181: The Quality of the Work: The (Hidden) Lessons of Lyons

For Norma Wilson

Good Friends,

Our last post occasioned some fine responses (180: The Lovely Lady of Lyons). One came from the ever-inquisitive Norma Wilson. She wondered, as Jenn and I were sleuthing about Lyons Cathedral for the bas-relief of its Lovely Lady, whose stone rendering Mr. Ruskin had singled out for special praise in his 1853 lecture in Edinburgh, whether I had taken pictures of any other bas-relief carvings that surely were just waiting for re-discovery under the other “statue brackets” on the cathedral facade. As it happened, I did, of a few of them at least.

But before I share these, I thought it would be a good idea to take a moment to remind us of where the bas-reliefs are to be found. Happily, if unexpectedly, as I was wondering how best to do this, I came across this sketch of Turner’s. He made it of Lyons Cathedral in 1819, drawing it from the high hill that overlooks the cathedral plaza.

Cathedral 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph M. W. Turner, “Cathedral of Lyons,” sketchbook of 1819 (Clore Gallery, Tate Britain)

Mr. Ruskin, of course, would have been especially pleased at my discovery, seeing it surely as an instance of the good fors at work–because, after Turner had set his sketchbook containing this drawing down, he probably never looked at its again. If so, the next person who would have seen it would have been Ruskin, because: when Turner died in 1851, to his surprise, was informed that, because of his love, deep understanding, and public acclaim of Turner’s work (see Post 37: Mr. Turner), the great painter had named him an executor of his estate. This meant, in its turn, that Ruskin was to spend the better part of two years reviewing, ordering, preserving as necessary, and cataloging, Turner’s immense “Gift to the British Nation,” a collection of nearly 20,000 unsold drawings, paintings, sketches, and sketchbooks, including the one mentioned here. All are now housed in the Clore Gallery of the Tate Britain in London.

But to the matter of this  moment. Take a moment to note how, in Turner’s sketch, we can see, just above ground level, a series of wiggly vertical lines on the cathedral’s facade. These are meant to indicate the places where the statues of saints and the brackets on which they were to stand were located. These locations can be better made out in the picture below; look just above the visitors’ heads:

Lyon Cathedral in Lyon 5e Arrondissement, France | Sygic Travel

I just said “where the statues of Lyon’s saints and the brackets on which they were to stand are located.” But, as we saw in the last post, and in the picture above, in those vertical spaces where the saints are supposed to stand no statues of saints do stand. Nor, when he was in Lyons at the end of the second decade of the 19th century, would Turner have seen any saints; nor would Ruskin either when he visited 30 years later. All, a history of the cathedral on-line reports, were smashed to pieces in 1562 by Calvinist troops, in one of the sorriest moments of the religious wars that then raged between Protestants and Catholics. (The Calvinists were greatly exercised against these lovely works because, as images of things holy, they became objects of veneration for many, thus diverting that same many from direct communication with God.) Alas, much else of great aesthetic merit was destroyed at the same time, including, the record tells, in the (still vacant) arches over the three main entry doors, their large carvings of angels, reputedly among the most glorious ever created during the myopic Middle Ages.

Happily, to first, Ruskin’s, and later, our, delight–and all but surely because they had been placed underneath the brackets intended for the saints, and hence, easy to overlook-carvings in which which he, and we, are interested, survived, including the one depicting the Lovely Lady and her Bishop. A narrow escape, but an escape nonetheless, another instance of the helpful fors thinking ahead, surely in anticipation of a lecture which would be given in Edinburgh nearly three centuries later. Here, for those who didn’t read the previous post, is a reproduction of Ruskin’s drawing of the Lovely Lady and her ever-watchful priest.

