The mix of European sculpture such as a George and the dragon sculpture and a European bust, alongside a young Bahamian apprentice, busy glazing a plate, piqued my interest.
Kersting’s hand-written note on the back of the photograph reads Nassau, Bahamas and Chelsea Pottery.
To put the Kersting photograph into context, the late 1950s and early 1960s saw Nassau as the playground of the rich and famous, who arrived to sample the social scene – the sun, the wild parties and one of the most important and prestigious motor racing events on the race calendar! At the same time, more American and European money began flowing through Nassau, and there was a market for fine pottery, especially among foreign tourists and the affluent ex-pat community in Nassau.
Obviously, Chelsea Pottery was the first line of enquiry. In fact, Chelsea was the brainchild of David Rawnsley, a highly gifted and innovative man who had trained as an architect and engineer but who had also worked as a very successful art director in the British Film Industry. For those of us old enough to have watched the following in the 1960s with our grandparents or parents – One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942) and In Which We Serve (1942). His film innovations were widely ridiculed by the Rank film crews. Despite this, David Rawnsley developed independent frame storyboarding and back projection, both radical improvements to the filmmaking process.
At the end of the war, Rawnsley had already set up an ‘atelier libre’ in Paris, followed by another in London 1952, where painters and sculptors could work alongside each other exploring the use of clay and sharing ideas and experiences, for a daily charge. Yet, he decided to leave Chelsea London and set up a pottery along similar lines, in Nassau in the Bahamas.
A newspaper article – Chelsea Pottery of London comes to the Bahamas 1958, published January 11th, 1958, in the Miami Times describes this branch of his famous London pottery house headed by David Rawnsley and assisted by two European ceramic artists. Two Bahamians, George Huyler and Kendal Hanna, were permanently employed.
Instead of pursuing the Chelsea pottery line of enquiry, I wondered about the young man in the photograph… was he one of the apprentices or full-time employees George or Kendal?
Trawling through online articles and photographs of the Chelsea pottery in Nassau, two images showed a young man identified as Maxwell Taylor, who became a much admired and respected Bahamian artist. I contacted Max Taylor and he kindly confirmed that it was him in the Anthony Kersting photograph.
So how did this young Bahamian who trained as a ceramicist in the Chelsea Pottery eventually become one of the greatest Bahamian artists, renown as a painter, sculptor and printmaker?
Along with Brent Malone and Kendal Hanna, Maxwell became one of the ﬁrst apprentices of the Chelsea Pottery in Nassau. He always had a strong desire to draw and paint and admitted that David Rawnsley was instrumental in instructing and encouraging him. After the pottery closed, he later moved to New York and studied at the Art Students League of New York. Maxwell left New York after 20 years and travelled to South Carolina and Europe.
Over the past 40 years, Maxell Taylor has dealt with issues which reflect his own life experiences, such as Bahamian women as single mothers, immigration, political satire and political commentary, the Middle Passage and Slavery – celebration and misery.
Maxwell Taylor, the young man who against all odds worked to become an artist, became a teacher, a highly accomplished craftsperson and is now renowned for his ceramics, paintings, and printmaking.
He certainly had an interesting life from his time as an apprentice in Chelsea Pottery, when Anthony Kersting photographed him, to his well-earned status as one of the greatest – possibly the first – Bahamian artist.
This sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral was a favourite of George Zarnecki, former librarian of the Conway and Deputy Director of the Courtauld Institute. In the latter part of the 20th century, he was a leading authority on sculpture of the Norman or Romanesque period.
For his book English Romanesque Sculpture 1066 – 1140, he chose it as the image for the front cover. It is a carving on a capital of a pillar in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. It dates from 1070 and shows two animals playing musical instruments. The inspiration for the images came from local illuminated manuscripts.
Zarnecki acknowledged that showing animals playing musical instruments was a popular theme, as they featured in humorous folk tales and fables. However, he had not seen any other work to compare with the sophistication shown here. He was struck by the complex composition, the richness of the imagination and the superior quality of the draughtsmanship and modelling.
The purpose of the sculpture
In medieval thinking, the universe was divinely ordered so therefore everything could be given a theological explanation, and everything on earth reflected different aspects of Heaven.
