Standard bearer

Gothic Sculpture 1140-1300
August 1, 1997

This is a welcome addition to a series that has become recognised as the standard English language history of world art. The book begins appropriately with sections on the portal sculptures of Saint Denis and of the Royal Portal at Chartres, continuing with the further development of gothic sculpture on the portals of Paris, Amiens and Reims. One senses that an editorial discussion was taking place as the possible relationship between the romanesque of Autun and the novel work at Chartres was being written. Another recurrent theme of great interest is that of the influence of the antique, most notably at Reims. The book is more ambitious in its scope than Sauerlander's magnificent Gothic Sculpture in France 1140-10 in that it explores the influence of the great French portals westward into Spain and eastwards into Germany, especially (to use an out-dated term) beyond the iron curtain. The treatment, for example, of the sculptures of the west choir at Naumberg is persuasively written and the argument is supported by a generous set of good-sized illustrations, four of them usefully in colour.

Similarly, in the middle of the book, all the recent research on the sculptures of Wells, Westminster, Lincoln, York, Salisbury and Southwell is put into a European context. These sections provide a valuable "up-date" to Stone's excellent but by now 40-year-old survey written as one of the original volumes in the Pelican History of Art.

Yale University Press must take their share of praise. Though the original Pelican set a new standard in the 1950s, the volumes are difficult to use - unless one is left-handed - with the plates at the back of the book. The revised editions issued in paperback were improved in that the illustrations are integrated with the text, but the squat format means that many of the illustrations are very small (and often far from crisply printed). Williamson's volume is quite excellently produced.

The illustrations are generous in number, easily legible and placed very carefully to help the reader follow the argument of the text. The volume will take its place with honour in a magisterial series. Alas, at Pounds 50 it will prove too expensive for undergraduates.

Deciding what to include in individual volumes in a series such as this must to some extent be controversial. What to do about sculpture in Italy? Chapter six is devoted to the period 1180-1250, and comes as a bit of a surprise. It covers Antelami at Parma, the lintel of the baptistery at Pisa for example, and very cursorily the Cosmati. These seem to have been squeezed out of the promised volume on romanesque sculpture solely because they date from after 1200.

In some places, especially when dealing with gothic sculpture in Spain, the text seemed rather compressed which is a pity since the material will be less familiar to most readers than Italian gothic.

The book is divided very clearly into sections so it is easy to consult, but it is not just a guide book for travellers. Evidence is discussed in terms especially of style and of iconography. A great deal of research has been undertaken in recent years and several major discoveries have been made, notably the marvellous fragments from Notre Dame, Paris. Other discoveries have been made when sculptures have been conserved, as at Wells Cathedral, and at the time of organising such famous exhibitions as English Romanesque Art and The Age of Chivalry with which the author has been closely involved. At the back of the book is a treasury of footnotes, which will help the reader explore the detail of individual aspects of this great phase of European art. With so much new evidence to incorporate the author and publisher have done well to make a "standard history" so enjoyable to use.

M. Q. Smith is senior lecturer, history of art, University of Bristol.

Gothic Sculpture 1140-1300

Author - Paul Williamson
ISBN - 0 300 06338 5
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 301

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