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A Self Portrait in Stone?

Posted:
25 February 2015
Posted By:
Kevin Booth
Categories:
Behind the Scenes
A blog banner of 3 stone faces from Rievaulx Abbey

Capturing a selfie today is a single tap on our phone – an instant record. To do this 700 years ago involved days of chiselling – not one tap but thousands

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Modern day selfies are disposable, easily replicable and can be modified.  If we don’t like what we see we can delete and do it again, we can even add filters.  For the stone selfie, one false blow and all could be ruined – or at least deliver a permanent scar that in reality never existed. Self portraits started to become common in the late 15th century, possibly due to better quality mirrors.  Our stone mason might have had access to small convex tinned mirrors.

How do you gain an accurate impression of the self? Does it matter – do we not all have a sense of what we look like?  Are selfies about publicising a true image, or one that we wish to convey?

Original stone face sculpted for Rievaulx Abbey

This head is known as 'The Dentist'. Originally situated in the the nave aisle windows of the church, it was part of a series of similar heads which date from the early-mid 15th century.

Selfies today are mass communicated.  They are statements – promotional – extravert: they are out there to be seen and to be commented on – all about the individual.  What of the selfie on the store shelf? Originally placed high up in the nave of the Abbey church at Rievaulx Abbey – practically invisible to the naked eye.  Whether a portrait or selfie, these masterful, and at times weird and imagined faces did not need to be seen, they just needed to exist – the work put into them part of the great act of faith that was Rievaulx, created to God’s greater glory and all men’s salvation.  Yet within this the sculptor, like the modern day selfie taker, is thinking about self promotion – in the eyes of God.

Stone face originally placed high up in the nave of the church at Rievaulx Abbey

This head probably dates from the early 14th century and would have resided over the door or window arches of the Infirmary, one from a series of striking decorations.

These two heads probably date to within 50 years of each other at the end of the 14th to early 15th century, and yet they are carved in surprisingly distinct styles. The first character is a face that almost seems real, we can believe it once belonged to an actual person. Affectionately known as ‘The Dentist', you can see his full set of teeth (an unusual depiction for this period), stylised hair, beard, and well defined nose which shouts both pride and defiance. By contrast, the second character seems almost from a modern day children’s cartoon, a friendly giant with his heavy brow, drilled empty sockets for eyes and a wide flat nose.

Both are the carved faces of architectural features known as label stops – the base sections of door or window arches – explaining why they curve as they rise.

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  • About the Author

    Kevin Booth
    Kevin Booth, Senior Curator at English Heritage

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