Beauty & Truth

Medieval Art Captivates Chelsea


On a pedestal in the entryway of Chelsea’s Luhring Augustine art gallery sits a circa 1490 woodcarving entitled Christ on the Cold Stone. The artist is unknown, but it is attributed to the Brabant region of the Netherlands where its subject matter was common during the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

Standing at a little over two feet in height, the work seems extremely compact given the amount of detail carved into this depiction of Christ in the moment immediately preceding his crucifixion. He sits on a large boulder, his hands crossed and bound at the wrists with a knotted rope, accentuating his status as a condemned prisoner. Though his legs are not bound, they are also crossed, one foot placed in front of the other in a pattern similar to his hands. The crossed hands and feet contribute to an overall contemplative appearance.

The robe that the Romans wrapped over Christ’s body after flogging him has fallen to the rock he sits upon, and beneath that robe is a large sheepskin also draped on the rock. It seems ironic at first for this warm, soft sheepskin to blanket the cold, hard stone, given that the piece explores Christ’s suffering and desolation, as captured in the title Christ on the Cold Stone. On further reflection, it’s not unusual for devotional objects to contain touches reflecting the sensibilities of a given time period. Here, the sheepskin may allude to the manger, exemplifying Christ at his most vulnerable yet still reverenced in rustic fashion as if by nature itself.

With the robe discarded beneath him, Christ’s wiry frame is revealed, combining a lean musculature and boniness that evoke aestheticism and contribute to his contemplative look. The carving is done in such delicate detail that veins can be seen weaving their way through the surface of the limbs. The face has chiseled yet gentle features and the eyes are wide open and gazing into the middle distance. A woodcarver of that time period would have worked with a painter, whose job was to bring the piece to life with color and in some places, such as the eyes, with detail. Barely any trace remains of the outer layer of paint known as polychromy, and without that detail, those wide eyes seem fixed in an encompassing gaze.

This piece is merely the introduction to the gallery’s current Gothic Spirit exhibit, done in conjunction with London’s Sam Fogg gallery and featuring nearly 30 medieval works for sale, including paintings, sculptures, woodcarvings, illuminated manuscripts and other period treasures. A symposium, held at Chelsea’s SVA Theater, exploring the nuances of restoration of medieval art and architecture, coincided with the opening of the exhibit, which runs until March 7.

Of particular interest at this symposium was a discussion of the issues surrounding the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris in the aftermath of last year’s fire, which destroyed the landmark’s spire and most of its roof. Art historian Dr. Alexandra Gajewski noted that the restoration process is still in its initial stage, which entails securing the building, and many questions remain about how to accomplish this and about how to approach future challenges, including repair of the rib vault ceiling. She struck a hopeful tone regarding the slow pacing of the project, seeing opportunity for the process to become a scholarly laboratory in the study of medieval architecture.

After mentioning extreme proposals for altering the building, such as the idea of putting a swimming pool on the roof, Dr. Gajewski said, “I think one thing one has to say, and I’m of course not supposed to point this out, is that Notre-Dame Cathedral is a Unesco World Heritage Site. And to that extent, if it wants to stay that, if it wants to keep the status, it needs to abide to the rules of the Venice Charter from 1964 and the Krakow Charter from 2000. And those state quite clearly that the best should be done to keep the integrity of the building, to keep an identity and to restore it the way that it was.”

The symposium closed with an exploration of different perspectives on restoration, and it was noted that museum curators tend to focus on clarifying the meaning inherent in a work while collectors may focus more on physical beauty and aesthetic qualities. It was also acknowledged that religious art takes on an entirely different significance for people of faith. One of the day’s speakers even suggested that the medieval works in question should be classified as something other than art, an assertion presumably based on the perspective of the artisans and the religious purpose behind their work.

On the topic of restoration in relation to Christ on the Cold Stone, the sculpture boasts little difference since its initial creation, but for the wear of time. A single crack runs from the base of the carving, up through the chest. Sections of the rope that bind Christ’s hands are missing, as are fingers of the left hand. The fingers on the right hand have been broken and reattached, some thorns from the crown are missing, and a bulrush clasped in the right hand has been broken off.

As is often the case, the absence of the original polychromy is an improvement because it allows for a full appreciation of the woodcarver’s work. Matthew Reeves, a medievalist from the Sam Fogg gallery, notes that the figure’s sinewy build reflects trends of Flemish Primitive painters, who would have been operating well north of the Brabant region, indicating that the woodcarver sought influences beyond his competitors and even beyond the region in which they worked.

This paints the picture of an ambitious woodcarver in dialogue with the great artists of his time, and the result is a piece that adeptly draws the viewer into the moment preceding the crucifixion. Christ’s predicament is obvious, yet his contemplative appearance along with his resolved posture and gaze convey a transcendence that invites questions. It is the invitation to explore those questions that is the underlying meaning of this work.

A believer’s perspective on medieval art teaches that beauty and message are two sides of the same coin. Christ on the Cold Stone first communicates on an aesthetic level, but it is the message at the heart of the work that captivates. Far from being outside the bounds of art, such works continue to speak to those with astute sensibilities and define what art can and should be.