In the middle ages, most people were illiterate, so sculpture and painting provided the images and pictures to illustrate sermons and stories. People lived in a harsh world full of superstition and fear of the unknown. They had the same IQ as ourselves, and exercised it through powerful imaginations, myth-making and storytelling, as they tried to make sense of the world. Meanwhile, the Church aimed to secure a sense of awe and apprehension, a fear of divine retribution. So, popular images could be used to illustrate a moral message.
Churches were carved all over and painted. It was believed that they were seen not only by people but also by God, so symbolism had to be everywhere.
Animals in the Medieval imagination
Medieval stories have attracted an extensive field of academic research, which tends to analyse stories as:
Fables with a strong moral tone, e.g. Aesop’s fables from the 5th century BC;
Myths: creation stories, focussed on Gods and mortals;
Folk tales, designed both for entertainment and for moral guidance. They were more playful and less structured. Stories were told and retold, continually changing and adapting, to reflect the point to be made, or the circumstances of the time. They were not written down until the 16th.
These categories overlapped of course. Also, stories travelled widely around the world along the trade routes and picked up many influences. Animals featured strongly. They developed specific characteristics, and many fantastical, mythical animals were created. Animals were seen as sources of instruction, as in the Book of Job: ‘’Ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee – and the fowls of the air’’ [Job 12:7].
Animal symbolism and musical instruments
Here are just a few examples, to provide some context for the animals in this picture:
A cat – represents laziness and lechery;
Playing a fiddle – suggests a mewing sound;
Dog – faithful, loyal, but also can be stupid and lustful;
Donkey – Christ’s beast of burden, or used derogatorily to represent either stupid or lower class people, but can also be lustful;
Goat – loves the mountains like Jesus, represents fertility but also the horned devil. Can represent intelligence and mischievousness. And lust.
Sheep – can represent Christ/the lamb of God. Indicates purity, gentleness, wisdom, but not as canny as goats. (It’s the only animal I can find who is not associated with lust!)
Playing a lute – suggests a bleating sound.
Sheep and goats were the earliest animals to be domesticated and feature heavily in folk stories. Animals from all over the world were introduced as these stories circulated, so non-indigenous types such as a mountain goat or ibex would feature in English folk tales.
What this carving shows
In order to understand it, I drew it as a simplified picture to clarify the detail that is hard to decipher from the photograph. I have also added in some features that look to have become worn or broken.
What I think I see is a sheep, an ibex, and a fantastical creature.
The sheep is female and playing a violin or maybe a lute with a bow. She has a human torso which is smooth like skin, a human breast and hands, but hooves for feet. The sheep also has wings, is standing upright and appears to be singing.
The sex of the ibex is not visible, but it is playing a cornet or trumpet, so my assumption is that he is male. He has the head and body of a goat. He is playing the horn with his cloven forefeet. His hind feet, however, are human. His right foot appears to be wearing a shoe and is between the sheep’s instrument and her leg, possibly pointing towards her groin.
He is riding a creature which has the head of a dog, front legs with hooves but the tail of a fish. The creature is stretching back to bite the ibex, which may indicate that the ibex is planning mischief, or is making too much noise. (Where medieval animals are seen biting themselves, this means they have made a mistake and are punishing themselves. E.g. a wolf bites his foreleg if he treads on a stick and makes a noise as he creeps up on a chicken shed.)
Conclusion: The ibex is trying to seduce the sheep, who is pure. The instruments may indicate their respective voices or symbolise their sexual parts. One senses the sheep is wise and the ibex will have his work cut out!
What is the story?
There are many story and reference books, but from what I can find online there is no obviously popular story that could feature this scene. The crypt of Canterbury was a pilgrimage destination, so perhaps this and other wonderful carvings there were used to entertain them or to remind them of a clear moral point.
Would anyone like to write the story? Or offer an alternative interpretation of the picture?
Zarnecki G (1951) English Romanesque Sculpture 1066 – 1140. London: Tiranti.
