PRINT April 1970

The Year 1200 at the Metropolitan

THE YEAR 1200 IS UNQUESTIONABLY one of the most beautiful exhibitions of medieval art ever assembled. The second of the five special exhibitions planned to mark the Centennial of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is currently installed in the Harry Payne Bingham Special Exhibition Galleries and will remain there until May 10. Dr. Florens Deuchler and the staff of the Museum’s Medieval Department have assembled, according to my count, nearly 350 works of art from major church, state and private collections in Europe, Canada and the United States. The range of the exhibition is as vast as the number of works suggests, including not only sculpture, manuscripts and stained glass, but also metalwork, enamels, ivories, jewels, textiles and coins. Among the more important loans,’ are two masterpieces by the goldsmith Nicholas of Verdun, three enamel plaques from the Klosterneuburg altar and the Shrine of Notre Dame from Tournai Cathedral. In addition to other such important pieces as the tomb effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the exhibition includes an impressive number of manuscripts borrowed from major collections and stained glass loaned from the cathedrals of Bourges, Strasbourg, York and Lausanne. But only a hint of the true depth of the exhibition comes from a list of loans or from the enormous number of pieces. There are many well-known masterpieces, the Bury St. Edmunds cross, for example, and there are pieces that have, to my knowledge, never been exhibited, such as the angels from the façade of the Cathedral at Laon.

Any exhibition of medieval art that brought together such quality in this quantity would be worthy of attention; but The Year 1200 is not simply an exhaustive compilation of relatively portable (and loanable) pieces from the Middle Ages. It is exactly what the title suggests, a carefully chosen exhibition deliberately and selectively organized around a specific theme, an investigation of the various artistic developments over the forty-year period from 1180 to 1220. This fascinating period has been receiving more scholarly attention in the last decades, but it has never been the subject of an exhibition. The Medieval Department of the Metropolitan has rectified the situation by mounting what is sure to be considered the definitive show. As Dr. Konrad Hoffmann, author of the fine catalog, writes in his introduction, it is likely that the exhibition title will come to identify the style. However, I suspect this will happen less for his reasons (chiefly, that no preconceived ideas are associated with this name), than because of the impact of the exhibition itself and the various activities planned in conjunction with it. These include a symposium of scholars dealing with the theme, in March, and publication not only of the symposium papers but a volume of background studies, as well as a number of other events.

It is unusual to find an exhibition of medieval art with any but the most general theme, preferably one that permits almost any inclusion. And it is even more unusual to find an exhibition limited to its theme, however vague. The Year 1200 is all the more remarkable then for investigating a particular theme and for examining in depth, as far as possible, the visual and intellectual ramifications. It is a measure of the exhibition’s successful adherence to its theme that it is almost impossible to define the subject without speaking of the objects themselves.

If thoughts always return to the extraordinary beauty of the objects, it is in part due to the installations designed by Stuart Silver. Clearly the most striking and inventive displays are the vertical plastic columns suspended from the ceiling. They were supposedly designed to reflect the verticality of Gothic architecture and were arranged in clusters to heighten the columnar effect. Fortunately, both the verticality and the columnar effect are negligible. The clustering of the square units on the diagonal was an inspired idea, however, and gives excellent results. The little square cases effectively lend themselves to the display of small objects and concentrate the viewer’s attention. The arrangement in each case encourages close observation of every piece and still relieves any sense of crowding. Each object gleams like a solitary jewel and has an importance that could not be conveyed in a more conventional installation. In addition, the placement of the columns invites comparison between them—a situation stimulated by the careful juxtaposition of styles and iconography. You have only to compare the columnar displays with the horizontal cases, those in the later rooms, for example, to appreciate the new scheme. But even the horizontal cases have been arranged with a very sensitive eye. Some aspects of the installation can be criticized—the range of the lighting is from over-dramatic to absolutely inadequate and quite annoying. On the whole, however, the installations are successful.

To include a sense of architecture in the exhibition, the Museum commissioned Francis Thompson to make a film that would explore all aspects of the Cathedral at Chartres, probably the most famous in France. Thus, the film serves as a reminder that many of the important works created in the period surveyed by The Year 1200 could not be exhibited because they are still in place on churches. The film is a spectacular collection of striking images, capturing the visual impact of Chartres. You do get a sense of the gigantic size of the Cathedral and its dominance of the town, as well as the richness of the sculptural decoration and the almost unbelievable splendor of the stained glass windows, the latter seen in magnificent details that are not easily visible in reality. However, from a purely architectural point of view, the film is missing one basic element. It does not give the viewer a feeling of the interior space comparable to the experience of moving within the building at human scale. But much, indeed most, of the overwhelming visual experience of Chartres does come through.

