Head of Christ or a Saint

Though little is known about the identity or history of this polychromed wooden head, its enormous scale and beatific expression have captivated viewers ever since the piece’s arrival at the museum in 1960. Simple in appearance, this sculpture lacks any iconography or distinctive features that would identify him. Indeed, he lacks any body at all—the crucial location for iconographic signifiers in the Middle Ages. Yet tool marks on the underside of the neck and an unstable base suggest that this head was once part of a larger piece. If the sculpture had depicted a full figure, it would have reached a height of twenty feet standing or nine feet sitting. 

Given that medieval sculpture rarely utilizes this monumental scale, the sculpture’s size may reference the figure it depicts. One religious figure that we might expect to find in such a scale is Goliath, the giant whom David slays in the Old Testament. This scene was popular in manuscripts but was also found on column capitals and frescoes in the Middle Ages. Unlike the RISD example, however, the comparanda for this individual are small in stature and the surviving sculptural pieces are almost non-existent. Most sculptures that have a monumental scale instead tend to represent St. Christopher, a saint of giant proportions who ferried travelers across a river on his back. According to sources, a now-lost medieval statue of St. Christopher in the Cathedral of Notre Dame stood twenty-eight feet tall. In the Middle Ages, frescoes and murals of St. Christopher were also painted to stand at great heights on the interior of churches. Some of these murals could be forty to fifty feet tall: twice the height of the RISD figure.

Rather than the actual physical characteristics of the subject, the size of the figure may also indicate importance. If indeed the sculpture originally came from the monastery of Sahagún on the Way of Saint James, four figures in particular might deserve such a scale: Saint James, Christ, and Saints Facundus and Primitivus. When the RISD Museum first acquired the piece, scholars tentatively identified him as Saint James due to the monastery’s connection to the pilgrimage route bearing his name. Given the importance of this saint, and his larger-than-life representation in the Santiago de Compostela cathedral, this identification is not unfounded. This connection also makes St. Christopher a very good contender, as he is the patron saint of travelers—a group of people well represented at this stop on the pilgrimage route. Christ too is an obvious candidate for monumental treatment in any context and often has very little in the way of identifying features. Two other possible figures of importance for the monastery of Sahagún are Saints Facundus and Primitivus, to whom the monastery is consecrated. The twelfth-century guide to the Way of Saint James, called The Pilgrim’s Guide, specifically mentions these saints in its description of important relics located along the pilgrimage route.1

Whatever the reason for this figure’s scale, the sculptor certainly took its size into account in the great profundity of the incisions. This depth of the carving, which creates a clarity of forms through its shadowing, would also optimize the visibility of the head from a height or distance. Given that this dramatic recessing occurs with greatest depth underneath the features, it seems likely that the viewer was intended to stand at a level beneath the height of the head. Certainly the undetailed crown and back of the head suggest that the figure was intended to stand in front of a wall, perhaps in a niche and to be viewed from the front. Such a distant viewing context leads to practical issues when one considers that the sheen on the nose most likely indicates the accumulation of oils from repeated handling. The nature of this interaction with the sculpture poses a problem in interpretation in that, if this figure had a body, the nose would have been distant and difficult to reach. Although the very deep incisions of the piece suggest that the sculptor might have been anticipating a view from below, a structure may have been built allowing individuals to climb up to the face and touch the nose. Or, perhaps the head was on display after it was removed from its body and this physical interaction occurred later in the life of the piece. Such contact could also have been easily facilitated were the head to have belonged to a bust. This form would be extremely unusual, as busts were typically reserved for reliquaries, and this figure does not seem to have a compartment that would facilitate such a use. The possibility, however, cannot be entirely cast aside, as a relic could well have been stored in the lost base.

A similar interaction occurs at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, where the larger-than-life statue of Santiago above the altar is approached by way of a staircase to give pilgrims physical access. This practice, which originated in the Middle Ages, continues to this day, though the medieval wooden statue was replaced in 1665.2 While the RISD head was obviously approached from the front, given the lack of carving on the back of the head, the ritual of interaction has very similar qualities: approaching an out-of-reach, larger-than-life statue from a staircase or ladder to physically make contact with it. Given both the twelfth-century origins and geographical connections between the Monastery of Sahagún and the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, the medieval devotional practices around the large sculpture in the latter provides some idea of how medieval devotees may have interacted with the RISD head. On the other hand, it may be that the practice of touching the nose of this monumental head occurred in the context of more modern interactions with sculpture, in which devotees no longer touch the reliquaries or statues related to these reliquaries to ask for the saint to pray for him or her, but rather rub the figure to receive blessings. 

As the missing body of this sculpture plays such an important role in its understanding, it may be that the figure will never be definitively identified. Of course, this issue may not be a modern one. In medieval sculpture saints typically held in their arms important objects signifying their identities, and thus this sculpture might have had a clearer identity in its original form. We do not know when the head was removed from its body, if indeed it was attached. In both conditions there is then a chance that the identity of the figure was lost or even changed during its lifetime. All we can say is that it was displayed in a manner that could be accessed, and that it meant enough to those who interacted with it that they made physical contact, the evidence for which still shines upon the face of this unknown man today. 

Laura Chilson-Parks is a second-year PhD student in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University, as well as a fellow in Brown’s S4 Program. She studies the architectural history and archaeology of medieval monasticism. 

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Exhibition History

The Head of Christ or a Saint was in storage in Zurich before being purchased by the RISD Museum. It was exhibited in the same year it was received and has remained on display in the Creamer Medieval Gallery at the RISD Museum ever since.

Publication History

  1. Davidson, Bernice. “A Curator Views the Museum.” RISD Alumni Bulletin XV/1 (1960): 11–12. 
  2. Franco Mata, Ángela. Escultura Gótica en León y Provincia 1230–1530. 26; plate 9, page 637. León: Instituto Leonés de Cultura, 1998.
  3. Gillerman, Dorothy. “Gothic Sculpture in American Collections. The Checklist: I. The New England Museums (Part 2).” Gesta XX/2 (1981): 362.
  4. Gillerman, Dorothy, ed. Gothic Sculpture in America I. The New England Museums. 374. New York: Garland Publishing, 1989.
  5. Howell, Ann. “Museum Buys Spanish Head.” New York Times, December 30, 1959. 
  6. Kargère, Lucretia, and Michele D. Marincola. “Conservation in Context: The Examination and Treatment of Medieval Polychrome Wood Sculpture in the United States.” Metropolitan Museum Studies in Art, Science, and Technology 2 (2014): 11–49. 
  7. Cook, Walter William Spencer, and Gudiol Ricart, José. Pintura e Imagineria Románicas. Vol. 6 Ars Hispaniae, 333. Madrid, Editorial Plus-Ultra, 1950.
  • 1William Melczer, Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela, (New York: Italica Press, 1993), 118.
  • 2Kathleen Ashley, “Hugging the Saint: Improvising Ritual on the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela,” in Push Me, Pull You: Imaginative and Emotional Interaction in Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Art, volume 2, edited by Sarah Blick and Laura D. Gelfand, 3-20. (Boston: Brill, 2011).