The line of beauty

<strong>Romanesque Architectural Sculpture: the Charles Eliot Norton lectures


Meyer Sc

We've all seen them: an arc of stainless-steel tube supporting an Acrobat and a Thinker; supermanly hands around a hawser; gigantic poached eggs (or are they brains?); the Spirit of Asda expressed in scalloped chrome. On plazas, by walkways and in other desertified spaces, public sculptures adorn the continent in styles ranging from the brazenly humanist to Brancusi-lite.

A thousand years or so ago, Europe was bare of such amenities. Then, in the words of one chronicler, a "white mantle" of churches spread across the western lands; "each Christian people strove against the others to erect nobler ones". Soon these pious competitors began to embroider the white mantle with sculpture - limestone and marble unfurling in loops and swags, distressed into what the late art historian Meyer Schapiro called, with his gift for the lyrically abstract phrase, an "inspired play of contrasted and emergent convexities, concavities, grooves, and flutterings . . . and big eddying forms".

Schapiro began his 1967 Norton lectures at Harvard, published here for the first time, with this multinational outburst of carving that gave to the churches "the kind of speaking face which comes from sculpture". There had been nothing like it for a long time, because, as he pointed out, the Romans broke with the Greek habit of putting statues around their temples, and saved their monumental energies for triumphal arches and other such stately boasting.

Schapiro was keen to bring out how responsive these religious works were to the world they faced. Romanesque sculptures on exterior walls appear "neither as ornament nor as theological illustration but as 'argument'"; they are conversation as well as conversion pieces. In them, the Church is "in a posture which relates to conflict, to conviction, to persuasion, to threat, to the imaging of consequences", and those who look at them are "people free to move, to regard things according to their own inclination or position at the moment, and to shift their point of view".

He was absolutely right, but should have gone further. What he said is true also of the carvings inside the churches, indeed within the cloisters, where only the professionals of the faith penetrated but which were themselves designed for mulling things over while on the move. His emphasis has implications far beyond how we should regard the strained, magnificent angels and serpents that address us from the façades.

Karl Marx, in a footnote to the first volume of Capital, pictured the Middle Ages as "dominated by Catholicism", but added wryly that "one thing is clear: the Middle Ages could not live on Catholicism". We need to be more inquiring and subtle, more like Schapiro, in questioning the dominance Marx imagined. Perhaps "Christia nisation" was never quite as thorough as the Church's propagandists have sometimes wanted to make out. By the same token, perhaps today's "secularisation" is less all-consuming than the agents of a different PR would have us believe. The European corpus of Romanesque sculpture (you can see many of the English remains on the meticulous website is the richest, most complex and thought-provoking mass of anthropological data for the study of cultural change that we possess. This is probably why it is ignored by those who prefer sounding off to paying attention.

Alert though Schapiro was to the socio-historical clues that these old stones carry, alertness is not what makes him the best writer about the Romanesque. He was that splendid and rare being, a devoutly freethinking Jew, like Spinoza or Simone Weil, and he turned on these products of a younger dispensation an eye both quizzical and immersed in scripture. He brought to that past his vivid sensitivity to the forms of 20th-century art, many of which grew, as in the cases of Picasso and Matisse, from 11th-century work in Catalonia and Provence.

And the power of growth was Schapiro's passion. His biting essay on the American art his torian Bernard Berenson identified Berenson's self-satisfaction as a "failure to grow", just as, conversely, Schapiro rejoiced at the patient transformations through which Mondrian, over half a century, achieved "continuous growth". When intent on a detail, such as the "tiny disk" of a eucharistic wafer on an altar-frontal in Rodez, southern France, he traces the intricate suppleness with which "the little element becomes the nucleus or, if you wish, the gene out of which come endless, repeated, rounded patterns".

But Schapiro was not simply a connoisseur. Because he produced beautiful, plastic works of his own - prints, reliefs and paintings - he could feel through the marks left long ago by someone else's chisel the swell of attachment felt by the creator to his creation. He opens our eyes to the way one sculptor depicted Eve's breasts "with great affection, with love, aligning them in shape to the two bits of fruit at the extreme right", or how another has followed the folds on an abbot's vestments "with attention to all the seams, all the indentations". This is seeing of the highest acuity, something done with the whole body, and, as Proust said of similar achievements in Ruskin, it is a form of resurrection.

I found only two small mistakes in this profound, delightful book. Modena is not in Lombardy, but in Emilia-Romagna. And in the Autun capital that shows the three kings being warned not to revisit Herod, they are not all sleeping, as Schapiro claimed. The Magi snuggle up together under their ribbed bedspread, like filling generously packed into a taco, but one of them has woken at the angel's touch on his little finger. In the dark, the angel's other hand is pointing to the star behind his head, which (it is characteristic of Schapiro to have noticed this) cuts into the architectural frame of the scene and shows them the way they should go.

Eric Griffiths is co-editor, with Matthew Reynolds, of "Dante in English" (Penguin)