Stone Faces, Expressive at the Met

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The New York Sun

“Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture,” which just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a gorgeous, often sublime gathering of more than 80 sculpted heads in marble, wood, silver, and stone. Although the show’s title suggests that all of the sculptures are medieval, here the term is being used in its broadest sense.”Set in Stone” comprises works of art, mostly French, but also German, Italian, Spanish, Byzantine, and Hiberno-Saxon, from the third through the early 16th centuries — from the late Roman Empire to the Renaissance.

Installed thematically in the circular Lehman Wing, “Set in Stone,” organized by Charles Little, with the assistance of Wendy Stein, is a sweeping exhibition of heads that, all having been removed from their original context at different times and for various reasons, transforms the galleries and creates a mysterious context of its own. Dealing with issues of iconoclasm during the French Revolution; biblical figures; pagan devotion and power; portraiture; the revival of antiquity in Gothic Italy; marginalia; the tools of the stone carver, and the tools of the art historian — specifically recent scientific advances in limestone analysis that allow for the matching of sculptures to existing monuments or quarries — “Set in Stone” weaves between period styles yet builds in emotional cohesion. No matter where you begin and end at the show — and I suggest that you circle repeatedly — the heads gain in power. They begin to speak to one another across centuries; they open up, become familiar, and allow themselves to be intimately known.

Some of the show’s heads are larger than life; others are small and doll-like. They are of kings, queens, saints, angels, apostles, gods, and grotesques. Here, too, are reliquary heads and heads of Christ, Julius Caesar, and John the Baptist (Germany, sandstone, ca. 1330). John’s startled, empathetic eyes look up to us, and his thick, curling locks of hair, like beautiful tentacles, radiate outward from his severed head, as if gripping at the lip of the platter. Some of the heads have been decapitated from standing figures or jamb statues. Others were removed from baptismal fonts, corbels, columns, capitals, tombs, arches, and misericords, or “mercy seats.”

On view are heads from Notre-Dame, Saint-Sernin, and Saint-Denis, as well as a small, magical Romanesque fragment, “Head of a Bearded King,” from Autun Cathedral (ca. 1125–35). Carved by the master sculptor Gislebertus, the “Bearded King” is both childlike and wise. His head is bud-like, and his broken crown, arched and open, has the grandly reverent yet understated classicism of Romanesque cathedrals. Most of the heads have minor if not major damage: They are often heavily pockmarked and weathered or missing parts of their heads or portions of their lips, hair, eyes, ears, or nose. But not to worry, as the souls of the sculptures (which during the middle ages were believed to reside in the head) are still intact. In almost all of these masterful heads, even in the most damaged of them, something — a curve to a curve; a facial expression; a shift from side to side — provides evidence of the full glory of the original.

One of the clearest connections between the heads in the show is the influence of antique sculpture on that of the Early Byzantine and that of the Renaissance, a breathtaking experience that is made possible in the exhibition. Looking at the marble portrait busts of men and women, all in close proximity, from the third, fourth, fifth, and 16th centuries, gives striking lucidity not only to the all-familiar lessons from Renaissance art history, but also to the fluid, miraculous language of sculpture, which can bring individuality and humanism through marble and form to life.

But there are other connections to be made as well in “Set in Stone” — the types of connections, despite period or stylistic approach to the figure (whether based in medieval abstraction or Renaissance representation), that are specific to the encounter of face to face.

In the religious heads on view in the show, the faces often convey the quality not of an outer, individual being but, rather, that of an inner, more universal and spiritual life. “Corbel With Female Head” (Spain, early 13th century) is frontal, triangular, mask-like, stylized, and resolute. She stares through us, yet she sees all. The French, red sandstone “Head of a Cleric” (ca. 1450–60) has his eyes tightly closed in intense meditation and his snake-like veins pulse and indent his temples. He looks like his head will explode; yet the tension is all released in the drop of the chin and in the mouth, which is in repose. The Netherlandish limestone “Head of Christ” (late 15th–early 16th century) — his mouth open (sighing), revealing his teeth, his furrowed brow pulling his forehead inward, his sensuous, sinuous crown of thorns animated and writhing along with his hair — give the head a sense of bliss and of liberation.

A famous art historian once wrote that, to demonstrate the power of images, he had his students bring in photographs of their relatives’ faces and requested that they poke out the eyes. I once tried this with my own students, and found, as did the art historian, that, even when I told them their grades depended upon it, my students always hesitated and almost always refused. I reference this because it is in the faces of the sculptures in “Set in Stone,” and especially in the eyes, that the heads (whether they are of devils or saints) seem to convey something that is human: They look at us; and we, at them. We communicate.The presence is sometimes that of an individual countenance; in others, as in most of the masterpieces in “Set in Stone,”the presence is closer to that of the eternal.

Until February 19 (1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd Street, 212-535-7710).

The New York Sun

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