Head of a King

Selections from the Nasher Museum of Art
April 1, 2007
Head of a King

Head of a King
mid-12th century
Abbey Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés
Paris.
Carved limestone
9 7⁄8 inches tall
Brummer Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Art

Head of a King is one of three sculptures from the museum’s Brummer Collection that were in an important exhibition this winter at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, “Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture.” Duke’s Head of a King, which dates from about 1150 (early French Gothic period), has long attracted attention for the exquisite beauty of its carving, with the large, almond-shaped eyes, sensitively delineated hair and beard, and the crisscross patterning on its crown.

New research on the Nasher piece, using a combination of nuclear science and art-historical sleuthing, has produced stunning results: The Head of a King is the only surviving head from a group of sculptures depicting the kings of France that once adorned the façade of the royal abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the heart of Paris. The abbey was severely damaged during the French Revolution, and the sculptures on the front portal were mutilated or destroyed, their heads struck down.

The exhibition in New York provided an opportunity for the Metropolitan Museum’s research team, under the supervision of Charles T. Little, the curator of medieval art, to conduct neutron-activation analysis in which a one-gram sample of the stone was bombarded with neutrons in a nuclear reactor. The emitted gamma rays were then analyzed to identify and measure trace elements in the stone and compared with other works similarly studied, to discover the source of the limestone.

It was determined that the Head of a King had been carved from limestone quarried in Charenton, now a Paris suburb. Subsequently, William Clark, chair of the art department of Queens College in New York and a member of the Metropolitan’s exhibition research team, linked the Nasher head to an engraved sketch of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés façade created seventy years before the revolution, when the sculptures were still intact. The Head of a King provides important new insights into what the other sculptures, lost more than two centuries ago, must have looked like.