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Book review: Speaking Sculptures in Late Medieval Europe: A silent rhetoric by Kim W. Woods

21 June 2024

Nicholas Cranfield is partly convinced by a sculptural argument

THIS 100-page volume (Features, 3 May) expands an earlier essay of Woods on medieval open-mouthed sculptures predominantly from the Northern Continent. With the likes of Donatello and Desiderio da Settignano, she allows herself to cross the Alps, and she also finds an extraordinary pre-Reformation survival at Tong, in Shropshire, depicting a priest preaching in the pulpit.

She sets out to show how the sculptor sought to represent speech much as painters might include a banderol or scroll with a text.

Viewers in a church context (she includes some secular statuary) could be drawn into a conversation with, for instance, the Virgin Annunciate and the Archangel or the grieving mother of Christ at the foot of the Cross. This could be to encourage participation in the liturgy or as a deliberate way of offering catechesis, encouraging the recitation of the Hail Mary, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Creed.

Statues and paintings of each of the Apostles might be given a phrase from the Creed, as at Bamberg, and conversing groups of Apostles may have been similarly purposed, as she cites Havelberg (Germany), Évora (Portugal), and elsewhere. Much later, in the Spanish and Italian Counter-Reformation, this might have been the reason for the apostolado series by the likes of Ribera and El Greco.

Much of this I am happy to accept, despite the paucity of documentary evidence to argue that this development was calculated. Scenes of the annunciation and of the Baptist preaching in the wilderness lend themselves readily to such an interpretation. I am less convinced of figures of the Crucified. The death throes of the Saviour and the groaning on the cross cannot always betoken the Seven Last Words and may simply be an attempt to emphasise the agony of the Man-God.

With regard to the west choir screen in Naumburg Cathedral (c.1249), the author is surely right to comment on how the maidservant is seen to denounce St Peter as one of the Galileans who had followed Jesus, and to draw attention to the haggling over the 30 pieces of silver. But she is silent about the other two panels — the Last Supper and the Betrayal in the Garden — perhaps because (surprisingly) none of the figures portrayed appears to be speaking.

It would also have been good to have a consideration of the automata of speaking statues which, the Reformers alleged, the Church used to con the gullible into believing in miracles.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.

Speaking Sculptures in Late Medieval Europe: A silent rhetoric
Kim W. Woods
Lund Humphries £60.00
Church Times Bookshop £54.00

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