Colour in medieval sculpture – Dr Alex Woodcock

(Author: Dr Alex Woodcock) The sculptor Barbara Hepworth was unusual among twentieth century artists for using paint to colour some of her sculptures. A few centuries previous, however, she would have fitted right in.

A fourteenth-century knight from the south choir aisle, Exeter
A fourteenth-century knight from the south choir aisle, Exeter

Most of the medieval sculpture we see today is unfinished. This is because, through the effects of weathering, neglect or other processes natural or artificial, much of it has lost its surface finish. And it was the surface, primed and painted and gilded, which might be said to have constituted the most important aspect of the work in the eyes of our medieval ancestors.

Colour is inevitably an element in the overall effect of any sculpture, even if we are not conscious of it. Our expectation of sculpture today is that the viewer should be able to see the primary material out of which the form was made. This derives from a post-medieval (specifically eighteenth- and nineteenth-century) attitude that valued ‘truth to materials’ above all else. By contrast, in the Middle Ages, viewers did not consider the interior, primary material to be the true form, but rather the exterior polychrome layers.

We perceive sculptures by means of light reflecting at varying angles from their three-dimensional forms. Paint and colour can articulate these reflections in a variety of ways, not only by the means of the colours themselves – their hues and tonal values – but also through the ways they affect the surface itself, making it smooth or rough, shiny or dull.

Detail of mugwort from a  corbel in the presbyter, Exeter Cathedral
Detail of mugwort from a corbel in the presbyter, Exeter Cathedral

Further textures are possible with metal leaf (gold and silver), which, applied onto a painted ground, allow a kind of luminosity to be achieved. Any of these finishes can dramatically transform the plain, unpainted surfaces of stone and wood from which the images were carved. ‘The sculpted surface’, writes Stacy Boldrick, ‘was supposed to produce the illusion that the piece of wood or stone had been transformed into a being existing in the world of the living as opposed to the world of art’.

Figurative sculpture was particularly open to the transformative effects of colour. But in making it appear more convincingly sentient it also entered it into a dangerous territory somewhere between reality and illusion. This ambivalence helps to explain the precarious position sculpture, especially figurative sculpture, could occupy in medieval thought. On the one hand it stood as a testament to the artistic capabilities of the craftsmen who produced it, and often, in its subject matter, an exemplar of the power of the church and the longevity of its sacred persons, yet on the other it occupied a liminal space between the real and the unreal.

This tension between illusion and reality characterised the reception of sculpture throughout the medieval period. Statues that were ‘dressed and carried in procession, carvings that were painted with vivid likeness to living persons, saints who gazed at worshippers with a frontal directness that invited communication through the meeting of the eyes: these were the most dangerous forms of religious imagery’. While in non-western cultures it is more accepted that sculpture can be thought of as providing a home for disembodied spirits orforces, in the medieval west, however, this was exactly the problem. As Michael Camille wrote, the fear ‘that stimulated the erasure of idols in manuscript illustrations was not a fear of the god signified in the representation but probably the presence of the demon within it’.

Saint Catherine, early 1300s, Exeter Cathedral
Saint Catherine, early 1300s, Exeter Cathedral

We might not give it much thought, but if colour can bring sculptures to life, then the lack of it today means that we have to work hard and use our imagination if we are to re-animate these ‘lifeless’ images.

Even the exterior statues that often form a hierarchical world of saints and angels on the front of many cathedrals were once picked out by pigments derived from minerals and metals. Conservation work, in retrieving fragments of colour that still exist bonded to the surface of the stone, can allow dramatic, colourful reconstructions of buildings we think we know well, offering us something more than the partial glimpse of the past to which we have become accustomed.

Dr Alex Woodcock is a writer and stonecarver who specialises in medieval sculpture

Text copyright Dr Alex Woodcock 2015   Photography: Mark Ware

2 thoughts on “Colour in medieval sculpture – Dr Alex Woodcock

  1. Thanks for this fascinating insight into how we perceive sculpture today and back in medieval times. I’m curious to know whether the person who sculpted the pieces back then (or maybe people?) would have been the same person who would have painted or overlaid the sculpture with the colour.

    1. Good question, Stevie. Alex has explained that records kept at Exeter Cathedral from around 1300 indicate that during medieval times sculptors were paid to carve sculptures and other people were paid to paint them. – Mark Ware

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