Kahn D (1991) Canterbury Cathedral and its Romanesque Sculpture. Austin: University of Texas Press. (Deborah Kahn was a pupil of Zarnecki and her work remains the definitive analysis of Canterbury Cathedral’s sculpture.)
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
In 1893, the Shelley Memorial dedicated to the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was formally inaugurated in University College, Oxford. 83 years before, the then student was expelled for “contumaciously refusing to answer questions proposed to [him], and for also repeatedly declining to disavow a publication entitled The Necessity of Atheism”. At the time, this particular work had caused much contention at the university, and although Shelley’s religious and spiritual views are often reduced to simply aesthetic, they in fact fluxated and changed, as did his thinking throughout the course of his life.
This ever-changing nature of Shelley’s beliefs and ideas is greatly reflected in the memorial itself. Although Shelley was an atheist, the memorial in his honour is very spiritual, elegiac and even religious, both in its imagery and in the ideas of life after death it evokes.
Sculpted by the artist Edward Onslow Ford, a foremost figure of the New Sculpture movement, the sculpture is situated in a domed tempietto in the college designed by Basil Champneys. The memorial was originally intended to be erected in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome where Shelley was actually buried. But the statue was thought to be too large and eventually was donated to the college by Shelley’s daughter in law, Jane, Lady Shelley, who had also been the one who had commissioned it originally.
The sculpture itself depicts the lifeless Shelley washed ashore, caught in a sudden storm on the Gulf of La Spezia he drowned and was cremated near Viareggio.
In the sculpture, he is shown nude and as a somewhat androgynous figure, reclining and life-size. Shelley himself is sculpted from white marble whereas the surrounding plinth and other sculpted elements are either in bronze or coloured marble.
The memorial features classical and symbolic imagery throughout, in the tree branches, heavy with fruit, as well as in the two mythological creatures that hold up the plinth. The second figure is a female study, looking mournful and solemn she holds a stringed instrument, a lyre or harp. It is possible that she represents a mourner or even Shelley’s wife Mary. But most likely she is the visual and physical embodiment of “poetry” itself.
Ford often included allegorical figures such as these within his work, especially in commissions and memorials. Often an excuse to show a male or female study, they could represent certain subjects or classical pursuits such as science, art, poetry or even more universal themes such as motherhood, death, grace, hope and prosperity.
Some of these allegorical figures can be seen in works such as the Victoria or Gladstone memorials.
The piece itself is very similar to others of the movement such as Teucer by Hamo Thornycroft, Icarus by Alfred Gilbert and The Sluggard by Frederic Leighton, all of which represent classical Greek heroes or athletes, studies of male nudes and all in the highly stylised, idealised and polished style of the movement. It has been argued that the memorial itself has been responsible for shaping Shelley’s image in modern times, the work itself was described as being able to present an “atmosphere of thought and feeling”.
Ford’s approach to the human figure is highly stylised, much like that of his contemporaries such as Thornycroft and Brock. The new sculpture movement was known for these types of works, ones which moved away from neoclassicism yet still referenced it, and for their use of symbolism, which was more dynamic, energetic and physical but still refined, and often featured elements of the mythological and exotic. Another piece by Ford is Linos, which was heralded at the time, very early in his career as a sculptor. Linos resembled in many ways Rodin’s Age of Bronze; the two were displayed together at the Royal Academy in 1884.
Although similar in that they are both studies of the male nude as well as extremely physical and expressive, they are also very contrasting in their styles. Rodin’s work was seen as very rough and experimental at the time, physical and taught, restricted and real. The critic Spielmann described Ford’s work as “always restrained, refined, dainty, elegant, aiming at grace and decorativeness rather than passion and force”. But for the subject matter of the Shelley memorial, this style is very well suited. When we think of the Romantic poet tragically drowned and laying on the shore, surely no style is better suited to visually represent it than that of an extremely physical and emotional piece of symbolic sculpture which harks back to the style of ancient Greece, the style used to depict great and tragic mythological heroes.
