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St John from a Calvary Group

Origin / Date ile de France, 1226-1246
Material oak with polychromy
Dimensions 134,6 cm high
Availability Not for sale


Originally part of a Calvary or Crucifixion group, often simply called a ‘Crucifix’, but which already in the 12th century included Mary and John either side of Christ on the Cross often towering above them. From the early 13th century on, these tended to be placed on top of newly constructed choir screens rather than behind the altar.

Main losses: upper right arm and front of cloak.


There are a number of factors that point to the likelihood that this unpublished figure can be considered a new addition to the corpus of (northern) French wood sculpture of the first half of the 13th century, surviving examples of which can be counted on two hands. It takes its place between the group from Cerisiers of around 1200, now in Sens cathedral, and the figures in the Detroit Institute of Art (Inv. 29.333), ex Michael Manzi collection, of c. 1250 or later and the Schnütgen museum of c. 1250-75. Between these, it is preceded by the oak Calvary figures in the Louvre from Hainaut of c. 1220-30, who are themselves preceded by the figure of Mary in the church at Verneuil (Eure) of c. 1210-20.

At the same time, however, it stands out from these in a number of specific ways that indicate, as I hope to show,  that it might represent the only surviving wood sculpture deriving from the - perhaps Parisian - milieu that had produced the figural sculpture of the central or Judgment doorway of the West front of Notre Dame Paris and the West front of Notre Dame Amiens, as both Cerisiers and Ramousies belong to a different tradition from that of ÃŽle de France, while the Virgin at Verneuil, though related, is derived from the sculpture of a decade earlier as well as being more provincial in execution.

What most sets this figure apart, besides characteristics of the tunic and mantle, is less that the hair style does not exactly follow the more common and traditional (12th century) pattern of straight and flat strands radiating from the crown and terminating in a (sideways) curl, as seen in Ramousies and all Southern (Catalan) examples, so much as a measure of individualization, namely, through the way the eyes and mouth are carved in an otherwise classical or idealized face. With the upper eye lids lowered, as if the eyes are half-closed, and the lower ones almost flush with the eye, the effect hinted seems to be that of tears. If so, it would make it one of the earliest surviving representations in (western) art of this emotional state, anticipating the similar approach of the recently re-found small ivory St John of the Louvre Deposition (OA3935), the nec plus ultra of this subject.

In sum, rather than in the style we know from generally later, especially northern Spanish, examples of St John besides the Cross, most of which share enough characteristics to deserve the term generic, it seems to be closer to the style of the West facade of Amiens, built under Robert de Luzarches or his successor Thomas de Cormont, itself an interpretation of a new vision developed in ÃŽle-de-France in the 1st quarter of the 13th century, even before the reign of Saint-Louis, through the Coronation portal of Notre Dame.


See Medieval Art in Focus V for a detailed description.


Sotheby’s New York 2004


Opus Francigenum - Works From Gothic France 1230-1330. Marc du Ry Ltd Marlborough Wiltshire 16 to 26 March 2019

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