Colour and illusion in medieval sculpture

Most of the medieval sculpture we see today is incomplete. This is because it has often lost its surface finish of bright colour – paint and gilding – which was perhaps the most important aspect of the work in the eyes of our medieval ancestors.

Our expectation of sculpture today is that the viewer should be able to see the primary material out of which it is 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.


Remains of the fifteenth-century sedilia at Crediton (Devon) damaged at the Reformation. The remnants of colour are original. Photo: Mark Ware.

Paint and colour can articulate how we perceive sculpture, not only by the means of the colours themselves – their hues and tonal values – but also through the ways they affect the surface, making it smooth or rough, shiny or dull. 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 alter 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’.


Fourteenth-century roof boss, Exeter Cathedral (Devon): conserved medieval and later colours. Photo: Mark Ware.

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, a statement about 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 or painted to mimic living persons, or saints who gazed directly at worshippers 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 or forces, in the medieval west, however, this was exactly the problem. As Michael Camille writes, 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’.


The west front of Exeter Cathedral. Hard to imagine now, but these statues and their canopies were originally painted in bright colours. Photo: Mark Ware.

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.


A version of this post originally appeared on the Wavelength Project blog. Thanks to Mark Ware for permission to use the photographs of Crediton church and Exeter Cathedral. The latter also feature in my book Of Sirens and Centaurs: Medieval Sculpture at Exeter Cathedral published by Impress Books.


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