The frontal orientation of the figure, the flat profile of its reverse face, and the traces there of historic fixing holes at the level of the ankles and shoulder blades, all suggest that it was intended to be fixed onto a flat wooden backboard or framing element. The survival of a small number of Catalan softwood altar frontals from the 12th century that correspond closely with such a setting, and on which figures carved and attached in exactly this manner can still be found, provides a highly plausible context for the reconstruction of our angel’s original appearance and function. The altar frontals of Santa María de Taüll (cited above) and Sant Pere de Ripoll (Museu Episcopal, Vic, no. MEV 556), both carved in Upper Catalonia in the 12th century, retain figures that can be compared closely to the present angel; they are typically shown standing in a front-on orientation, with elongated bodies and with the emphasis placed on the gestures of the hands to provide visual variety and rhythm. A single figure from an altar frontal of this type, showing Saint Paul carved in a markedly similar in style to the present figure, but holding attributes and with more ornate draperies, was published by Cook and Ricart in 1950, but its present whereabouts seems to be unknown (reproduced in W.W. Spencer Cook and J. Gudiol Ricart, Ars Hispaniae: Historia Universal del Arte Hispanico, vol. VI, Madrid, 1950, fig. 345).
As part of an altar frontal, the present angel would most likely have occupied the upper of two registers (a format typical of such objects and one that seems to have informed, or been informed by, the settings of figures in other mediums at this date as well).1 It would have been accompanied by its counterpart, the Virgin of the Annunciation, as well as by other figures integrated to expand the Marian and Christological narrative, and perhaps set alongside a larger central figure of Christ or the Virgin and Child, as conventionally characterises the composition of these altarpieces.
Despite inevitable losses consistent with age and material, the present figure retains great sculptural power, and its re-emergence from a history of relative obscurity marks a moment of utmost significance for the scholarship of Spanish Romanesque sculpture. As a figure that can be compared closely to the antependia of Taüll and Ripoll it provides a key piece of evidence for an otherwise lost altar frontal of major importance and monumental scale. Moreover, its restrained style and the results of its carbon dating fully support the proposition that it in fact pre-dates the majority of 12th century wood sculpture to have survived from this region, and can be dated to the very start of the century, increasing its significance still further.
For further discussion of Romanesque altar frontals from Catalonia, see Medieval Art in Spain A.D. 500-1200, New York, 1993, pp. 324-327, especially p. 327, cat. no. 171; see also Romanesque Art Guide of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, 2000 ed., pp. 104-105; M.S. Gros I Pujol, Museu Episcopal de Vic: Romànic Barcelona, 1991; W.W. Spencer Cook and J. Gudiol Ricart, op. cit.
1 See for example the arrangement of the apostles in tiers around a central larger figure of Christ in the Liber testamentorum, c.1118, Cathedral Archive, Oviedo, Ms. 1, fol. IV, reproduced in Medieval Art in Spain A.D. 500-1200, op. cit., p. 295, cat. no. 149.
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