Lady of Lyon

And here’s what these worthies look like today, some seven hundred years and more after they first took up their residence at the cathedral:

Lyons Cathedral--The Bishop and the Lovely Lady

Ruskin’s exquisite description of the Lovely Lady, and, indeed, the entirety of this sublime carving (omitting, of course, the lady’s unnoticed suitor), can be read in our last post, one of his many paeans to the art which was created, as a matter of course, in what he called “the great times.” However, the sentences cited in that post were not the whole of what Ruskin wrote about the superlative quality of that now all but neglected era, and some of these other words are worth our time.

Ruskin completed his drawing of the Bishop and the Lovely Lady during a visit to Lyons in 1850. So taken was he with the quality of the work on display in this bas-relief, shortly thereafter, in 1851, he referenced it as an “aside” in the first volume of The Stones of Venice, describing it there as “the most exquisite piece of Northern Gothic I ever beheld.” Later, he underscored that praise in a passage he intended to use in the Edinburgh lecture but did not (such unexpected omittings are not uncommon in lectures!):

And here, in passing, let me briefly assure you of a fact, I beg of you, as you
have time and opportunity, to pay your utmost attention to this branch of art,
the sculpture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. I cannot tell you how
great, how wonderful it is, and that almost everywhere [it was created].

You are all interested in modern sculpture. You were all delighted with the sculpture in the Great Exhibition [in London in 1851]. And yet I assure you there is more good and interesting sculpture in a single wing of a good thirteenth century cathedral, than in ten great exhibitions. Let me again and again entreat you to pay more attention to this much neglected subject.

You will never make greater progress in art than by close study of thirteenth-century work–and if you do not learn to know its value soon, you will mourn over it when it is too late, for day by day the rage of the Revolutionist and the ignorance of the Restorer, are dashing into dust unregretted and unrecognized treasures…  

There’s one other point I should make before we take a look at the other underbracket carvings.

Uncharacteristically, as Ruskin extols the beauties of the Lovely Lady bas-relief in his lecture, he never tells us who she is, never reveals what story her image is helping to tell. Certainly the Bishop must be part of that tale. Perhaps he didn’t provide the information because he had decided not to draw the Lady’s male companion–and there can be no doubt that he must be part of the unknown story! But, perhaps, his silence on the matter derives from the fact that, as his words above inform us, he was so intent in calling our attention to the quality of the workmanship on exhibit in this particular carving, he didn’t want to distract his audience (us) with less vital information. (I suppose it still might be possible to find out what the tale is that the bas-relief is telling if we made an appointment at the cathedral archives. But to do that. we’d have to be in Lyons–a difficult outing these days– and have considerably better French than I have–and Medieval French at that!–and be capable of deciphering ancient French cursive!)

Considering both of these possible reasons for the omission, I’m persuaded by the second. Here’s why:

If you take another look at the cathedral’s front facade, you’ll immediately notice that a dozen brackets were crafted to support the sculpted images of the city’s saints. This tells us that it is likely that all the brackets will have detailed, possibly exquisite, bas-reliefs beneath them. And so the question–Norma’s–is what actually is under them?

In response to which query, I must confess that I was so delighted when we discovered the bracket which contained the images of the Lovely Lady and her Bishop, I spent most of my time taking pictures of it!–from different angles, close-ups, and the like. Which occupation in turn meant that I only took three pictures of the other underbracket carvings–and didn’t, even then, pay much attention to them, figuring I’d look at them later. But, in regard to providing an adequate answer to Norma’s question, this also means that I have a pretty poor sample, certainly a sample that is, from the point-of-view of any social scientific standard (and I’m a social scientist!), insufficient for giving a definitive response! Mea culpa! Still, as it turns out, and as I will begin to explain now, what I did photograph of the other carvings, provided the means for some–at least so I think–most interesting speculations. And so, keeping that deficiency and caveat in mind, we go on.

Go on from here: I can now report that, using my photos, I have now taken a good look at the images embossed on underside of three of the other statue brackets, and believe that, collectively, they have something very important to tell us, something that surely registered on Ruskin while he was in Lyons, but which, committed as he was to making his argument about the wonder that was the Lovely Lady indubitable, he decided to put to one side during his talk in Edinburgh.

