Spent some time the other day looking through a fat catalog of late-Gothic sculpture in U.S. collections. I had no idea there were so many of those objects in this country.
Thinking of the additional thousands of ancient statues scattered throughout Western Europe, my vision of the era changed from one of peasants toiling in the fields and nobles hunting with falcons to entire populations carving away at limestone, alabaster, and linden wood, making virgins and crucified christs by the dozen, comely saint catherines, and kinky saint sebastians.
Statues of the Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus outnumbered everything else in the catalog, evidence that even after 1500 years of Christianity, the Goddess had not loosened her grip on the people. She is represented standing up, one hip cocked, the opposite knee visible under the draperies that swoop up across her middle and are caught under (and lead our eye to) the arm that is holding the Child. That arm is sometimes the right one, but the left is much more common, because as any mother knows, infants are calmer when they feel their mother\’s heartbeat.
These madonnas have come a long way from the gravitas of their Romanesque predecessors, who glared at the faithful cowering at the foot of their thrones. Their plump faces framed by long curls, these later virgins smile beningly at their infants, or at the worshippers, or at their own thoughts. Their bodies twisted in a graceful contrapposto, their draperies swirling about their legs, they look like at any moment they might take flight, or start dancing.
Speaking of which, against all national stereotypes, the Catalan and Spanish statues are almost invariably reserved and hieratic, whereas the German saints with their spiraling garments and sinuous limbs look like flamenco dancers. The Dutch pieces are the wildest, including a half-undressed St. Sebastian wearing a fashionable courtier\’s hat, and a crucifix in which the ends of the dead Christ\’s loin cloth fly out behind him in whiplash curves reminiscent of Art Nouveau.
The sight of all this bounty disgorged by the churches of old Europe gave me a hankering to possess just one piece of my very own–a linden-wood Saint Catherine with maybe a couple of fingers missing, or an apple-cheeked Madonna holding a headless Child. Something unimaginably old, but somehow still alive.