin. Decorated columns divide the space where figures in relief act out scenes from the Virgin's life. Dressed in heavy gold drapery, resting on a jeweled background, the figures seem half involved with the action and half aware of the spectator. None of the other works in the show possess this shocking brilliance, yet most deal with thinking human beings acting in religious scenes. The artists begin to explore the feelings of the actors even though they never slip from their stylized forms.
Pieces of enamel fill the cases with boxes and plaques decorated with scenes or figures of Christ laced with floral designs. Abundant examples of metalwork-chalices, statues and relic boxes-also emphasize the craftsmanship of the time. A tall hollow arm, with us fingers extended (used once to hold relics), shows a peculiar aspect of their taste more foreign to the modern eye than the abstract designs.
Colors in the metalwork, enamel and stained glass imbue the rooms with rich tone: the people were not just surrounded with the gray gloom of the stone cathedrals. Large illuminated books also brighten the exhibition. But the works that insist on stopping you, that freeze their image on your mind, are the quiet sculptures of stone and wood. One large majestic figure of Christ on the cross stares straight ahead, alive but unaware of the nails in his hands: his strong body, as stiff as the shape of the cross, seems beyond the ability to feel physical pain. In all the works you sense that the fear of religion is lifting from the minds of the people.
The dim atmosphere attempts to simulate the cathedral, but the actual installation stages the art in a contemporary set. In darkened rooms, spotlights define the sculptures. Glass cases, descending from the ceiling like columns, contain the small works. Unlike paintings, aptly suited for museums, everything in this exhibition stands out of its context.
The installation does not radically alter any of the works except the stained glass, set in white panels and lighted from behind. Though you can see the painted lines and even bubbles in the glass, the availability of detail does not counteract the effect of the inappropriate background. The modern white setting drains luminosity from the lyrical scenes.
YOU DO NOT step into a "medieval world" in the exhibition at the Metropolitan. The emptiness of visual and historical context pushes you away from the works of art. The museum uses contemporary technology to try to fill the gaps of the medieval environment by running a movie, which explores the buttresses and pinnacles of Chartres Cathedral. Close color shots of the faces of saints carved high on the walls give an unprecedented view, totally different from old gray photographs. The camera lets you see the sculpture as close as the sculptor did; yet not as a viewer walking through the church centuries ago. Even the film, which tries to supply a sense of the past, reinforces our hopelessly stranded position to the technological 20th century.