All that said, here’s a picture of a second underbracket carving:

Lyons Cathedral--Facade Bracket #4

It is another very sweet image–for the most part: of another lovely lady; this one, apparently following in the footsteps of beneficent St. Francis of Assisi, administering to the animals, with a deer (?) at her feet looking up adoringly, a dog (surely her faithful) beside her, contentedly munching on a bone, while another creature–another dog?–evidently awaiting his turn to be ushered into her presence, munches on another something with a decidedly downcast look in his eye. As for the compassionate lady, a few feet off to the left, it is clear that she is well-protected, if need there be for that, by a knight in beige armor, who has surely been appointed to his task by a powerful someboy who is concerned about the lady’s safety. Above them, in another heart-warming touch, the entire tableau is watched over–is being blessed?–by a child-angel. Marvelous!

But not, we see as we look at the carving a little more closely, quite as marvelous as the image Ruskin chose of the other Lovely Lady as his representative for “the most exquisite piece of Northern Gothic I ever beheld.” What distinguishes the two?

The foliage.

In the carving he featured at his Edinburgh lecture, Ruskin was at pains to show his audience to how elegantly, how superlatively, the plants and flowers in it had been rendered. In fact, he said, these were so good, it was as if we, the viewers of the carving, had been transported to a vibrant, fecund forest. Here we were presented images of ivies and roses and other plants that felt alive, images that could only have been carved by a sculptor who, himself, had visited such a forest and had taken the sizeable amount of time required to reproduce (in stone!) what he saw and loved there. It was the foliage, Ruskin said in Edinburgh that made the entire tableau live, transforming what, otherwise would have been a lovely instance of animal and human carving, into a work of transcendent genius!

But, in the second underbracket carving, when we look intently, we immediately sense that the foliage feels flat, the plants presented are all variations on a single theme, not a swaying intermixing of many different plants as in the Lovely Lady’s bas-relief. The upshot is that we, the viewers of this second work, are immediately less enraptured by the whole piece, no matter how fine its human and animal images have been rendered  (and they are rendered very finely). Why the sculptor of this second image didn’t include in it images of more vibrant plants, we don’t, and are never likely to, know. It is possible that, having finished the human and animal figures, the task of sculpting the plant background was turned over to a second, less-talented, or less-interested-in his-work, hand; or, perhaps the wealthy patron who commissioned the carving ran out of money, or lost interest in it, or both. But there is no doubt, when we compare the two images, that, in this second case, the overall quality of the work which was invested in this carving is inferior.

The third carving:

Lyons Cathedral--Facade Bracket #3

On a first, fairly quick, viewing, this image seems to be “yet another fine example” of the accomplished bas-relief work of medieval France. The central figure in the arch above is a well-carved shepherd who is being admired, on the left, by what appears to be one of his sheep and, on the right, by his devoted herd dog. In the main image below, we find yet another lovely lady being courted–there can be no mistaking that fact, given the young fellow’s gesture!–by yet another worshipful, who, given his dress, just may be the shepherd’s son. Like the older man, both of these figures are exquisitely carved, yet  more superb slices of life implanted in medieval cathedral stone.

However, after granting that, more careful looking tells us that, in comparison to our two first bas-reliefs, this one fades fast. There’s no question that its principal figures are finely carved. But, as soon as we begin to think about what’s missing or poorly presented, we immediately grasp the reason for what can only be regarded as a depressing difference. Missing, for instance, are any other figures beyond the principals. In contrast to the Lovely Lady sculpture, here we find no other enticing humans, no Bishop, no odd little figure in the lower left corner, all of whom, in Ruskin’s exemplary carving, enliven the image being presented. Nor, contrasting this third example to the second one above, do we find in this one any animals, which, like their human counterparts, if they had been present, would have added vibrancy to the frame.

