Romanesque Architectural Sculpture: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures

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Meyer Schapiro (1904-96), renowned for his critical essays on nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting, also played a decisive role as a young scholar in defining the style of art and architecture known as Romanesque. And, appropriately, when he was invited to deliver the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, he chose Romanesque architectural sculpture as his topic. These lectures, acclaimed for the verve and freshness with which Schapiro delivered them, languished unpublished for decades. But Linda Seidel, who knew Schapiro well and attended the 1967 lectures, has now expertly transcribed and edited them, presenting them for the first time to an audience beyond the halls of Harvard. 

In editing the lectures, Seidel closely followed the recordings of the originals. Sentences are rendered as Schapiro spoke them, affording readers a unique opportunity to experience the legendary teacher as he rarely appears in print: forming his thoughts spontaneously, interrupting himself to develop related ideas, and responding to the audience’s interests by introducing humorous asides. Nonetheless, these lectures are carefully constructed, demonstrating Schapiro’s commitment to the originality and value of artistic production and affirming his lifelong belief in artists’ engagement with their cultures. Amply illustrated with many key works and augmented with Seidel’s indispensable introduction, this long-awaited volume will delight students and scholars of art history, as well as anyone interested in seeing a new side of a profoundly influential mind.

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Editorial Reviews

New Republic - Jed Perl
“Schapiro was a figure of seigneurial cosmopolitanism who felt absolutely rooted in his time and place, a man with a serene self-assurance who was insatiably curious about other people and times and places. . . . There may be no American thinker of the mid-century years who was at once so deeply attracted to the grandeur of European ideas and so skeptical about those enormous visions as Meyer Schapiro." —Jed Perl, New Republic
New York Review of Books - Willibald Sauerlaender
"In reading these pages it seems possible to hear Schapiro's own voice, even his laughter or the applause of the audience. It is almost like listening to a recording. . . .[Schapiro] saw the sculptures of Moissac and Vézelay in the light of modern art. That may have been an illusion of a particular moment in the past century. . . . But I know of no more moving, more sympathetic reading of medieval art."
Sehepunkt - Vibeke Olsen
"The Schapiro lectures engage the reasder in an intimate and straightforward manner. . . . A rare glimpse into Schapiro's complex thought process. . . . Schapiro was unique, ahead of his time, and this book which showcases Schapiro's remarkable critical and analytical abilities, is a welcomed addition to his body of work, and without a doubt a significant contribution to the discipline itself."
Key Reporter - Svetlana Alpers
"The quality of the text is that of close looking and careful analysis. It is a revelation to read Schapiro on the Eve of Autun."
New Republic
Schapiro was a figure of seigneurial cosmopolitanism who felt absolutely rooted in his time and place, a man with a serene self-assurance who was insatiably curious about other people and times and places. . . . There may be no American thinker of the mid-century years who was at once so deeply attracted to the grandeur of European ideas and so skeptical about those enormous visions as Meyer Schapiro.—Jed Perl, New Republic

— Jed Perl

New Statesman
"[A] profound, delightful book."
New York Review of Books
In reading these pages it seems possible to hear Schapiro's own voice, even his laughter or the applause of the audience. It is almost like listening to a recording. . . .[Schapiro] saw the sculptures of Moissac and Vézelay in the light of modern art. That may have been an illusion of a particular moment in the past century. . . . But I know of no more moving, more sympathetic reading of medieval art.

— Willibald Sauerlaender

The Schapiro lectures engage the reasder in an intimate and straightforward manner. . . . A rare glimpse into Schapiro's complex thought process. . . . Schapiro was unique, ahead of his time, and this book which showcases Schapiro's remarkable critical and analytical abilities, is a welcomed addition to his body of work, and without a doubt a significant contribution to the discipline itself.

— Vibeke Olsen

Key Reporter
The quality of the text is that of close looking and careful analysis. It is a revelation to read Schapiro on the Eve of Autun.

— Svetlana Alpers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226750637
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2006
  • Series: Charles Eliot Norton Lectures Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Meyer Schapiro was University Professor at Columbia University. His papers and articles have been collected in numerous books, including Modern Art, Romanesque Art, and Theory and Philosophy of Art.

Linda Seidel is the Hanna Holborn Gray Professor Emerita at the University of Chicago. She has written many books, including Songs of Glory, Legends in Limestone, and Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.   

