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Gothic Pilgrimage, visiting the great French cathedrals.

                                Grandeur of composition, nobility of silhouette, perfection of proportion, wealth of detail, infinitely...

November 3, 2009

the inside story of a gothic façade

Swinging precariously in a makeshift chairlift from the heights of a cathedral tower, at the equivalent of the thirtieth floor of an apartment building, the medieval sculptor put the finishing touches to the uppermost sculptures, and fitted the last joints in place. His achievement is one of the wonders of European art; on a cathedral such as Rheims with over 3000 sculptures, he created what Victor Hugo called a "stone book." Yet no one heard of him. Few devices and no mechanical instruments were there to help him. Rare was the sculptor that had not had a fall and, even protected by gloves, his hands were savagely torn by handling the limestone. Except in midwinter, he was out in all weathers.

Comparatively, however, in the Middle Ages, the sculptor considered himself happy. Happy to take home at the end of the week more than any other of the workers. Happy, too, that he was on his way up, that he had risen from being a mere stone-hewer or, worse still, from the unhealthy quarries, to a position where by hard work and with good luck he could become an architect. He could travel, too, for there was plenty of work on all the cathedral sites up and down the country and abroad, and the sculptor would often travel around from one site to another, picking up current theories, ideas and carving techniques.

Alternatively, he could settle down; at Rouen Cathedral, we know that fifteen master masons, three at least assisted by an apprentice, worked for twenty-five years on the portal of the Cathedral, carving the thirty-four large statues, the multitude of small figures, and the tympanum.

Relatively little scaffolding was used during the construction of the cathedral because the building itself as it went up provided the necessary platforms, but poles were inserted in gaps between stones and planks placed across them. At lower heights, inclined planes were used for wheelbarrows and even carts. In higher reaches, workers hoisted the stone up with cranes, which consisted of trunks or wooden poles with pulleys at the end, operated on the treadmill system, with two men walking round inside a wheel like squirrels. If these cranes looked flimsy, they were well studied and supported huge weights. Some of them survive, at Beauvais Cathedral for instance, and on the roofs of certain churches in Alsace where they were left for future repairs. In the last resort, however, the commonest method of carrying stone up was simply by hand and when one thinks of the colossal weights involved, the medieval sculptor's achievements seem even more remarkable. It is hardly surprising then, that to build a cathedral might have taken 150 years; the sound of chiseling and hammering could be heard during the services for many years.

Some of the actual sculpting was done after the stone was in place. Throughout France, there are glaring examples of large areas on churches and cathedrals which were meant to be carved and which for reasons of time or money were left bare, as is the case with one of the towers of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. Equally, unless the quarry was near the cathedral site, not much of the sculpting was done there. There were too many risks involved in the course of transport-the most costly and difficult item in cathedral building. Most of the time sculpting was done in small thatched lean-to sheds or huts beside the cathedral with twenty masons or so chiseling the blocks, laid out on a trestle or on their sides; sculpting was only done upright in the later Middle Ages. In cold weather, they would light little fires and during the long rainy winters when work on the site slowed down, the sculptors would continue working on pieces to be put up the next spring, inside these huts (the original Masonic lodges).

The sculptor's tools have varied little over the centuries; the set of chisels and a mallet, the hammer with a pointed edge, the trowel and the set square are much what the Romans used and much what is used today. It appears that they did not use models or drawings, or at least none have come down to us, but after sketching out on a block what they intended to do, attested to by the rapid, incisive chisel marks that can still be seen from close to on edges and surfaces that haven't been smoothed. The traditional skills of the profession were passed from father to son and developed rapidly in the great Gothic era from the art of copying former models, to an inventive, creative art.

Some of the bigger statues were done in two parts. The higher they are placed on a facade, the larger they are as a rule, and some on Rheims-the most highly sculpted of all Gothic cathedrals-are fifteen feet tall. Each piece was marked with a particular sign so that Saint Paul's feet weren't put with Saint Peter's body and so that each piece took up its rightful position on the facade. Again, in Rheims, we know from the position makers that this was not always the case, and mistakes were made as when two angels were inverted.

Once the larger scenes were completed, they were hoisted up and fitted into place. Often adjustment was necessary or there had to be a little bit of forcing; we can frequently see the sculptors' difficulties in making the joints fit exactly. It is hard enough to make small things fit; to put a cathedral together in all its in¬tricacy is an extraordinary feat. Later centuries, with other ideas on beauty, often tampered with the original work and in the arch moldings in Rheims, the 18th and 19th centuries added their own versions.

Sometimes, one thinks one can recognize a single hand behind two pieces of sculpture. However since no sculptor signed his work, which was probably a team effort, the masterpieces of medieval sculpture remain anonymous. Sculptors took as much care sculpting those that could not easily be seen from below as they did with those round the main portals, although those higher up have a certain roughness about them and are less well finished. The chapter had chosen the themes to be illustrated, after fierce theological debate, no doubt, and given the sculptor precise instructions on the subject, but the sculptor could then give free rein to his imagination in the details either in the interpretation of scenes and incidents or in the expressions. The famous smile of Rheims, found on many of the Rheims figures and nowhere else, is an example of the local forms that sculpture could take.

But with his growing success, the sculptor lost some of his initial modesty. He became less happy to see his sculpture mixed with others unrecognized and wanted it to stand more independently. Henceforth he worked his block of stone away from the site. He tended to become more his own master, less of a mere workman, and grew apart from the architect too. And with this development we see the beginning of the Renaissance notion of the sculptor as an "artist".