I believe this is the purpose of the visual and thematic decisions that went into creating the piece. My personal reaction to it was shock and a desire to find out more about it, it is extremely beautiful and delicate and it is possible to view it simply as a sculpture depicting a myth or allegory as opposed to the unfortunate truth of someone’s life, but this mixed with the rather intimate viewing of it makes apparent why it has changed the way we perceive both Shelley and his ideas. The sculpture helped the popularity of Shelley’s work and also changed the way it was perceived, adding to Shelley’s image of Romantic poet and simply showing him as a beautiful and tragic classical and allegorical figure.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
The Courtauld’s Witt and Conway libraries hold almost one million mounted photographs and over 60,000 negatives. They act as a comprehensive record of western art and global architecture, including cuttings, reproductions, publications and photographs of works of art and landmarks. One entire room is filled with over 20,000 negatives by a single fine art photographer, Paul Laib, who captured works of art by artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson in their studios. Elsewhere stacks are filled with photographs of sculpture spanning more than two millennia.
Performing the slightly meta process of taking perfectly lit, high-resolution photographs of photographs of works of art and sculpture as part of the digitisation project gets you thinking about the value of taking photographs of works of art. It is an inescapable fact that as jaw-dropping as the sheer number of stacks, shelves, boxes, folders and individual photographs is in its physical manifestation, it is minuscule compared to the billions of images on the internet (over 95 million are shared on Instagram alone daily).
My iPhone’s algorithm identifies over 650 photos in my camera roll which contain “art”. I have definitely been guilty of marching around museums and art exhibitions “camera-first”, viewing the art mainly through my phone screen and capturing images which disappear into the black hole of my camera roll and are rarely viewed again.
Museums buy into our need to capture visually our experience of art with selfie points and hashtags. However, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam made headlines in 2016 when it banned photography, writing “in today’s world of mobile phones and media a visit to a museum is often a passive and superficial experience. Visitors are easily distracted and do not truly experience beauty, magic and wonder”. They encourage the more old-fashioned image-making technique of sketching, arguing that it forces you to look more closely and appreciate a work’s finer details.
As well as having an impact on the museum experience, photography also changes the basic significance of the artwork photographed. John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing “when a camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of the image”. The image of an artwork becomes ubiquitous, released from a single location. The significance of the image then lies in it being the original of all its reproductions, rather in what it uniquely represents. The “release”, multiplication, and dissemination of the artwork’s image escape the authority of the museum or location in which it is housed and their curatorial efforts to create meaning through labels and dialogue with the works situated around it.
Even before a photograph makes it online, the photographer decides exactly what to include or exclude from her shot and can crop and edit at will once the image is taken. I was struck by what was lost in the images of Picasso’s sculptures I found in the Conway library: the three-dimensional objects are confined in 6×4 inch, 2D, black and white rectangles. The images of the sculptures give no sense of scale, colour, texture or physical space, and, without being able to walk around them, the viewer can only experience the angles chosen by the photographer. The images below highlight how different a work can appear in different photographs. The translation of an artwork into another art form shifts the meaning between artist, curator, and photographer just like the translation of literature into different languages.
Although the losses inherent in the photography of works of art are real, the reproducibility and editing power enabled by the process can have real advantages too. John Berger is not all doom and gloom: he writes, immediately after the quotation above, “the painting enters each viewer’s house… it lends its meaning to their meaning. At the same time it enters a million other houses and, in each of them, is seen in a different context”.
An artwork’s meaning is not destroyed when it is photographed, but rather multiplied, and our preference to taking photographs works of art ourselves rather than buying postcards in gift shops suggests we prefer the personal significance. The phenomena of “museum selfies” highlights this: what we see, appear with, and post on social media constructs our identity. Art brings a certain cache that reaches beyond personal Instagram feeds and into culture as we know it, as The Carters’ 2018 music video for APES**T filmed in the Louvre reflects.
Photographing artworks is an important aspect in the democratisation and accessibility of museums and collections too. The Courtauld Digitisation project’s aim is to make the libraries accessible anywhere to anyone who might have access to the internet. It enables a greater number of people to appreciate works of art globally, especially those who can’t access the original artworks, for geographical, financial or disability reasons. Museums concerned that allowing digital reproduction of their physical objects might decrease their value and make their physical space irrelevant needn’t worry: capitalising upon the photography of artworks provides free advertising and actually encourages people to visit the physical space and experience it for themselves.
