This large, imposing, peaceful limestone head is reluctant to reveal its secrets. A complex study takes us on the trail of the kings of France and the Abbey of Saint Denis.
Ile-de-France, second third of the 12th century. Head of a king or high priest in carved limestone, with traces of gray whitewash, h. 47 cm/18.5 in.
This carved head of a man is wreathed in mystery. With a cap over slightly wavy strands of hair falling onto the temples, almond-shaped eyes, well-defined eyelids, emaciated cheeks, a closed mouth framed by a drooping moustache and a long, finely waved beard, the face exudes wisdom. Is he a king, a priest or a prophet? These are theories that could be confirmed by the stone, the only protagonist in this story that can speak. It has been analyzed by geologist Annie Blanc, who tells us that it is "a yellowish-white fine limestone consisting of small debris composed of marine organisms, which could come from the Lutetian areas formerly mined in the quarries around Carrières-sur-Seine (formerly Carrières-Saint-Denis)". This is all the more likely as stylistically, everything links this portrait with 12th-century early Gothic art, starting with its hieratic style. Research carried out by specialist Benoît Bertrand soon ruled out possible provenances like the convent of Nanterre and the crypt of the Basilica of Saint-Denis, which contains works using these quarries. The cloister of Saint-Denis is the only lead still under consideration. The formal similarities of the work here—including its size—with sculptures on the north portal of the "Valois" abbey, whose columnar statues were destroyed by cannon fire in the 18th century, suggest that it was part of the complex enriched by Sugar, abbot of Saint-Denis, in the second quarter of the 12th century. He died in 1151 after work started on the construction of the cloister: a spectacular undertaking shored up by a distinct intellectual effervescence, involving artists from the Ile-de-France, Liège and the Meuse Valley, where early Gothic art was at its peak. This new spirit of Gothic art—harmonious proportions, suppleness and classicism—can be seen in the few fragments of the cloister now in the abbey's lapidary collection and in various museums, notably in the capitals in New York's Metropolitan Museum: rare evidence of this huge undertaking. All this suggests that the head here comes from a columnar statue that could have stood in the embrasure or supported the tympanum of a porch—the refectory's, for instance—or the chapter house of the abbey of Saint-Denis.