Polychrome 16th-century Gothic Sculpture - How Could We Learn to Sculpt in this Style Today?

Here is some sculpture from France dating from the early 16th century. It is called The Burial of Jesus and is attributed to a sculptor who until I saw these I had not heard of called Froc-Robert. They are in the Cathedral of Saint-Corentin in the Region of Brittany. I am told that they are made from limestone although I am not certain of this, and because they are polychrome, it is difficult to tell from the photos. At a personal level I love the fact that they are highly coloured. So here's a request for all sculptors and patrons out there: can we work to reclaim polychrome for the liturgical traditions? At the moment it conjures images of sentimental kitsch plastic figurines in a Catholic gift shop? The gothic, as exemplified here, and the baroque (I'm thinking here of Spanish wood carvers such as Alonso Cano) demonstrate that it needn't be so.

If we were to colour, we have to work even harder to avoid sentimentality in the style. So how might we go about learning to sculpt in, for example, this late gothic style. One answer is to go and apprentice yourself to a master sculptor who carves in this style. If we were talking about painting, the answer would be to go through a long training of imitation. For the skilled painter whose eye and skills are already developed and has the ability to analyse well what he is seeing then he might be able to adopt a chosen style by looking carefully and working out some working principles to guide him.

I thought I would ask Andrew Wilson Smith what he did. He is a sculptor who has broken away from a neo-classical, academic style. Readers of this blog will be familiar with his work because of his commissions for Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey. He worked out some principles and stuck to them. It is interesting to me that he analysed Romanesque art. The end result reminds me (and this is not a criticism in any way) of the work of Andrea Pisano, which I would call gothic. I suppose the division between the two styles is continuum rather than a sharp boundary. And however we classify it, I like Andrew's style. Here's what he told me when I asked him about this (you can see his work at the website accesible through his name, above):

"My preparation for my ongoing work at Our Lady of the Annunciation Abbey at Clear Creek consisted of several things. First, I had to familiarize myself with the tools and techniques of the stone carving discipline. I was lucky enough to become acquainted with two stone masons/artists who had worked on St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral in the 1980's when there was an effort to train a new generation of carvers and get some work done on the building. From working with these gentlemen, I was able to get started as a carver, learning the principles of the art and how it differed from my earlier training in techniques of modeling sculptures in clay, followed by casting in bronze or other materials.

During this time, I also started to study the various manifestations of Romanesque sculpture.  I realized the Romanesque cannot be reduced to a canon of set forms and principles to the extent that Gothic or classical work may be. There can be no 'Romanesque Manifesto' and the style should be thought of as a period of time including diverse bodies of work. This is liberating because it allows me to find at least one or two precedents for just about anything that I might want to do. In my opinion, the unifying principles of the Romanesque are to be found in the philosophy and worldview held by the artists and scholars of the 10th-12th centuries. Therefore, I tried to saturate myself in the literature of the period, as well as its imagery. 

One major theme in medieval thought is the idea that nature, history, and morality are all mirrors through which to study God. As we cannot study God directly, we may come to a better understanding of His nature through the created world. I have tried to keep this state of mind foremost in my approach to this work.  

When I was starting to design the actual sculptures for this project I had a major decision to make. One approach would have been to fix upon a particular sub-category of Romanesque sculpture and imitate it directly to try to make works of art that might be mistaken for things of a particular time and place. I decided against this approach, as it did not seem appropriate in the context of my work at the Abbey. Also, I do not like that approach in general, as its result tend to be rather flat and dry. (If you are doing restoration work on an antique building, by all means be as historically-accurate and principled as you can, but for new work, "Sing a new song to the Lord".)

Instead, my approach has been to channel several Romanesque idioms into my general manner of working, which is usually more classical. I try to take the elements that I find to be the most delightful and incorporate them into my own style. One example of this is the approach to faces. You will find that in most archaic modes of art, attention is given more to the individual features of a face than to an understanding of the face as a whole. As a result you end up with large eyes, noses, mouths, and ears on top of a relatively ill-defined head. The same principle is found in large hands and feet attached to small bodies. I have tried to find a balance and to make my figures reflect this attitude to a certain extent.  However, I design a figure that is more naturalistic, albeit with an overly-large head with somewhat exaggerated features.

Another element of concern is posture and the realization that the work will always be seen from a distance. I think it was the Italian sculptor Pisano who wished that he could have a 100-foot long chisel and carve sculptures from the same perspective from which they would be viewed. As this is impractical, masons working on architectural carvings have always had to do certain things to make their work plainly visible from a distance. I have tried to adopt various Romanesque techniques to deal with the perspective; these include angling the work towards the viewer, using exaggerated gestures in the pose, and shifting the proportions of a figure, gradually making the lower parts smaller and the upper body/head larger than they are in nature. "