Wood Sculptures at RISD

Excavating the Storage Room
06.07.2019

During the Fall of 2015, Brown’s graduate students in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture undertook an investigation of the wood sculptures in the RISD Museum collections. Although some, like the Crucified Christ, have long been exhibited in the Medieval Gallery, most of these sculptures have languished in what I have called “time out,” in a corner of the storage zone of the museum. It has not been possible to exhibit them because of their fragile state. Many of them were peeling and laid visible the multiple layers of linen wrapping, gesso, and paint. Because of these “archaeological” strata, however, we found that the sculptures were deeply interesting because they yielded fuller information about the processes of creation and repair than many objects in “better” condition. 

We were fortunate to be able to examine them with the curator, Maureen O’Brien, and the conservator, Ingrid Neuman. We were also thrilled to discover how many retained tree-ring information during the visit of our consultant dendrochronologist, Dr. Pearce Paul Creasman of the University of Arizona. The essays in this publication share with you some of the results of our exciting “excavation” of the storage room at RISD. 

This venture continued a longstanding collaboration between the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University and the RISD Museum. Beginning in 1968, the department launched its exhibition course, with notable shows such as Early Lithography 1800–1840 (1968), Europe in Torment 1450–1550 (1974), Transformations of the Court Style: Gothic Art in Europe 1270–1330  (1977), Festivities: Ceremonies and Celebrations in Western Europe 1500–1790 (1979), Children of Mercury: Education of Artists in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1984), and the Survival of the Gods: Classical Mythology in Medieval Art, held in 1987 at the Bell Gallery, in conjunction with the RISD Museum. 

Sheila Bonde, professor and department chair, History of Art and Architecture, Brown University

Student Object Studies

 

The Crucified Christ

This seven-foot-tall Christ would have been suspended above an altar or screen, the juxtaposition of his damaged body and calm, downward gaze reminding those below him of both his humanity and his divinity. 

Head of Christ or a Saint

A colossal Romanesque head in the RISD collection has yet to be securely identified, but the sheen of his nose suggests that it was rubbed by many penitent hands during the course of this sculpture’s life.

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.

 

Crusading Saint

In the Middle Ages, several saints were represented as knights in art, making it difficult to identify RISD’s Crusading Saint. This article will explore his possible identities. 

Lia Dykstra is a third-year PhD student in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University. Her research interests include Modern architecture and urbanism and medieval architecture and reuse studies.

 

Christ in the House of Simon the Jew?:
Contemporary Perceptions of Pharisees in Germany

This article argues that Simon the Pharisee would have been viewed as an explicitly Jewish character by sixteenth-century viewers.

Michal Goldschmidt is a first-year PhD student in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University. Her research interests include nineteenth- and twentieth-century Modernism and British art and empire.

 

The Dramatic Effects of Subtlety:
A Fifteenth-Century Virgin and Child

This late fifteenth-century Virgin and Child was created with subtlety, flexibility, and portability in mind. These features were central to its medieval use—and its use at the RISD Museum.

Josie Johnson is a second-year PhD student in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University. Her research interests include the history of photography and Russian and Soviet avant-gardes.

 

Material Devotion

Devotional representations of Saint Barbara, a Christian martyr whose legend extended across both Western and Eastern medieval worlds, flourished in fourteenth-century Europe. An examination of the Providence Saint Barbara reveals a sculptural tradition with a complex and colorful practices of medieval devotion to the cult of saints.

Erica Kinias is a first-year PhD student in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University. Her research interests include monastic art and architecture in the Middle Ages. 

 

 Angel of the Annunciation

This article provides a brief introduction to this finely carved and dynamic sculpture of the Archangel Gabriel.

Bill Skinner is a second-year PhD student in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University. His research interests include architectural Modernism and twentieth-century housing and town planning. 

 

Wood in the Middle Ages

In this related multiauthor essay, learn about wood as a material in medieval Europe and how wooden sculptures were treated and installed.