Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 20, 2018
Joan A. Holladay and Susan L. Ward, eds. Gothic Sculpture in America III: The Museums of New York and Pennsylvania Publications of the International Center of Medieval Art, No. 6. New York: International Center of Medieval Art, 2016. 668 pp. Hardcover $75.00 (9780991043002)

Joan A. Holladay and Susan L. Ward, along with thirty-three additional contributors, have completed the third installment of the mammoth Gothic Sculpture in America series. This volume includes 446 entries on close to 500 objects, bringing the total of works published in the series close to 1200. At least two more volumes are anticipated. While some of the sculptures included, such as an Angel from the Frick Collection (cat. #43), have received scholarly attention, many more are published for the first time in this volume.

Holladay and Ward’s introduction acknowledges the challenges inherent in both the terms “Gothic” and “sculpture.” The primary concern with “Gothic” entails dating, and the editors have followed the practice of Gillerman’s volumes (and of scholarship on medieval art generally) in setting the beginning of “Gothic” in the mid-twelfth-century Ile-de-France. Rather than include only those works exhibiting the stylistic shift characteristic of this time and place, they also decided to include mid-twelfth-century works outside the Ile-de-France associated with French royal patronage. This decision means that sculpture from St. Remi in Reims (cat. #166) is published here and in Walter Cahn’s Romanesque Sculpture in American Collections II (Turnhout: Brepols, 1999). They place the end of the Gothic period in Italy at 1420–35, the dates associated with Brunelleschi’s experiments in perspective, and around 1525 for northern Europe, roughly corresponding to the Reformation.

The term “sculpture” is problematic especially in terms of materials. Most of the included objects are made of stone, as was the case in the first two volumes. Several of the entries draw on neutron activation analysis by the Limestone Sculpture Provenance Project, which identifies the origins of stones from quarries mostly in modern-day France. The editors note in the introduction that they omitted most objects made of metal or ivory as “treasury objects” as well as small-scale wooden objects and undecorated furniture (2–3). Several large-scale wooden objects are included, as are large reliquaries in wood and metal, such as a fascinating wooden arm reliquary suggested to have been made in the Rhineland during the second half of the fifteenth century (cat. #46).

Entries are organized first by the museum in which they are currently housed, then alphabetically by (modern) country of origin, and finally by date. All of the sculptures come from Europe, primarily from France but also from Austria, England, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain, as well as one object (cat. #266) indicated to have originated in “Northern Europe.” Included objects span the full time period of “Gothic” as the editors define it though, unsurprisingly, there are many more works from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries than from the twelfth and thirteenth.

Individual entries begin with the catalogue number and descriptive title of the work, followed by its place of origin, date, material, dimensions (both metric and US/imperial), museum accession number, and source of purchase funds. Next is the provenance, to the extent this is known. A description of the work’s condition follows, in italics, including notes on the survival of any polychromy. Since the images are all black and white and, with a few exceptions, only a single view of each work is provided, these condition reports are especially important. The authors are not consistent in the terms used to describe the condition. How, for example, does the “generally good condition” of #45 compare with the “fine condition” of #46? A good sense of the condition of each object does, however, emerge from reading the full report in each case. Then each object receives an essay focusing on its formal properties and possible attributions or place of origin with discussion of comparanda (always with a note about where to locate at least one image, often with a URL). The consistent comparison with more firmly attributed objects makes the conclusions of these essays convincing on the whole. The authors are also careful to note when an attribution is tentative and to suggest possible alternatives. No doubt some readers will disagree with some of the attributions, but they are in any case a strong start. These essays also explain the (sometimes uncertain) iconography of the work and describe when and where this iconography was especially popular. The essays are thus accessible to nonspecialists while providing details and insights that specialists will find useful. Finally, each entry is accompanied by a list of exhibitions and bibliography, including both print and online sources, if relevant.

Each entry is accompanied by a photograph of the object. Most are of good quality, though a few, notably those of capitals and bases from the Explorers Club in New York (cat. #24), are blurry or washed out so that details and the level of relief are imperceptible, probably due to less-than-ideal lighting conditions.

Readers hoping to find essays on the substantial collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be disappointed. The editors note that the Met “prefers to publish its own catalogues” (1), and has in fact begun to do so with the publication of Italian Medieval Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters by Lisbeth Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Jack Soultanian with contributions by Richard Y. Tayar (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010). Instead, the largest collections included are those from the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

This third volume represents an improvement over the first two. The entries are consistently learned and thorough, though some are of necessity longer or more insightful than others. As with the first two volumes, there is a section at the end for “Works of Doubtful Authenticity” but, while assignments to this section are unexplained in the first two volumes, each one in volume 3 includes a brief essay explaining why the authors find it problematic. Finally, whereas volumes 1 and 2 are plagued by numerous typographical errors, there are very few in this volume. One exception appears right at the beginning of the volume: in the list of contributors to the catalogue, Constancio del Álamo Martínez of the Hispanic Society of America is assigned the initials CVA, yet the initials CdA follow entries of which he is an author.  

In a brief contribution to Gesta (“Encounter: Gothic Sculpture in America,” 53:2 [Fall 2014]: 121–24), Holladay notes that future iterations of the census may appear online. An online presence would be most welcome, particularly in terms of facilitating searches, linking comparanda, and enabling the inclusion of color images from multiple angles. Yet I hope that future volumes continue to appear in print, if only so that the pleasure of flipping the pages to find unexpected treasures may continue. The print format also unearths trends that might be less obvious in an online database. For example, the overwhelming numbers of Virgin and Child sculptures, though certainly not surprising, is quite striking when encountered in this format.

This volume is a most welcome contribution to the study of Gothic sculpture. It is, as the editors hope, more “user friendly and forward looking than its predecessors” (3) and the overall level of the entries has been improved. It will prove a useful resource for medieval art historians in search of comparanda, students in search of research projects, and museumgoers looking for some information about interesting artworks.

Brigit Ferguson
Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Hamilton College