Romanesque Architectural Sculpture: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures.

Author:Dale, Thomas
Position:Book review


Romanesque Architectural Sculpture: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures

Ed. and intro. Linda Seidel Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 277 pp.; 70 b/w ills. $40.00

A decade after his death, Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996), the charismatic teacher and scholar of medieval and modern art, associated with Columbia University for almost seventy-five years, remains a source of inspiration and fascination. Schapiro has been canonized among the leading figures of the discipline by an ever-increasing body of critical historiography. New volumes of his selected papers and lectures continue to appear. (1) The publication of the Norton Lectures on Romanesque sculpture some forty years after they were delivered at Harvard University in 1967 is particularly welcome, because they present his only broad synthesis of the field and of his own varied methodologies. Carefully edited by Linda Seidel on the basis of a fresh transcription of the original tapes as well as Schapiro's revisions of earlier transcripts, the text captures the author's voice, his passionate descriptions, his wit and erudition. Seidel's informative introduction to the lectures explains their genesis and place in Schapiro's oeuvre and provides a discussion of his exchange of ideas with the Harvard medievalist Arthur Kingsley Porter.

Schapiro's engagement with Romanesque architectural sculpture began with his master's and doctoral theses, completed at Columbia in 1926 and 1929, respectively. (2) The subject of both is the sculpture of the church of St-Pierre at Moissac, France, but whereas the former focuses on stylistic development and sources, the latter, broader in conception, includes a reassessment of the rationales for reviving architectural sculpture, a positive characterization of underlying principles of Romanesque sculptural style, and a detailed analysis of iconography with reference not only to religious texts but also to secular music and literature. The dissertation establishes a fundamental premise for all his later scholarship: that form and artistic agency are the essential means of shaping and comprehending meaning in the work of art. Schapiro's breadth of approach has been obscured, however, because his subsequent publications on Romanesque sculpture concentrated almost exclusively on style. He initially published the chapters that concentrated on style, and then he continually republished the same excerpts in different forms. (3) Even in his erudite study of the sculpture of Santo Domingo in Silos, Spain, discussions of content remain secondary to an argument about the genesis of a distinctive regional style of Romanesque as a dialogue between native Mozarabic abstraction and the influence of a more naturalistic style brought from neighboring Languedoc during the Christian reconquest of northern Spain. (4) This emphasis might be partly explained by his pressing need to counter a competing vision of Romanesque formalism articulated by his French colleagues (see Seidel, p. xxxi). Perhaps more important, however, was his ongoing concern with contemporary art and artistic process and his embrace of Marxist ideas. (5) All of these factors led him to champion the artist's role in shaping meaning and highlighting social tensions concealed by the official religious iconography of the Church.

The present volume, comprising seven lectures, displays a holistic integration of form and content, artist and audience. It opens in Lecture 1 with the crucial question of what motivated the revival of architectural sculpture in the eleventh century. Schapiro attributes the decline of public sculpture during the fifth century to the disruption of the highly centralized Roman state's artistic patronage. (6) Monumental sculpture reappeared on the exterior of churches in the eleventh century in the wake of monastic reforms, he suggests, because the abbey of Cluny had emerged at the head of a newly centralized order that assumed the Roman state's former role as patron of public art. The urbanization of western Europe during this period prompted the Church to address a new lay audience of townspeople, and the message of reform was conveyed to them through sculpted portals. According to Schapiro, public sculpture also offered "a place of free discourse," contrasting with the more controlled interior space of the church and cloister. This allowed, in turn, a greater range of subject matter and the introduction of "margins of free fantasy for the expression of the sculptor as an individual" (p. 21). He thus leaves the listener with an apparent dichotomy between ecclesiastical patrons and lay artists and viewers.

Lecture 2 focuses on the relation of Romanesque sculpture to its architectural context. Here, he implicitly critiques the notion of the "law of the frame" espoused by French scholars Henri Focillon and his protege Jurgis Baltrusaitis. (7) Taking the central tympanum of the basilica of Ste-Marie-Madeleine in Vezelay as his point of departure, Schapiro counters that Romanesque sculpture was not "submitted to a fixed architectural rule" but depended on the concept of the field. He characterizes the figures of the tympanum as belonging to distinct fields arranged in a hierarchy emanating from the central figure of Christ in a series of "eruptive" forms that break through the regular geometry of the frame. He further contrasts the stability of the architecture with the instability of the figures set in rotation around the dominant center.

Schapiro opens his third lecture by proposing that Romanesque architecture, far from imposing an ideal order on sculpture, was itself affected by sculptural composition. He further explains how empirical attitudes led Romanesque sculptors and architects to sacrifice classical principles. Examining the facade of S. Michele in Lucca, Italy, for example, Schapiro shows that the height and proportional relation between column and arcade vary from one level to another and are modified to take account of the sloping roofline behind aisles and gable at the apex of the central bay. Schapiro extends this analysis to rethink the relation between figure and field, sculptural relief and architecture. His concern lies with the ways in which the "meaning and values" of a particular subject impact the ways in which the artist chooses to frame it architecturally. In a series of tympana depicting the Ascension, Schapiro demonstrates how the transcendence and magnitude of the ascending Christ are enhanced by internal framing of the tympanum such that the figure of Christ spans more than one register, whereas the repeated smaller figures of angels and disciples are scaled down and compartmentalized in a hierarchy moving out from the central axis. By contrast, in other kinds of portals, such as those of Aquitaine, in which there is no tympanum, the artist sees the possibilities of...

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