In 1912 Edward Prior and Arthur Gardner published An Account of Medieval Figure Sculpture in England: a 734-page leviathan of a book, illustrated with over 800 photographs that marked a new level of scholarship and analysis in a previously unfashionable area of study, and still certainly the most important and influential work in its field.
The authors were, in a sense, starting from scratch. While English medieval architecture had been classified in a series of histories from Rickman (1817) and Parker (1849) onwards, the sculpture of the period had not been subjected to anything like the same kind of scrutiny. In Book 2 of Medieval Figure Sculpture .., by far the longest section, the authors attempted a chronological survey of medieval sculpture in twelve chapters, outlining a great overarching plan that they had identified, evolving from the savagery of the early Saxon work through a process of refinement to a Golden Age in the years between 1250 and 1300, culminating in a period of visual depravity in the later 14th century.
In their scheme, then, Romanesque sculpture was a short step on an inevitable journey. The difficulty with subjecting eleventh- and twelfth-century sculpture to a chronological taxonomy is that most of it has no date attached, so the chronology is style dated; a term of great and double-edged beauty reflecting as it does both the style prevailing when the object was produced and the fashion in dating when the date was given to it. Because Prior and Gardner’s chronological model was an evolutionary one there was a tendency to identify extreme stylisation (or crudity or savagery) with a date early in a sequence that would subsequently move towards naturalism, sophistication and ultimately redundancy. Hence many carvings now generally accepted as twelfth-century work, such as the tympana at Southwell Minster (Notts), St Nicholas Ipswich (Suffolk) and Leckhampstead (Bucks) were dated by our authors to the years around 1000 AD. For their canon of dated works, see here.
Focussing on Romanesque sculpture, Prior and Gardner divided the period between 1066 and 1200 into two, with a break around 1140. Before that date sculptors were grappling with the possibilities of the medium, and attempting to use visual languages familiar from other media, three in particular: the Danish, Painting and Metalwork Styles. In this model, the Danish Style began as simple biplanar carving – drawing with the background hollowed out and surface effects chiselled into the outstanding main motifs.
Because of its Viking origins subject matter concentrated on dragons and scenes of combat, and it is commonly found on fonts and tympana.
Alternatively the carvers could copy motifs they had seen in paint, as at Ely in the earliest work dated c.1090-1100; or they could imitate the filigree-like work they had seen in metalwork, as at St Peter’s Northampton.
After the middle of the century Romanesque sculpture lost its identity as it found ways of becoming inferior and under-evolved Gothic. Symbolism gave way to natural expression; figures became bigger, and heads and draperies less formulaic and less schematic. Of course there are ways in which all of these changes are unwelcome, frivolous, and irreverent, but not if you are aiming for the Judgement Portal at Lincoln or the transept angels at Westminster. The authors also identified a change in the sources of inspiration; sculptors were no longer taking their ideas and techniques from wall painters, metalworkers and Vikings, but rather from Aquitaine and Spain.
It would be easy to identify all sorts of problems with this approach (as I shall doubtless be doing on future posts), but this kind of criticism of the contribution of Prior and Gardner to the study of Romanesque sculpture, which by any standards was spectacularly impressive, is neither appropriate nor relevant. Their work offered a framework for the development of Romanesque figure sculpture, which had previously been considered only in terms of its subject matter, or in local studies and monographs, or studies of specific types of object like fonts and tombs.
The picture they presented combined an element of tradition from pre-Conquest Viking art with much that was new; the earliest Romanesque sculptors appropriating figure styles from other media, notably wall- and manuscript painting and metalwork. After the middle of the twelfth century English sculpture really did receive inspiration from stone sculpture in continental Europe, especially western France and Spain, leading to the replacement of the old Viking symbolism of dragons and warfare with complex and sophisticated Christian schemes, the replacement of formulaic representational schemes from other media with naturalistic carving in the round, and an increase in the scale of figures.
So much is explicit in their work, but it also provides, as it were incidentally, a canon of just fifty dated works that have set the agenda for the study of Romanesque sculpture ever since. The same examples appear over and over again in the literature: Moreton Valence, Harpole, Kilpeck, St Peter’s Northampton, the Canterbury crypt capitals. These are the landmarks by which other works are located, and their significance to the discourse can be judged by the fact that much of the subsequent writing in the field has been concerned with them, and especially with their dating. Since 1912 the canon has increased in number, almost doubled in fact, and I propose to use a future post to examine this expansion, but for now a study of what Prior and Gardner thought was important and typical has produced a view of this period in our artistic history as one dominated by grotesque heads, dragons, composite monsters and souls trapped in enchanted forests.