Finally, when we take a good look at the foliage in this carving, we see that all its “plants” have been presented cavalierly,  have none of the living quality of those we found in the Lovely Lady sculpture, and are manifestly inferior even to those of lesser quality we saw in the second bas-relief. nowhere is there an image which we would recognize as some tendrils of ivy or a rose in bloom; these “plants” are all the same, slap-dash efforts, included simply because they were expected to be present in this style of sculpting, and, as such, incontestable signals that the person who carved them had no interest in what he was creating, was “finishing off a task” likely because he was being paid for it, because he surmised that no one would ever notice his lack of effort. In other words, in this case, even more palpably than in the second image presented above, the quality of the work that has been allotted to this image is strikingly inferior.

And so, by now more than a bit disappointed with what we are finding out, we come to our fourth, and last, bas-relief, hoping, perhaps, that in it, we might discover more of what we so liked and admired in the first:

Lyons Cathedral--Facade Brackets #2 and #3

But this one is even–no, much!–worse! It is a carving that is downright ugly! Its overhead figure, in the arch, is not an image of a long-serving and admired shepherd attended by an adoring sheep and  an always affectionate dog, it is of a dour—no, sour!–faced head only, a figure with no body whatever; a disturbing face surrounded by smeared images that bear almost no resemblance to real plants (if, indeed, plants are what the blotches are intended to reference), images that are but cookie-cutter imitations of each other. And underneath, in the space where, in the other bas-reliefs,  we found a series of sweet, even droll, lovely ladies radiating life in one direction or another, here we find only the same boring, blotched motifs that surrounded the sinister head, repeated at least a dozen times, like so many disembodied oyster shells that, higgledy-piggledy, have washed up on an untended shore. Here, not even a semblance of a story is told; here, there is not an iota of sweetness or drollery; the overall impression communicated by the carving is depressing, off-putting, a specimen of bas-relief, where to entertain any thought that there had been any attempt to do quality work, is risible; an appalling instance, we might have thought before we attended and attended to what was being said at Mr. Ruskin’s Edinburgh lecture, of all that we had been told was deficient and lamentable in that spectacularly ignorant time we designate and denigrate as the “Middle Ages”!

Which, of course, is not the case, as Ruskin knew and was at pains to communicate, because–as he would say in other books and lectures and always say forcefully–is that what we see in these second, third, and fourth bas-reliefs are instances of carvings that were made in, not earlier, but later centuries, centuries in which nearly all desire to create beautiful, meaningful, life-bestowing images had vanished, like the last  rays of what, once, had been the most glorious of sunsets: a vital lesson long- hidden in underbracket bas-reliefs on the facade of the Cathedral of Lyons; a lesson about the quality and human significance of the work human beings do, a lesson which would have been missed if Norma Wilson hadn’t wondered what we might discover if we took a look at the other carvings which were hidden beneath other brackets that had been created to elevate already elevated saints.

To sum: the oldest carving, the one containing the images of the Lovely Lady and her Bishop, we found, as we heard Ruskin’s description of it, to be overflowing with life, bursting with figures of plants and people that felt like the real things which had been brilliantly rendered in stone, a set of images that put smiles on our faces and ideas in our heads. But, as we began to look carefully at other carvings, we saw that the life-enhancing qualities of that first image faded away, ever further.  The second and third bas-reliefs had some life-force in them (their figures especially were well exhibited) but, because those who created them had chosen to give less thought and attention to the presentation of some of the details of other elements in their scenes, the life-enhancing aspect of the entire scene weakened, until at last we found, as we came to the last bas-relief, that all sense of life-enhancingness had vanished, and, instead of feeling that we  had been the happy chance to bask for a time in the presence of artistic genius, we were instead in the presence of dreck, and were repulsed.

Two more points. First, at this juncture Ruskin would be likely to say that the conclusion we have just arrived at as a result of this comparative examination of these four bas-reliefs is not a matter of opinion, his or anyone else’s. It is an indisputable matter of fact. Anyone examining these images and noticing how she or he reacted to each subsequent carving as they studied and compared it to those already studied would come to the same conclusion. There is better and worse art. The best enthralls us and makes us more alive. The worst depresses and deadens us. Learn to know the difference, Ruskin would say, and then choose the living, always.