Another advantage of photographing art is that it enables us to capture the artwork from a single perspective in a single location at a single moment in time. While an artwork can survive largely unchanged for hundreds of years, photographs can chart its journey through space and time and can serve an important historical purpose. For example, I could visit the work of art that is Rodin’s tomb, in Paris, but I would never see it as it looked on the day of his funeral, dwarfing the thousands of people who flocked around it, emphasising the legendary reputation of the sculptor. The photograph which captures this moment has value separate from the work of art it represents.
Photography’s ability to document is invaluable to the preservation of works of art. In the Conway library, I recognised one photograph of the Assyrian Lamassu, or human-headed winged bull, carved in the 7th century BC. It was taken in Iraq in 1950. The same statue can be found on Youtube, in a video in which members of Isis deface it, together with other works of art in Mosul museum. This work of art no longer physically exists, what survives are the photographs taken by hundreds of people, from architectural photographers such as Anthony Kersting, who took this image, to the most casual tourists.
An organisation called Rekrei (from the Esperanto for “recreate”) has crowd-sourced images of the works of art destroyed by Isis from which digital models can be produced by a process called “photogrammetry”. The viewer can zoom in and rotate the models to recreate the experience of moving around a sculpture and viewing it from different perspectives. 40,000 people have visited the website and uploaded images since its launch.
Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari has gone one step further, creating 3D-printed resin sculptures from the digital models produced using photogrammetry. These replicas cannot replace the originals but act as a stand-in, just as photographs did before them. Allahyari‘s 3D-prints physically represent the lost artwork but also act as time capsules, as they contain flash drives with images and documents relative to the original art object, creating an alternative, democratic way of preserving heritage.
In truth, the photography of art will always be a debated issue. As we come to the end of the decade in which Instagram was invented, we acknowledge that the ways in which we experience art and culture have shifted and sped up dramatically and irreversibly. However, after a week with the Courtauld Digitisation Project spent realising the vital importance of preserving images of works now lost or in danger, I conclude that there is a lot more winning than losing in the photography of art.
The life and legacy of British-American sculptor and artist Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) remains a source of divisive and heated debate. Hailed by some as a central yet unappreciated pioneer in 20th-century British sculpture, whilst for others, the invigoratingly “modern” dynamic to his works are the markers of an iconoclast who wreaked havoc on traditional art. He is, therefore, an individual whose work demands sensitive analysis both for its significance in the historical context in which it was born and for its importance in the present day.
In the depths of the Conway Library, at the Courtauld Institute of Art, exist a series of photographs that encapsulate these divided opinions which shaped Epstein’s life as well as his artistic legacy. The photographs are of Epstein’s eighteen nude statues installed on the facade of the British Medical Association (BMA) headquarters on the Strand in London in 1908. These were depictions of archetypal subjects including, among others, primal energy, academic research, maternity, infancy and Hygieia. The statues provoked considerable controversy for their supposed indecency, they were condemned by several religious figures as overtly sexualised and morally obscene, and their appearance labelled by others as ugly and deformed, leading to campaigns for the BMA to have them removed.
After a sustained public defamation campaign led by The Evening Standard and St James Gazette, despite the BMA’s support for maintaining the statues, in 1937 the mutilation of the figures went ahead after an incident led to their designation as a danger to pedestrians. All protruding sections of the figures – including faces, shoulders, genitalia, legs, arms, and feet – were chiselled away and the statues left in the largely mutilated form that we see them today at Zimbabwe House, formerly the BMA building.
It is hard to comprehend that a collection of sculptures that faced such intense public scrutiny and uproar at its conception, now quietly exists, often unnoticed by pedestrians on one of the busiest streets in London. I am one such guilty Londoner, having walked down the Strand on a regular basis yet ignorant of these statues and their significance, until my time on the Digitisation Programme at the Courtauld.