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Read an Excerpt

THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2006 Lillian Schapiro and Miriam Grosof
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-75063-7

Chapter One Lecture I


* * *

I am very pleased that professor ackerman mentioned Arthur Kingsley Porter, to whom I feel a great debt. He was a self-taught scholar, and that itself is an extremely important fact, and became a leader in the field which he chose to develop through his own enthusiasm and through a pure and joyous love of the art of the Middle Ages. Coming to this art from a spontaneous enjoyment of the works that he had seen in Europe, he devoted himself to research in a most sportive and venturesome way, searching for details in the most out-of-the-way places, finding objects that had been overlooked even by those who lived in those regions, bringing to light many hidden relationships, and doing all that with the fullest command of the techniques that had been developed by people who were prepared by long training and who belonged to a tradition of classical philology or archaeology. As a student at Columbia, as a graduate student, I was his guest here, quite often; and I was especially fortunate to be his guest, for he opened to me an immense collection of his photographs, where I spent many hours, even whole days, here in the basement of his house, the old Lowell mansion. And I cannot touch upon any problem today, in fact I have not dealt with any problem over these years, in which I have not made reference to his work or found in some part of his work a stimulus, a newer idea, a surprising conjecture, or some document which I would never have found otherwise. I am therefore especially pleased to be able to lecture about Romanesque architectural sculpture in the very place where Arthur Kingsley Porter had been a teacher, and a most remarkable, generous, and courteous one.

Let me describe briefly in advance of the Lectures the plan of the series, which is not indicated in the announcement. In the first Lecture, I shall speak, but very briefly, about the rebirth of architectural sculpture after a lapse of about five hundred years, during which we have only a few, sparse, minor works. In the second and third Lectures, I shall speak about the forms and composition of architectural sculpture, the way in which they are fitted to the architecture and how they work in architecture. In the fourth and fifth Lectures, I shall speak about the programs of imagery, that is, the religious and other concepts which were proposed to the sculptors, or conceived by the sculptors, for their sculpture, for their works. In the sixth Lecture, I shall speak about the human figure from a point of view which is partly aesthetic and partly, if you wish, psychological. And in the last Lecture, I shall talk about animal imagery, which is very important in Romanesque art, but above all about its relation to human feelings and sanctity.

I have already indicated to you at least one part of the interest of Romanesque sculpture, namely that it is a new and revived art after a period of five hundred years in which stone sculpture was not practiced on the walls of buildings. Sculpture was restricted in that earlier time to works connected with the furniture of the church-with the treasures, the reliquary, the altar, the shrine, the sacred vessels and books. The abandonment of sculpture during the period of five hundred years is of great interest to us because it raises questions as to the character and assumptions of the art and also invites us to ask how it came back after that long time. We must remember that the art of architectural sculpture was a typical one, an indispensable one, for thousands of years in the ancient Orient and in the Greek and Roman world. It is so characteristic that when we try to imagine the world of those cultures, we inevitably bring to mind statues in which their particular gods or human types are embodied, and they stand for those cultures in our thought. To think that after such a millennial practice this art should disappear is itself a problem, and to explain how it came back is still another one, which I think will illuminate many features of the art which would not be apparent to us if we neglected to ask such questions.

This change from sculpture which is mainly of the type of interior relief, or statues of saints or crucifixes, the change from that kind of art to an exterior art also introduces new possibilities and aspects of sculpture which then become an essential part of the practice for several centuries, including the period of the Renaissance. You have only to ask yourself the difference between the look of works of art which are attached to fixed places but are nevertheless portable within the church and made of precious materials like gold and silver and even gems and ivory, and the qualities of sculpture which belong to the exterior, public world-the outer walls of the building, where people are free to move, to regard things according to their own inclination or position at the moment, and to shift their point of view and to experience them without regard to a prescribed occasion and liturgy.

You must also try to imagine the characteristics that arise from the fact of being in stone and of the same material as the wall of a building: of being embedded and incorporated and of being subject to the play of light and shadow, which are changing factors within the visual world and therefore give to the experience of the work of art a special set of dimensions which will not be present or not operate in the same way on sculpture experienced at an altar; and [of having] a relation to a fixed ritual and services which have a necessary canonical character and in which the spectator is a devout or observant eye who also listens as well as looks. These basic differences are not automatically given. They depend on the way in which the sculptor conceives the object, the way in which he develops new forms or tends to bring out new possibilities of form and expression within them.

