Thursday, February 16, 2017

Eddies (Not in the Space-Time Continuum)

York Minster is home to a series of statues that have always arrested me outright. The effect on me is mostly with the earliest Edwards post-Conquest, we have Longshanks (I), Edward II, and III. Each of these portrait sculptures has always seemed to me among the most animated statuary I have ever seen. But there is something about the style of the art that demands questioning and study, and is for me an illumination of the reason we study art from bygone periods.

Longshanks in particular has an imperiousness that is powerful in the extreme. Pointing down at you, his forehead creased with the stress of some imperative or command, even his curling hair alive with motion and unspoken intent, his vertical stretch, his heavy but moving robes, everything about him (not least a weighty sword he carries as if it were a feather) demands not only attention but acquiescence.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


The thing about the fact these were done centuries before my generation came to be (or indeed my country, for that matter) is that there are conventions in place in the creation of these images that I almost certainly do not understand.

A modern American, the very concept of autocratic kingship is a toughie.

Edward II, whose reputation has been reduced to his sexuality in modern times, appears less martial, but no less royal. His hair, like his father's and his son's, especially evokes a kind of intensity. I have to believe this is not intended to convey that these Plantagenets had hairstyles quite so specifically reminiscent of Roseanne Roseannadanna (though her intensity stands up next to the kings'!), but speaks to something other than feature-by-feature reproduction.

The portraiture, of course, comes from a single, briefer time frame than the Edwards' reigns; these images are not real time reflections, and would not have been taken as such. Rather, the features both individual and shared communicate something about kings in concept, and each of these kings' legacies in their particulars.

Edward II, not known as The Hammer of the Scots, nor for the long and prosperous rule of his son III, has a thoughtful mien about him. His left hand raised and wrist curving, his right holding NOT a sword. The lines of his height, his garments, are more broken, more complicated. He is belted, and he is draped in multiple directions. His head bows forward ever so slightly, and at a definite angle compared to his father. He appears to be contemplating something. Possibly, his thoughtful thousand-mile gaze could be seen as thought*less*, even stupid, the gesture of his hand equivocal, less strong than the others. What was I meant to see, looking at this figure? I may not see what was intended ...

Edward III, famed for a stupendously long reign, and often seen these days as having remediated some of the perceived sins of his father, looks almost as if he is answering someone. His brow is again furrowed, pressed downward, but his chin pointing upward. His beard is the longest and least curly; the lines of his garments, indicating his body beneath, are again long and straight, but like his father and unlike his grandfather Longshanks, he is belted. Girded. His mantle is thrown over his right shoulder, his arms free; again, he indicates motion. His hair may be the most startling of the three statues.

To III's right, the nearly beardless Richard II stands; the youth, the scion, the one who faced rebellions and a changing monarchy. His cheeks seem the faintest bit chubby. His forehead, his whole face indeed, is smooth and not caught in the extremity of expression of his forbears. His hair is almost horizontal. Richard's statue retains some pigment from its former painted decoration. Like his great-great grandfather, Richard bears a sword. Like Longshanks and his grandfather, III, he is pointing at the viewer. Yet the impression is that we are looking at *youth*, looking at a king whose reign did not reach the maturity Edward III's long stint on the throne held and seasoned for England.

Richard II was the son of Edward the Black Prince, who did not live to ascend the throne. He was a boy-king, like Edward III had been before he overthrew the regency of his mother and her lover, Mortimer. Richard depended upon, and then fell out with, his uncle Lancaster and his cousin, the eventual Henry IV, whose son Henry V is reminding me for some reason of Martin Sheen in this link.

Henry has both hands full, and does not look to his viewers, eyes elevated, sword - we know - ever valiant. Ever more unto the breach, my friends.


Of all these figures, it is the Edwards who seem most alien to me, who arrest my attention. They are frankly ugly to my eyes. Startlingly so. Not as works of art, but as evocations of individuals, as portraits. The intensity is too much, the emphases uncanny.

To view the details of these statues closely, as is possible in photographs, was not the way they were made to be seen. Would have been inconceivable, when these were made. They reside, in physical reality, above the heads of anyone entering York Minster. And, for anyone standing in that consecrated place, it would even now be impossible to look at them with the care that we can in the reproductions and detail shots I have linked. It would in fact have been unseemly, in their day, to expend great attention on statues of kings - "what they looked like" - as a member of a religious congregation. And the multiplicity of these figures would have discouraged that sort of gazing.

The view when they were made did not allow the privilege of peering we have now.


As much particular attention as has been lavished on every one of the statues, the truth of the art was that they were meant to be part of a whole; elevated over the flesh-and-blood parishoners, but as much a part of the congregation gathered before G-d as lesser men. A mass of figures. These were statues glorifying the monarchy, certainly; even telling stories of each king's life and deeds. But they were ultimately part of the glorification of G-d - and the Church.

The potent energy of the Edwards may have been intended as part of a more en masse evocation of the intensity of worship, devotion, praise expected to be offered on this sacred ground.


Anyone who knows more of medieval art than I do - please disabuse me of any of these notions, or explain those aspects of what I am missing. I'd love to talk! These faces make me stop and stare every time.

All I can explain are those things I don't understand within the context of these works' creation - royalty itself; the finer points of Plantagenet politics or history; the specific legends of each of these individuals' reputations ... just how far these amazing portraits are even meant to be seen AS individuals. Allegorical implications. The filter of the history already passed between Longshanks and York Minster's decoration, so many generations later.

2 comments:

Lilac Shoshani said...

I don't know much about medieval art, but I'm deeply drawn to medieval philosophers like Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.

DLM said...

I don't know much either, but those statues get my attention so completely I really *look* at them. That's half the battle in learning anything about the world, right? Studying it.