The Courtauld’s collection of photographs provide a unique insight into the lifespan of the statues. The collection includes black and white photographs of casts of the statues rejected in Epstein’s initial proposal to the BMA along with those that were accepted, the statues in situ before and after their mutilation in 1937 and surviving individual fragments. Particularly thought-provoking are the Courtauld’s photographs of the nudes of a young woman posing as Maternity; an old woman cradling a baby, depicting Infancy; and Matter, represented by a man grasping a rock marked with the outline of a foetus. To me, Epstein was remarkably sensitive in his depiction of the tenderness of human relationships across the boundaries of age and gender, whilst impressive in his candid approach to the changing physical form of the human body. Indeed, his sculptural depiction of the physically changing form of the female body across different stages in life, be it age or after pregnancy, is a breath of fresh air on a street now filled with billboards boasting a narrow ideal of what “femininity” should look like.
Whilst all such statues remain physically in situ, the depictions of children, be it the foetus in “Matter” or the new-born in “Infancy”, were physically removed from their original and complete sculptural form. The authorities were making it clear: Epstein in his candid depiction of the naked human body was threatening Edwardian sensibilities regarding the sanctity of motherhood and purity of childhood. The old woman’s sagging breasts and withered flesh, and the man’s full-frontal nakedness, were central in the early-20th-century campaign against the figures, whilst they equally informed public perception of Epstein’s subsequent projects. The rest of his career was tainted with the persistent criticism that his sculptures dangerously challenged contemporary ideals surrounding beauty and sexual propriety.
The Conway Library also contains photographs of alternative casts in Epstein’s workshop that were later destroyed after rejection by the architects in 1908, including a nude of a woman holding a leaf, posing as Nature. Her open stance and unashamed nakedness were evidently seen as too shocking in the initial choice of statues to be erected on the Strand. Through the images in the Library we gain an insight into the logic behind the initial choice of figures chosen, supposedly more appropriate than several of their workshop contemporaries, and crucial photographic evidence of physical casts that no longer exist.
We can, however, see the vandalism of the “Strand Statues” as a somewhat pyrrhic victory for Epstein’s critics. Epstein’s now mutilated figures remain in situ in the heart of Central London, a powerful visual manifestation of the historic constraints placed on artistic freedom whilst also a reminder that a work of art should be understood beyond the aesthetic value attached to it in its initial finished form. The photographs in the Courtauld archives also reveal the subsequent story of the fragments removed in 1937 and the efforts of individuals to ensure that they remained an important part of the narrative surrounding the impact of contemporary sensibilities on artistic practice. Several of the photographs are of fragments following their removal from the Strand site and after an extensive cleaning programme at the National Gallery of Canada in 1961. These fragments now exist in an international museum in which their stories can be told to a global audience.
The diversifying platforms and subsequently expanding audience to which photographic illustration to the story of the “Strand Statues” can be accessed has been enhanced immeasurably by the work of the Courtauld Digitisation Programme. The programme aims to provide an expansive online archive through which a variety of audiences will be able to access and study the Courtauld photographic libraries for themselves, including the images of the “Strand Statues”. It is indeed timely that one of the main criticisms of Epstein’s figures was that they were not confined to a museum or art gallery where those with suitable artistic and moral sensibilities could engage with these works of art appropriately. Their location on a main street for anyone and everyone to see was viewed as a dangerous threat to established Edwardian perceptions regarding who could truly comprehend art. On Friday 26th June 1908, The South London Press reported the complaints levelled against the statues by Fr. Bernard Vaughan to a gathering of Catholics in South London. His outrage was based upon fury at the laxity of the authorities in their initial decision to “thrust these statues upon their public highways” rather than dictating an exclusive location and subsequent audience to which such statues were accessible. Such an audience was defined as those with the suitable “artistic temperament” to be trusted to recognise the dangerous dynamic inherent in these sculptures and respond accordingly. Such statuary, he argued should be confined to “art galleries and museums, or where people had to go out of their way to find it.” In light of the work of the Courtauld Digitisation Programme, I wonder what Fr. Bernard Vaughan would be thinking now?
Laon, a town in North-East France, has an immense and beautiful cathedral on top of a 200-metre hill, the location of the medieval walled town. It is one of the most important examples of early Gothic architecture.
Sixteen life-size statues of oxen look down from the top of the two western towers. As far as I can ascertain, such a number and size of sculpture is unique.