Nevertheless, it is possible to approach at least some characteristics of the art without reference to history by simply considering the different modes of appearance of stone and of metal, of that which is inside a building and that which is outside, that which belongs to the domain of public observation and experience and that which is involved in a fixed ritual or on set occasions for contemplation. If we approach Romanesque architectural sculpture from such a viewpoint, then we begin to recognize the immense importance of the introduction of monumental stone sculpture on the outside of buildings, not only for art, but also for religious sensibility, and also for the sentiment of those who live in a town, in a city, and for whom the church building is an exterior as well as an interior object, and of which the exterior speaks in special ways which are not possible in the framework of worship, of liturgy, and of the congregational relation to the priest and the ceremony inside the church.

Besides this broad aspect, which then becomes basic for a large development which moves in several different directions over the centuries and is the ground [for] the creation of certain great works of art and of our sense of the potentialities of art, besides these, we are at once impressed by the work of the Romanesque sculptors through the fact that within a very short period of time, no more than two generations, between the last years of the eleventh century and the middle of the twelfth century, there were created immense works, masterpieces, of a most rich, comprehensive, finely articulated sort, such as the portal of Moissac, of Vézelay, of Autun, of Saint-Gilles, and of Chartres, and hundreds of smaller works both in the great churches and the village churches, works that seem to be of an artisan character which have for us the highest finesse and power of artistic invention and sensibility within that time. It is therefore a moment of extraordinary inventiveness, of creativeness in the fullest sense of the word, and we observe this quality over a large area.

The expansion of the idea of architectural sculpture, once it has taken root after a fairly slow and sporadic existence in the generations preceding, the expansiveness is unequalled by any previous art in the Middle Ages, and introduces, at once, a vision of an international characteristic of art of which the power of expansion rests not simply on its religious or political sense but on the sheer attraction of the beauty of works, which incites emulation and desire to create similar things, to have a corresponding portal in one's own small church or great cathedral. The power of art, then, as a self-developing force, and as an achievement which incites, at once, a response of a re-creating sort, of emulation and of new production; the attitude of artists, who in seeing these works are stimulated to an endless activity of new invention-all this we recognize in Romanesque architectural sculpture to the highest degree, as compared with works of the preceding and other periods. I do not mean to say that preceding works are not of the highest quality; there are masterpieces among them too. I'm dealing now with a broader historical and social situation in which the effectiveness and the allurement of great creation becomes an important part of a whole sense of civilized life, and especially of religious culture in that time.

Let me show you several examples, and I shall limit the examples to France for the moment, but I will bring in others from different countries as we go on. Let me show you an example of a church façade of the first half or middle of the eleventh century in Vignory in France, with its characteristic austerity and bareness, although, at this moment already, the walls become more modeled (fig. 1). We see the surfaces subdivided, revealing different layers and columns set into the jamb or thickness of the wall. But in this work, the building still does not have the kind of speaking face which comes from sculpture and which is a regular feature of Romanesque art. Some hundred years later, in Notre-Dame-la-Grande at Poitiers, the façade-and sometimes it may be any other side of the building which has a show face-not only is the wall richly articulated through arcades and moldings and corbels, but within them are set sculptured figures in various groupings and various meanings, of which I shall speak in more detail later (fig. 2). This is the process of transformation of architecture by the sculpture. The sculpture gives a new intensity, a new directedness, a new appeal to the observer in the very existence of its sculpture.

Within that short period of time, we observe too what is not a common occurrence in the history of sculpture, of the most rapid and intense growth of the forms of sculpture, a staging for new qualities and characteristics and also what has been so often called a conquest of the real and of the plastic through greater daring in modeling the figure. At your right you see the portal, the tympanum of the door in the abbey church of Charlieu in Burgundy, which was consecrated about 1094; and at your left, you see another tympanum made for the same church for another doorway some forty or forty-five years later. And you recognize immediately the great change in the rendering of forms, in the power of modeling, in the artist's interest in movement, in the relations of the figures to their background, and in the ingenuity of the arabesques or silhouettes.

