Making Faces: At the Met, Middle Age's Stony Features

It sounds like a medical procedure you’d hope to avoid, or like something you’d see in a sci-fi movie: Neutron Activation Analysis. It’s actually a high-tech way to take a sample of something and precisely determine its elemental makeup. A venture called the Limestone Sculpture Provenance Project, which keeps a database of over 2,100 samples of stone obtained from around the world, uses N.A.A. to discern the “fingerprints” in limestone, tracing it to this or that quarry. Researchers can then connect medieval sculptures, which are often fragmented and of unknown origin, to specific locations or time periods. We know, for example, which quarries the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris relied on for its sculptures.

There’s a gallery that focuses on N.A.A. in Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture, a superb and demanding exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s no wonder: The majority of works on display—half of which are from the Met’s own collection—have been removed from their original context, whether it was a memorial, church or monastery.

The safekeeping a museum ensures is the most beneficent reason that the works have been displaced from their native locales. A less noble reason is that art has long been the victim of political foment: The French Revolution and, in particular, the Reign of Terror are appalling cases in point. Not long after Louis XVI met his fate under the guillotine, the Paris Commune decreed that statues depicting royalty be stripped from Notre-Dame and beheaded, too. The National Assembly later ordered the destruction of restes de féodalite (remnants of feudalism). Not only did they offend the new regime, but the bronze and lead in monuments and coffins could be cast into “patriotic bullets.” Guns before butter and art, it would appear.

These weren’t isolated incidents in the saga of violence inflicted upon art. Religious strife resulted in unaccountable damage, as did a disheartening litany of wars: the Thirty Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses, the Eighty Years’ War for Dutch independence—you name it. The harm to culture resulting from mere shifts in taste is, in comparison, relatively benign.

Set in Stone is, to a significant extent, an examination of the follies of history. More importantly, though, it’s a study of the roundabout development of representation. Styles grow, shift and backtrack. Science and history take a backseat to art: As valuable as they may be in clarifying the whys and wherefores of a given culture, connoisseurship provides the exhibition’s foundation.

The art on view ranges roughly from the third century through the early 1500’s. Though one does get a sense of chronology, Set in Stone is arranged thematically, with significant attention given to sculpture depicting Biblical characters and narratives.

Pope Gregory the Great, writing in the seventh century, encouraged art as a vehicle for devotion. “What Scripture is to the educated, images are to the ignorant … they read in them what they cannot read in books.” Though this sentiment may sound condescending to contemporary sensibilities, the official sanctioning of using images to render “invisible truth[s]” comprehensible to “barbarians” was a turning point in Western civilization.

The exhibition’s subtitle stresses faces, not portraits. Stephen Perkinson, an art historian at Bowdoin College, writes that the medieval artist, though capable of naturalism, believed “that appearances were incapable of conveying a thing’s essential nature.” The generic character of the rubbery Head of a Youth (ca. 1100-1120) or Head of a Bearded Man (ca. the 1150’s), with its scalloped and streamlined facial hair, are symbolic types. Stern stylization took precedence over strict realism.

Which isn’t to say that individual quirks didn’t emerge. Head of an Apostle (ca. 1280-1300) offers an intriguing study in temper. The furrowed brow, the pinched eyebrows and strident laugh lines are exaggerations. They indicate concentration, but also, perhaps, doubt. Did later sculptural interventions emphasize this anxiety in an effort to boost the work’s marketability? It’s hard to say; yet the underlying integrity of the apostle’s structure stands and marks it as atypical of the time.

Sculptural intensity fades as faces become portraits—that is to say, when the artist eschews abstraction for verity. Three pairs of small heads, each devoted to the same aristocratic man and woman, are fascinating as amalgams of observed phenomenon and classical-style idealization. Still, I prefer the coarse vitality pulsing through the “marginalia”—grimacing, grotesque and whimsical figures that occupied the nooks and crannies of churches, where they served as counterpoint to the Biblical scenes they punctuated.

Spiritual intent powered the best medieval sculpture—a force from on high being no small source of motivation. It’s dramatically evident in Saint Firmin Holding His Head (13th century), a slightly-less-than-life-sized sculpture that brings the exhibition to a close. The patron saint of Amiens, Saint Firmin was martyred there during the fourth century due to his efforts as a missionary. He’s also the patron of Pamplona, where his annual feast is celebrated with, among other events, the running of the bulls.

Ineffable devotional portent is made startlingly concrete in this embodiment of Saint Firmin. It’s the handiwork of a sculptor of no mean gifts. The rigid body, draped in emphatically vertical robes, holds its head with protective gentleness. Tilted forward at a distinct yet subtle angle, the face evinces a curiously aggressive kind of beatitude.

The keen articulation of surface and image, not to mention the severity of mood, will give nonbelievers pause: Dismissing the sculpture as “surreal” is too easy. Saint Firmin Holding His Head is the showstopper for a reason: It expresses mysteries the most advanced technology can’t decipher.

Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until Feb. 19, 2007.

A TIGHT DEADLINE IS NO FRIEND of accuracy. In last week’s column, I mentioned an installation by Mike Esper as a highlight of the SCOPE art fair in Miami. Mr. Esper, however, had nothing to do with Sketch of a Field of Grass. Ryan Wolfe is the artist responsible. My kudos—and apologies—go out to him.