Second, the first image, the one that includes the Lovely Lady and her Bishop is not just an instance of truly living art, it is the work of a true master of his craft, of one who understood what he was capable of doing and then went on to do it with all his might. Consider that, it had not been missed by any of our bas-relief sculptors that their work had not been given pride of place on their cathedral’s facade. Those who had been asked to create the over-the-entry angels which would be later destroyed by infuriated Calvinists may have so thought, and perhaps rightly. But these men had been asked to place their illustrations beneath the brackets supporting sculptures of the city’s beloved saints, sentinel-like saints who would forever get the lion’s share of any visitor’s attention. Indeed, the bas-reliefs they had been asked to create were to be set in such difficult locations–you really have to crane your necks to see them and, even then, it is a most difficult looking–that it was entirely possible, indeed more than likely the case, that no one, or virtually no one, would ever see them! Almost surely it was this thought that suggested to some of the sculptors of these images, that no one would ever notice if they cut a few sculptural corners, a thought likely made more appealing by their irritation that they had not been first in line when the cathedral’s more significant sculptural works had been commissioned. But, if he entertained such thoughts after he had been asked to create his image of a concerned Bishop, Lovely Lady and her Suitor, the sculptor of their bas-relief paid them no mind and turned his whole heart-and-soul over to making the most beautiful image of which he was capable. And then did just that, understanding, as those who carved the other images did not, that it was his responsibility as a human being to do the very best he could. It was the quality of the work that most mattered. Having given it, he could sleep well at night, even if, in later years, no one ever saw what he had done, or how well he had done it!  Which attitude to life and work, Ruskin would say is another hidden lesson of Lyons.

Lyons Cathedral--The Bishop and the Lovely Lady

Lady of Lyon

Thanks very much for the question, Norma!

Until next time, please continue well out there!



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4 Responses to 181: The Quality of the Work: The (Hidden) Lessons of Lyons

  1. Frank Gordon says:

    Fascinating, as ever. But are you quite sure that the drawing is by Ruskin? Even allowing for the fact that he would have to crane his neck to see The Lovely Lady it seems uncharacteristically inaccurate. Look at the sleeves for example – and the flowers and foliage. You are much better informed than I am but it does seem a little strange – more like something done for a chapter heading than a drawing from direct observation.

    • jimspates says:

      Thanks for this comment, Frank. Thanks, too, for a careful reading and looking! A couple of comments of my own to reply. First, Ruskin was famed for his willingness to contort when it came to looking at art with care. He would regularly climb to the roofs of cathedral and churches to measure minutely when there was no support apparatus; he would cajole (and sometimes offer suitable financial inducements to!) vergers to let him build scaffolds that would allow him inches away views of ceiling paintings; and similar. So, I suspect that having to crane his neck to see the Lovely Lady and her Bishop would not have dissuaded him. Second, and more decisively, there’s the following footnote that appears on pg. 79 of Volume 12 of THE LIBRARY EDITION OF THE WORKS OF JOHN RUSKIN (which I MUST talk about in a Post!): ‘[Ruskin was at Lyons, and made the sketches afterwards enlarged for this lecture, in the spring of 1850. See Stones of Venice, vol. i. (Vol. IX. p. 433), where he characterises this paneled decoration of Lyons as “the most exquisite piece of Northern Gothic I ever beheld”.]’ That would seem to lay to rest any thought that the drawing might not be his. But, like you, and knowing his drawings fairly well, I thought that it lacked the exactness of most. I suspect this was because either he was in a hurry when he made it or, at the time, never thought he’d use in public display, or both. Thanks again. Cheers, Jim

  2. I interpreted that second carving as of the maiden-and-unicorn type. It’s a characteristic pose, I only see one horn on the “deer,” and it looks like the armed man at left is about to run its flank through with his spear.

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