If we turn back to the question, how did this sculpture arise after a lapse of five centuries, we are led to ask first how it came to disappear. And I shall comment briefly on that without being able in the scope of this Lecture to explore this problem as it deserves. Over the years, in fact since the fifteenth century, students of sculpture-including the great artist Ghiberti-have commented upon the disappearance of sculpture during the Middle Ages. Three views have been expressed as to the causes of the disappearance of what was one of the most characteristic arts of the ancient, oriental, and classical worlds. One is the notion that Christianity, by its hostility to pagan images and its fear of idolatry-which, at one point, led to iconoclasm as a great political action against those who were devoted to images-that Christianity, by its hatred of pagan art as pagan idols, abolished the practice of sculpture in the round and also representation on the walls of buildings. Ghiberti, whose information was more limited than ours, although there were more works for him to see than we see today, Ghiberti thought that Christianity did away with all decoration in buildings, and that only after the eleventh or twelfth century did one begin to decorate even the interior of churches.

The notion ... the second explanation is that of Barbarism, that the Germanic and other peoples-and other invaders of the Roman Empire and the Near Eastern world, being incapable of understanding and appreciating ancient art, destroyed it and were unable then to give new life to it when they had settled as the rulers of those countries. And the third explanation has been that the taste of the late centuries of the Roman Empire and the Greco-Roman world was dominated by an oriental preference for surface qualities, for the play of ornament in deep shadows and contrasting light, the use of marbles, and metals, and sheathings of high reflecting power, so that the classic love of the rounded, modeled form and the full play of convexity and concavity in nature was replaced by a screen on the walls, inside and outside, of a fine, precious, polished matter which gave off light and produced an endless arabesque and movement on which the eye could not fix itself upon any one object and hold to the definite and clear in form, but got lost in these mazes and in this play of light, which symbolized in some vague way an attribute of the unbounded in divinity, or of qualities beyond those of man.

These are the three views which have been applied most often to the explanation of the disappearance of sculpture in the period between the sixth century and the early part of the eleventh century. No one of these explanations holds up to study of the actual remains, although every one of them tells us something of interest about the character of the art at different moments in the early Middle Ages and at the end of antiquity. And although each one has some importance for particular episodes in the history of the arts, and the religion and even of the politics of the Byzantine Empire at one moment, we do not accept these views, because they fail to take into account certain essential facts about the art of the Middle Ages.

In the first place, if the earliest Christian writers scorned pagan sculpture, or feared the statues as incitement to idolatry, nevertheless, after the third century, and particularly after the triumph of the church, the great basilicas were filled with representations in spite of the Mosaic law against images. And sculpture was practiced abundantly, particularly in tombs, on sarcophagi, where individuals of great importance had to be buried, and where the memory of these individuals was still an essential fact, or an essential interest, within civic and family life as well as religion.

Moreover, all through the Middle Ages, in the period when monumental stone sculpture was not practiced, we find thousands of works either surviving or recorded in descriptions in documents of the time, works of sculpture in gold and silver, in ivory, in wood, stucco, plaster, and so on, in other materials than stone, and even works in stone which belong to the altar or to the canopies around, above the altars, or in various contexts which belong to the services, the religious services of the church. The iconoclastic attitude, the fear of idolatry and of the pagan image, did not prevent the production of an extraordinary quantity and high quality of art, of representation, including many sculptures in other materials and outside the actual field of architecture. I show as an example, even in Byzantium, this magnificent and subtly carved marble slab of the eleventh century with an image of the Virgin; surely a sculptor who could produce this work cannot be said either to fear images or to have lost the necessary skills.


Excerpted from ROMANESQUE ARCHITECTURAL SCULPTURE by MEYER SCHAPIRO Copyright © 2006 by Lillian Schapiro and Miriam Grosof. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction by Linda Seidel 
Introduction of Professor Schapiro by James Ackerman

Lecture I
The Rebirth of Monumental Sculpture in the West: Disappearance and Rebirth
Lecture II
Field, Figure, and Frame (I)

Lecture III
Field, Figure, and Frame (II) 

Lecture IV
The Programs of Imagery (I): Themes of Action and Themes of State

Lecture V
The Programs of Imagery (II): Tradition, New Reality, and Nature

Lecture VI
The Human Figure

Lecture VII
Animal Imagery in Romanesque Sculpture

Professor Schapiro’s Published Writings on and Related Medieval Topics


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