It is almost impossible to summarize the themes of The Year 1200 without being either misleading or unintentionally simplistic. Perhaps the one consistent feature of the works created over the forty-year period is the interest in the human figure. The liberation of the body from the rigid constraints of the past and the understanding of the body as an integral organism are common characteristics of these works. However, the way in which this renewed interest in man is expressed, the form the expression takes and the end results in works of art often differ widely. But then the rediscovery of the unity and independence of the figure was neither universal nor simultaneous across western Europe. Adopted readily in some areas, the new approach to the human body was consciously rejected in others.

The change from the stiff, abstract conception of the body in the first Gothic sculpture is immediately apparent in the work of Nicholas of Verdun. In fact, the Klosterneuburg altar, three plaques from which have been loaned to the exhibition, is not only the earliest work by this artist, it is also one of the first works to show the new style. Working with a limited space in a geometric pattern, Nicholas still managed to produce figures that are obviously conceived as whole organisms having a unity of conception and anatomical structure. His figures are not thin, stiff abstractions with extremities dangling from mechanical joints, but well-proportioned, independent and active human bodies. The structure of the body is understood and expressed in terms of muscles and bones, revealing a definite comprehension of anatomy. Moreover, their actions are not delicately choreographed patterns, but bold, dynamic movements through real space. The actions are not a stylized dance conceived to fill the picture plane, but the direct psychological animation of human figures. The garments respond to this movement, being alternately pushed through space by forward-moving limbs or trailing after the direction of the action. And when no action is present the drapery falls close to the body defining its contours in graceful parallel folds. The Klosterneuburg plaques are masterpieces of distilled, miniaturized drama and dynamic conceptualization of the subjects, heightened by the supremely confident draftsmanship of the artist.

These early works of Nicholas of Verdun are quite characteristic of the first phase of the 1200 style. Suddenly, the body has come alive in bold, direct action. The stiffness of the earlier period of Gothic art has given way to bodies that move naturally. The figures now have mobility, independence and corporeality. The frozen forms of the past have been replaced by figures vividly expressing the full range of human emotions in their bodies as well as their faces. The balance between the body and the spirit is a very classical quality and recalls the art of antiquity. The interest in the antique may be due to actual contacts with regions where visible signs of the past abounded, as in Italy, Provence or northern Spain, or it may be due to the influence of the perennial Hellenism of Byzantine art. But it must be remembered that there was a tradition of classicizing styles going back several centuries in the regions where the 1200 style first appears.

Beginning in the minor arts produced at centers in the Meuse River Valley, the new style is soon found in painting and sculpture, as the exhibition demonstrates. The show has been arranged so as to present the viewer with insights into the development of both the style and the complex iconography. In the same way it presents ample evidence that the 1200 style spread from the Meuse Valley across northern France, Belgium and the Rhineland within a decade after Nicholas of Verdun completed the Klosterneuburg altar in 1181. The most famous example of the style in painting, a Psalter made for Queen Ingeborg of France in the 1190s, was unavailable for inclusion in the exhibition, being in the Musée Condé at Chantilly. But the Museum was able to obtain a set of transparencies of all the full-page illustrations in this important manuscript, which are displayed next to a case containing several of the manuscripts that Dr. Deuchler has identified as products of the same workshop. While it has no full-page illustrations, the Psalter in the Pierpont Morgan Library has numerous historiated initials that give a good idea of both the work of one of the artists who participated in illustrating the Ingeborg manuscript and the first phase of the 1200 style in painting. The initial shows Abraham confronting the Three Visitors, here shown as angels. Although quite tiny, the figures still stride authoritatively across the page. The dynamism is emphasized in the number of lines leading out of the picture space, such as the wings of the angels or the scroll held by Abraham. This little figure, however, is not active. In spite of the gesture of the arm, he has been shown in a calm, dignified manner. These are features that become apparent in the decade of the 1190s and may owe to influences from large sculpture.

