November 15, 2011

At The Cloisters: Sculpture

Nativity of the Virgin, detail; Germany, around 1480; Limewood with paint and appliqués.

I was enthralled, entranced, captivated, by the sculpture collection at the Cloisters. The same qualities that I love in Quattrocento painting – the simplicity and directness of form, the world of faith that existed before the humanism of the Renaissance – is here in the medieval collections. This sculpture of Saint Anne on the birthing bed is so sensitive, so full of revery and gentleness.

Nativity of the Virgin, detail of Saint Anne's head.

The head of Saint Anne touches me deeply; it is a portrait of womanhood, but the details – the rounded chin, the soft fleshy cheeks and throat, the elegant nose – become those of a real, thoughtful, person.

Enthroned Virgin and Child; central France, late 12th century; walnut with paint, gesso, and linen.

In this earlier sculpture, the forms are more stylized, with drapery creating large looping rhythms. There is tremendous power in the direct gaze and simply sculpted form of the two figures.

Seated Bishop, detail; Tilman Riemenschneider; Germany, ca. 1495-1500; Limewood and gray-black stain.

Riemenschneider was a great sculptor of the period that spanned the Gothic into the Renaissance. This portrait is a beautiful, sympathetic rendering of an aged cleric, one that expresses love and compassion.

Torso of Christ; France, Auvergne, late 12th century; poplar, gesso, paint, and gilding.

The stylized drapery makes the more naturalistically rendered torso seem all the more vulnerable.

Tomb Effigy of a Boy; Spain, ca. 1300-1350; Limestone and traces of polychromy.

I love this tomb sculpture for its details: the tassels and pattern on the pillow, the forms on the shoulder strap, and tiny buttons along the arm. They enliven the quiet, generalized portrait of a boy who may have been the Count of Urgell.

Relief with Saint Lawrence Presenting the Poor; Austria, about 1490; White or stone pine, paint, and gilding.

The photograph of this sculpture does not do it justice; I thought the piece was astonishing with its specific faces, and bodies huddled together in a compact mass; their humanity is so strongly expressed. The wall label describes the scene: "Saint Lawrence is shown presenting the poor as the true wealth of the Church". An ongoing lesson for us all.

Pieta, detail; Bohemia, ca. 1400; Limestone.

As in the Saint Anne above, I kept noticing details of sculpture that were so very beautiful, where the feeling was concentrated in a gesture. The Virgin's hand holds that of Christ so lightly, so tenderly, with restrained yet deep emotion.

Palmesel (Palm Donkey), detail; Germany, 15th century; limewood with paint.

This long fingered, thin hand, a fleshed skeleton, emerging from the mass of folds is very touching. The label for the sculpture tells me that the fingers on the hands were restored, so I don't know how original they are, but they are beautiful in any case.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Dragon; northern Germany, about 1200; copper alloy.

An aquamanile is a vessel with human or animal figures, sometimes used in religious ceremonies. I thought this piece was wonderful, with the figure emerging from the dragon's mouth. The fanciful patterns make the dragon into a bird, which made me think of the relationship between dinosaurs and birds.

Mirror Case or Box Cover with the Attack on the Castle of Love; France, ca. 1320-40; Elephant Ivory.

Not all the art objects produced during this period were religious in nature. I thought I'd end with two pieces with secular subjects. This small round relief delightfully shows knights being held off by women armed with roses, but the god of love is ready to loose his arrows.

Base for a Statuette; North France or South Lowlands, early 16th century; Ivory.

This piece has amusing scenes which likely allude to stories of love and infidelity. The small details are all marvelous: the fencing, the clothing, the stick with a head that the jester-like figure is carrying. There is such a fascinating range of sculpture to be seen at the Cloisters; within this limited time period is a wealth of artistic expression.

A previous post on the Cloisters:
At the Cloisters: Architecture


  1. nice tour, Altoon, and you certainly captured powerful details.

  2. Wow is about all I can say. I love going on tours with you.Thank you for taking me along.

  3. Thank you for posting these! Great photographs, and very thoughtful commentary. Makes me want to go there.

  4. What a lovely detail of St. Anne from the Nativity of the Virgin. Very delicate and moving.

  5. Thanks, everyone, for the kind comments. I'm very pleased you enjoyed this tour.