Every curator, at one point or another, has to grapple with questions of provenance. In the case of medieval stone sculpture, works often come to us in fragmentary states, roughly removed or cautiously salvaged from their original sites. Conservators, scientists, and art historians often collaborate to solve questions of geographic origin and attribution. The Romanesque portal at The Cloisters (fig. 1) was first installed at the main entrance to George Grey Barnard’s private museum on Fort Washington Avenue, before entering the Cloisters Collection in 1925 (Husband, 12) (fig. 2).
Somewhat unreliable and misleading notes by Barnard, along with more serious art historical research, initially associated the portal with a number of monuments in French Touraine, notable among them is the priory of Saint-Jean du Bas-Nueil whose chapter house entered the Worcester Art Museum in 1927 (letter from William Forsyth to Louise Dresser, May 25, 1967). This association was invalidated when in 1995 fragments in the private collection of Henri Aymard in Loudun were identified to have formed part of the portal of Le Bas-Nueil (Nebelsztein and Fillion, 17-18).
In 2000, powdered samples were taken from the portal to perform neutron activation analysis on them (Holmes and Harbottle, 24–27). The samples were bombarded in a nuclear reactor to determine distinctive compositional patterns. The concentrations of elements present in each sample were then compared to data gathered from French quarries and monuments. At the time, with reasonable matches, an attribution to the twelfth-century abbey of Notre-Dame d’Aiguevives was proposed. Although the monastic church is still in elevation, the rest of the abbey was completely flattened following the French Revolution, with no possibility for verification. Regrettably no samples were taken from other proposed sites of origin, such as Montrichard (Nebelsztein and Fillion, 13–23).
In 2010, thin-section analysis, coupled with XRD analysis, was performed for a better understanding of the stone properties and deterioration patterns (fig. 3). The Cloisters’ portal is carved out of Tuffeau stone — a white limestone with a very fine particle size (granulometry), and a recognizable glow or sparkle — which was used for numerous monuments along the Loire River, notably the famous Castle of Chambord. The stone is highly porous (30% to 45%), and is very sensitive to its environment, with alterations usually caused by water infiltration. In composition, it was found to have a low concentration of calcium carbonate (55%), with a significant concentration of quartz in the form of opal. Tests performed by Princeton University determined a low response to swelling with interaction with water (hygric swelling measurements).
Extensive research in situ in 2012 brought the final answer to the investigation. We visited the many monuments under consideration, such as Aiguevives (fig. 4), and at each location closely examined both the stone material and carving styles. From the strong resemblance of what we saw to our portal, we knew we were closing in. The origin of the museum’s portal was finally revealed by a happy encounter with an archaeologist and architectural historian of the French CNRS, Franck Tournadre, whom we met on the trip when visiting an unrelated monument. After our return to New York, he sent us an old black-and-white postcard and asked, “Would you happen to know where the portal of this church is?” (fig. 5).
The postcard showed our Romanesque portal standing on the grounds of the former abbey of St-Sauveur in Villeloin, having been moved from its original location, the church of Saint-Sulpice in nearby Coulangé (fig. 6). Both were suppressed due to the French Revolution. In 1844, the council of Villeloin-Coulangé (the two villages were merged in 1831) deemed St-Sulpice archaeologically unworthy and sold it into private hands (Flohic, 1007). More than half a century later, in 1906, the philosopher-educator Léopold Mabilleau purchased some of the surviving abbatial buildings in Villeloin. With the conviction to save whatever salvageable patrimony, Mabilleau also purchased, and dismantled, the portal from St-Sulpice, transporting it to the grounds he now owned (Tournadre and Wu, 369-372). Financial hardship forced Mabilleau to sell his property in 1923, and by April 1924 Barnard was invoiced by the dealer Lucien Demotte for a “portail romain[sic] tiré de l’Eglise de Coulangé” (PMA Archives). Upon receiving the portal and its wooden doors, Barnard installed them separately at his museum (fig. 2), never revealing the shared provenance of the two when he sold his collection to the Metropolitan Museum. As a result, the stone portal was permanently installed at The Cloisters in the Romanesque Hall, while the wooden doors went to a corner of the neighboring Cuxa Cloister (fig. 7). Their provenance remained obscured until our travels to the region and chance encounter with Franck Tournadre.
Sources and Bibliography
The Cloisters Library and Archives.
Flohic, Jean-Luc, ed., La Patrimoine des Communes d’Indre-et-Loire, vol. 2. Paris: Collection la Patrimoine des Communes de France, 2001.
Holmes, Lore L., and Garman Harbottle, The Romanesque Arch at The Cloisters Museum: Stone Analysis. In: Gesta 19, no. 1 (2000), pp. 24–27.
Husband, Timothy B., Creating The Cloisters. In: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin v. 70, no. 4 (Spring 2013).
The Limestone Sculpture Provenance Project. International Center of Medieval Art, 2004.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.
Nebelsztein, Virginie, and Benedicte Fillion, Le portail no.25/120/878 du Musée des Cloitres: une nouvelle attribution. In: Gesta 39, no. 1 (2000), pp. 13–23.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives.
Lucretia Kargère is Conservator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Nancy Wu is Senior Managing Educator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.