Chartres (4): The Statues
The extraordinary characteristic of sculpture is that it gives weight, solidity and inescapable physical reality to abstract ideas. Think of those Greek kouroi again. They are portrayals of impossibly beautiful human beings, ideals that on this earth never existed. Yet there they are, solid and unavoidable. That such sculpture should exist is one evidence that persuades me that Plato must have been right. There is a real world of ideal forms that underly those we know. But there’s another kind of sculpture as well that isn’t about underlying abstract realities but human experience. Think of Rodin’s The Kiss. Such statues persuade us that although we may not have experienced such extremes of passion ourselves there are people who have and do. The statues at Chartres are most definitely in the first category. Of all styles of art the Medieval was most allegorical, in other words it attempted to present invisible unseen realities underlying material visible ones. Medieval artists had to work within tightly circumscribed codes. A Medieval artists had to know, for example, that a nimbus round somebody’s head expressed sanctity whilst a nimbus with a cross inscribed in it stood for divinity. Representations of God the Father and angels always had to have bare feet whereas saints, even the Virgin, never did. St Peter always had to have curly hair and a trimmed beard, whereas St Paul was always bald with a long beard. Such conventions helped unlettered people to read this art, much as the commonly accepted meanings conventionally assigned to words enable us to read books. Chartres is full of allegorical references of this kind. Inconstancy is represented on the column of a pillar, for example, by a monk one can only describe as skiddadling in the most lively manner from his cloister. Baalam stands on an ass representing both the New Testament that stands on the Old and the superiority of human to animal.
The statues in the main porch of Chartres are not only tightly inscribed by these conventions but even more removed from daily life. There is none of the liveliness of the escaping monk here but ritualized pillar figures that in naturalistic terms are impossible. The bodies are elongated, the postures static, the hand gestures tightly shut in by the enclosed arms. Yet to me, and I am certainly not alone in thinking this, the faces of these statues are the noblest, the most sensitive and delicately humane in the whole canon of sculpture. The faces of Romanesque saints had been vigorous, passionate and restless. But here, says Kenneth Clark in Civilization, ‘the refinement, the look of selfless detachment and the spirituality of these heads is something entirely new in art. Beside them the gods and heroes of ancient Greece look arrogant, soulless and even slightly brutal’. I think he’s right.