The stonemason's art has been admired for millennia as a central pillar of human creativity. Indeed, one of the earliest known examples of recorded expression is a simple pebble, engraved with eyes and mouth, dating to 3,000,000 B.C.E. From these humble beginnings rose the apotheosis of human achievement in stone, the Gothic period in Western Europe, when artisans sought to turn this most earthbound of media into soaring vaults that rivaled the heavens in both height and wonder. These Gothic cathedrals, monuments to the power of God, were populated with countless figures at once eternally frozen and vitally alive. These sculptures, unleashed from rough-hewn monoliths by the tool-worn hands of anonymous craftsmen, stood for centuries in their niches and portals with quiet monumentality and stoic plasticity in a lifelike tension that unveiled to illiterate masses the holy mysteries of Christianity.
Dating from the 12th to 15th centuries, the sculptures display the breadth and virtuosity of artists from the late Middle Ages to the early Renaissance under the patronage of the wealthy and influential French and Burgundian courts. In 2011, these works were evaluated by Théo-Antoine Hermanès, the noted Swiss medievalist and conservator. Hermanès’ analyses provide new insights into the significance and attribution of these objects, whose true histories have been lost to time.
One of the earliest, and arguably best known, Gothic structures is Notre-Dame de Paris, begun around the year 1163. Notre-Dame has been the victim of numerous indignities over the course of its nearly 1,000-year life, most recently the tragic fire of April 2019. One of the most devastating, however, was the systematic destruction of its figural iconography during the Reign of Terror, the most brutal years of the French Revolution, from 1793 to 1794. Misreading the many Biblical kings and queens that inhabited the portals and galleries of its edifices, believing them to be instead symbolic of historic kings and queens of France, the Revolutionaries specifically defaced nose and mouth in a silencing measure, and then decapitated the figures. The detritus from this rampage was left in the parvis of Notre-Dame until 1796, when the pieces were gathered and mixed with rubble and lime to rebuild the foundations of post-Revolutionary Paris.
A fragmentary head of a queen from a portal column, acquired from the illustrious gallery of Jacqueline Boccador, may indeed be a remnant from this violent bout of iconoclasm against Notre-Dame. Carved of the warm gray limestone quarried in the Ile-de-France region, her almond-shaped eyes with small pierced pupils and without caruncle or rounded sclera, and her royal dress characteristic of the second half of the 12th century, are all indicative of the unique sculptural vernacular in and around Paris from about 1160 to 1200. Her nose and mouth deliberately targeted—with chisel marks still visible—and the clean break of her neck suggest a calculated attack. As no other structures built during this period and region–Chartres, Senlis, Sens, among others—suffered this precise Revolutionary violence, it is likely that this head of a queen may in fact be a relic from the original sculptural agenda of Notre-Dame. The north portal of Saint Anne on the western façade, which was the earliest to be completed around the time this head was carved, was known to be decorated with two queens among its column figures. A layer of white lime still detectable on the surface further supports this theory.
From further west comes a boldly modeled limestone figure of a lady, likely representing Saint Catherine of Alexandria, one of the most revered saints in the medieval canon. Befitting her status as a princess and understood to be both beautiful and wise, Saint Catherine is depicted here with the narrow chest, bulbous belly, and long surcoat over fitted gown that were the height of fashion in the Burgundian court under the duc Jean sans Peur (1371-1419). Carved in the first quarter of the 14th century from the soft limestone produced in the northern regions of Burgundy, this material was prized for its malleability in executing dramatic detail and flowing drapery unseen since antiquity. With undulating folds and cascading hair still retaining traces of original polychromy, the beautiful virgin martyr stands in contemplative repose, now bereft of the applied metal crown and arms that would have clearly offered her identifying attributes—a book, a sword, a wheel.
A contemporary of the Burgundian Jean sans Peur, Jean, duc de Berry (1340-1416), was the younger brother of King Charles V the Wise of France (r. 1364-1380). The duc de Berry was a great patron of the arts, and in architecture favored his brother’s taste for luminous alabaster. One of his most important commissions was the Sainte-Chapelle de Bourges, founded on August 17, 1392 and completed in 1450. Modeled on the Sainte-Chapelle de Paris, this chapel was intended as a reliquary for a relic of the True Cross and one of its nails, and in 1403 was also chosen by the duc as his future resting place. The duc selected the sculptor Jean de Cambrai (1375-1438), from the north of France near the Flemish border, to design his tomb, comprising the well-known effigy that still exists today, along with its architectural setting. Sainte-Chapelle de Bourges was severely damaged by fire in 1693, and further destroyed by a hurricane in 1756. The ruins were demolished in 1757, and its various decorative elements dispersed.
A portal or arch voussoir carved from a finely grey-veined alabaster quarried from Salins, the preferred source of Royal stone in the early 15th century, this fragment depicts a tearful angel about to take flight. With right hand to his breast in tender emotion, his face is both peaceful and afflicted by his burden as he readies to transmit a soul to heaven. Such imagery is most frequently found in funerary monuments, such as the one built by Jean de Cambrai for the duc de Berry. This grieving angel, with his long and narrow closely set fingers, rounded and emotive face, and highly stylized hair in the fashion of about 1400, together with the thick treatment of drapery, indeed bears remarkable similarities to the aesthetic and pathos of Cambrai’s Flemish-influenced style. Taken together, the evidence suggests that this may be an architectural element from the tomb in the lost Sainte-Chapelle de Bourges, and, in the words of Hermanès, “almost certainly a work of Jean de Cambrai.”