The Middle Ages is also known as the Dark Ages. Medieval artwork was somewhat primitive and backwards, due to the religious influences of the time. The church felt that art should be used as a tool to teach people about the gospel of the Lord and should not be created for one’s own personal enjoyment. The church favored paintings and colorful mosaics over the use of sculptural art to relay the word of God. Trends in artwork began to change as the Romanesque era was ending and the Gothic era was beginning.
As the Gothic age began, the artists looked further back in history, to the time of the ancient Greeks, for inspiration. The Greeks studied the human form and replicated every curve. Clothing was depicted as it lay in natural folds, hanging off the body. The physical structure and facial features were carved in idealistic styles. Natural beauty was embraced and the figures inhabited a real space. Human depictions of the Romanesque era were a far cry from the Classical Greek style. Facial features exhibited cartoon-like expressions and the natural world was not represented in a realistic sense.
Symbolism dominated the arts as the main theme of the time. The influence of the revival of interest in Greek history greatly contributed to the spirit of the Gothic era. The focus of the time was evolving and changing to reflect this influence, however, the church remained powerful, and religion continued to exert an extraordinary power over the thoughts and actions of individuals. Eventually, the skills of artists and sculptors became a performance of God-given talent that transcended personal glorification to offer his or her fellow Christians a prospect of the higher world.
Within the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, in Paris, lies a statue that depicts the new vibe for everything Greek. The Notre-Dame-de-Paris is a statue of Mary and the infant Jesus, modeled after the ancient sculptures of Classical Greece. The sculpture mimics the Greek idea of the classical balance between idealism and naturalism. Mary is idealized as a stunning woman; she is full of life, and grace. The words “perfectly and powerfully proportioned bodies are revealed by naturalistic drapery folds” describe the Parthenon’s three seated goddesses, and yet the description also seems fitting for the Notre-Dame-de-Paris (pg 99).
She appears at ease with a casual stance, her modest clothing revealing a human form underneath. She exhibits a relaxed and natural pose of the human body, and her head is turned slightly towards the side. Mary’s arms are no longer rigidly placed at her side. They now hang freely from her shoulders with one arm gently cradling the baby Jesus and the other arm holding a flower. The Notre-Dame-de-Paris is modeling the contrapposto pose, which was introduced during the time of Ancient Greece. One leg bears all the weight of the body, so the two sides are not symmetrical or identical. The pelvis and shoulders are tilted in opposite directions. The spine forms a gentle S shape” (pg 103). Her appearance is reminiscent of the favored physical body type of strong and young, displayed during the Classical Period. The details of the statue shift according to viewer locations. She is three-dimensional and appears to move before your eyes, as if she is about to switch positions, taking the weight off of her left leg. The Greeks determined the overall height of the body by using the height of the head as a unit of measurement.
The proportionate style that the statue of Mary displays is the favored ratio of Polykleitos’s 1:8, revealing a classic form, and a perfection of balance and order. The Greek influences are expressed in every detail demonstrated on the statue. Mary is idealized, she is perfectly proportioned, and she has the trademark contrapposto pose. Notre-Dame-de-Paris is not just a statue, she is a person who exudes the aura of a loving mother holding her beloved son. She is crowned the queen of the Christian world and mother to all who believe.