The angel from the west façade of Laon Cathedral exemplifies the development in sculpture. This figure preserves the classicizing qualities seen in the Klosterneuburg altar and the Morgan manuscript in that one still sees the organic unity of the body, its articulation and independence. There is a boldness in the pose as the figure dramatically drops to one knee, but there is no real drama such as in the altar panels by Nicholas. Even the drapery with its long, flowing lines emphasizing the downward movement and simultaneously defining the contours of the body, has more charm and grace than drama. This can be seen in the later works of Nicholas of Verdun, such as the Shrine of Notre Dame from Tournai, and of his workshop. The small bronze figure of Moses produced in this shop at the end of the century is a good case in point. While the swirling lines of the drapery preserves a sense of dynamism, the erect posture and commanding expression give the figure a monumental quality, perhaps taken over from sculpture.

The second phase of the 1200 style continues all of the earlier tendencies toward articulation, clarification and consolidation of the body, but it is also characterized by a calm grandeur and monumentality. The exhibition makes the point superbly with the inclusion of the tomb effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Serene and eternal, the Queen is reclining on a bier and holding in her hands an open prayer book. The supreme composure and dignity in the face are matched by the formality of the pose. The drapery, stilled now by the Queen’s death, hangs heavily around the body, enveloping it in graceful folds.

In the same room with the gisant of Eleanor is a wealth of stained glass, including a number of fragments from decorative borders, scenes from the lives of saints, etc. and a strikingly effective emperor window from the Cathedral of Strasbourg, visible evidence that the 1200 style was not uniformly adopted in every artistic center. Clearly there is much of the past in this aloof, majestic figure of an enthroned emperor. He brings to mind the formal images of Byzantine emperors in their weighty splendor, as well as the traditional representations of Carolingian and Ottonian rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. The emperor in the Strasbourg window is enthroned in true majesty with a monumental, imposing grandeur and a stern gaze. However, the representation is not of an organic human body, but is marked by a strong iconic abstraction. Moreover, the blazing reds and brilliant yellows tend to give prominence to the wealth of decorative patterns in the garments.

This is not to imply that the window is outside the scope of the exhibition. Indeed, it is precisely through the inclusion of such works that our understanding of the period is further enriched. The same must also be said for the decorative borders displayed in the same room. The calm precision that governs the patterns is the same classicizing spirit that runs throughout the exhibition. The importance of decoration in the style is further emphasized by the numerous beautiful fragments of patterned enamelwork.

The inclusion of examples of nearly contemporary Byzantine art is another factor, not only in the success of the exhibition, but also in broadening our understanding of the 1200 style. The existence of Byzantine influences throughout the period covered in the show is well known, but the actual presence of examples, even in relatively small quantity, helps the viewer begin to see the wide variety of these influences. One of the high points of the second phase of the 1200 style, English manuscript illustration, is especially rich in Byzantine influences. The Tree of Jesse page from a Psalter made at Canterbury about 1200 clearly shows the adaptation of the Byzantine figure types with their characteristic oval faces, high foreheads and intense, staring eyes. Even the placement of the figures in medallions indicates a probable Byzantine source. The formal symmetry of the page arrangement, as well as the foliage patterns and medallions, all combine to give the illustration a grandeur that belies the actual size. The calm monumentality recalls the sculpture of the same time, the figure of Eleanor of Aquitaine, for example, or the transept portals at Chartres.

These manuscripts, and to a lesser extent the sculpture included in the exhibition, indicate a return to abstraction in early thirteenth-century art. However, there is another important trend only a few years later that continues the earlier attempts to achieve a fresh naturalism. If the first trend results in the creation of High Gothic sculpture for the cathedrals of Chartres, Paris and Reims, the second produces such exquisite works as the female figure called “Petite Eglise” from Strasbourg and the extraordinary lady from Winchester. These figures have a disarmingly naturalistic elegance. Both of them stand in poses with the weight of the body resting on one foot, both turn gently but persuasively on the axis of the body. In short, they reveal an understanding of the body in all of its clarity and articulation, animated from within by a vibrant life-like presence, that is one outcome of the investigations of the previous decades. In these two ladies we can see a visual sensitivity equal to anything created in antiquity. They give expression to a definite, individualistic ideal of beauty in the best classical terms.

On all counts The Year 1200 is a masterful achievement. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has assembled an outstanding collection of important works for the express purpose of carefully examining one of the more complex periods in the history of medieval art. In addition, they have set a standard of excellence that will be hard to match. The exhibition is a triumph on several levels, not only for the obvious intelligence that has gone into the selection and examination of the various aspects of the theme in a depth seldom encountered, but also for bringing together what Dr. Deuchler appropriately calls, “some of the most extraordinary works of art in Western history.”

William W. Clark, Jr.