Medieval scholars mention them as an afterthought in their analysis of the cathedral’s architecture and history of development. Laon tourist web sites start with them, as if to say, hey, come to Laon and see the cows in the sky!
There is no documentation to explain the oxen’s presence. Local custom explains that they recognise the importance of oxen in the building of the cathedral, given it’s on top of a high steep hill. Leading on from this, folklore tells of an ox dying of exhaustion as it climbed the hill. The carter, desperate to get his load to the building site, was amazed when another ox appeared from nowhere, helped pull the load to the top, then disappeared before the carter could decide what to do with it. Another variation believes that the cart contained holy relics, and the appearance of the ox an act of God. The statues, therefore, record the miracle of oxen appearing out of thin air.
Putting aside the miracle option, the basic folklore is not immediately convincing:
People used oxen throughout the medieval world as their standard beast of burden, and continued to rely on them until the advent of 19th-century industrialisation, yet they appear only rarely in medieval sculpture.
As Laon’s location is high up on a steep hill, teams of oxen must have been a continuous daily feature as they must have been used to deliver supplies. However, many other towns and cities were located strategically on hilltops, but there is no evidence that inhabitants felt the need to record their reliance on the ox.
The oxen did not need to transport stone, as this came from the limestone covering the plateau of the hilltop.
If, however, the scale of the Laon climb was unusually severe, it does not explain why it was necessary to have as many as sixteen sculptures.
As there is no firm evidence for their placement, medieval scholars simply acknowledge their existence, record the folklore and may make brief reference to the miracle story. My understanding is that it is not considered proper scholarship to speculate on secular sculpture and carving. This is understandable, so I have attempted to consider what circumstantial evidence may be available to indicate why the oxen are there:
They may be the medieval equivalent of a vanity project. Cathedral construction was funded only in part by the church and the crown. Most funding was raised from the local townspeople, creating tensions with the clergy, and delays in building when funds were exhausted. Laon was built in 5 protracted phases, completing in 1230. Laon is surrounded by a huge flat plain, which in the Middle Ages was given to arable farming and vineyards. The farms would have used oxen extensively for ploughing and haulage. There may have been such a deep affection for the animal, that a wealthy landowner decided to provide funding to immortalise them in stone.
Certainly, paintings of livestock became popular in subsequent centuries. It is known that the 17th-century Dutch painter, Aelbert Cuyp, was successful in selling his paintings of cows to a European market and to British landowners in particular.
Medieval Laon was a major regional centre and popular with the French monarchy. The Carolingian and Capetian kings used it as their base in North East France. They may have also provided funding for the cathedral, although this is unlikely. Nevertheless, I wondered if oxen or bulls (the terms were interchangeable in the Middle Ages) were symbols in their heraldry, but can find nothing.
The numbers of animals may be significant, in that medieval ox teams consisted of multiples of two up to a maximum of eight. So, each tower could represent one full team, potentially the size required to make the climb to Laon.
One commentary suggests that they are not all oxen, but a mix of animals real and imagined. The photographs show they all seem to be wearing a harness, and although many have lost their horns and ears, they all look broadly the same.
All of the above is, of course, more speculation than circumstantial evidence, so I am not going to make it as a medievalist with this essay. I have considered the influences of the local economy, the town’s geography, the cathedral’s funding, the presence of the monarchy, and would be interested to know if anyone has any thoughts on other angles to consider, or if they are aware of similar sculpture elsewhere.
Perhaps the final word should come from WW Clark, author of Laon Cathedral Architecture (1983), who argued that the use of sculpture reached an unprecedented richness in Laon:
Their precise meaning remains elusive… they can be understood compositionally as the final accents in a design that integrates sculpture, both formally and iconographically, as inseparable constituent elements, beginning with the detail of the three portals.
Meanwhile, I may well feel the need to go and see them for myself.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
Laon Cathedral Architecture 1 by WW Clark and R King
Laon Cathedral Architecture 2: The aesthetics of Space, Plan and Structure by WW Clark
The Ox in the Middle Ages by John H Moore Article in Agricultural History journal No 35 1961