From modern world leaders back to ancient gods and deities, busts have long captured a striking likeness to their real-life models, or, as the case may be, to the imagined appearance of mythical or fictional figures. These representations of their head and neck, and usually their shoulders and top of their chest, often rest upon a plinth. They may very well ignite a flash of jealousy in the viewer, envious of how the sculptor can take a block of marble, for instance, or wood or bronze or alabaster, and turn it into a bust that practically brings the person to life. These are my favorites.
#1 The Veiled Nun (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
Grand, white structures and monuments abound in Washington D.C., and it’s easy to get lost among the bigger displays of white. But I found a smaller, and utterly astounding, one—an incredible bust—proudly displayed in the outstanding National Gallery of Art. The Veiled Nun, a 21”-tall marble bust, completely mesmerized me, leaving me to wonder how on earth marble could be sculpted so delicately and finely to make it appear transparent. The veil covering the woman’s head is see-through, revealing her hair and contours of her face yet still disguising her true expression. How anyone can create something so diaphanous from something so solid mystified me—and so did the story of this sculpture and its secrets. For starters, the woman depicted is not a nun at all. Her embroidered veil and fashionable hairdo would be uncharacteristic of a nun, and the name developed not from the artist but from museumgoers who interpreted her inward focus and demure modesty as that of a holy figure, and their reference to her as a nun stuck. Created in 1860, supposedly by Italian artist Giuseppe Croff, and purchased in Rome in 1863 by an American banker for $300 who then donated it to a museum, The Veiled Nun’s mystery soon began to grow. Based on its similarities to an engraving of a veiled bust, also attributed to Croff, that was exhibited at the 1853–54 New York World’s Fair, The Veiled Nun had always been thought to be his tour de force. But scholars impugned its origins when they agreed that differences from the engraving, combined with the proliferation of veiled busts at that time, made it highly unlikely that Croff was the sculptor. Today, it remains attributed to an unidentified Italian workshop, and that’s a shame—the fledged person who created such a masterly paradigm of sculpture deserves to be recognized.
#2 Medusa (Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy)
She can scare the living hell out of you. And she can turn you into stone with just one look into her eyes. At least the latter isn’t true in reality, a fact for which I was grateful when I first gazed upon the bust of Medusa in Rome’s Capitoline Museums. But she can still give you the creeps. Executed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini sometime in the 1640s, Medusa re-creates the Greek mythological figure—a venomous-snake–haired woman who had the ability to turn anyone who looked at her into stone. Medusa’s reign of terror eventually ended when Perseus beheaded her. Bernini’s version is exceptionally gripping as a masterful work of art. Of course, the irony of the work wasn’t lost on me—Bernini cast in marble the very person who could turn someone else into stone. With her locks composed entirely of snakes slithering around the top of her head, you can easily imagine the fear she struck into anyone approaching her. And, at first glance, she is rather hideous. But the longer I inspected the bust, the more I appreciated Bernini’s sympathetic treatment of this monster that truly sets it apart. Medusa was quite the hottie of Greek mythology—until she had sex with Poseidon in Athena’s temple, and the latter, in a pique of rage, turned Medusa’s hair into a nest of hideous serpents. Bernini gives her an expression that conveys sorrow over her own situation. Her face, with its furrowed brows, sad eyes, and slightly opened and downturned lips, doesn’t convey horror. In fact, it’s rather disconsolate. Can you imagine the incessant hissing in her ears—a torturous version of endless tinnitus? Instead of trading on her reputation as a grotesque creature, the perspicacious Bernini makes her an uncharacteristically sympathetic figure—and one of the most memorable works of art in this Roman museum.
#3 Popes (Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy)
An almost embarrassing abundance of artwork in Siena Cathedral practically turns one of Italy’s most beautiful churches into a museum. From fantastic architectural elements to a beautiful pulpit to an utterly amazing floor with one of the world’s best depictions of animals, this cathedral in Siena has been a magnet for travelers since the mid-1300s. I had to look up to find some of its best sculptures. The horizontal molding around the nave and the presbytery contains 172 plaster busts of popes. Created during the 15th and 16th centuries, the busts begin with St. Peter and work their way chronologically through to Lucius III, pope from 1181 to 1185. It’s a fantastic history lesson, but not entirely accurate. No one, of course, knows what the earliest popes look like, and because only a handful of terracotta models were used, many of the busts are nearly identical, regardless of what the actual person looked like. For example, Pope Innocent I (papacy 401–417) looks like the twin of Pope Celestine I (422–432), and Pius I (140–155) and Boniface I (418–422) are clearly repeats of each other, right down to their eyebrows, cheekbones, and chin. Despite the inaccuracies, these busts, separated by brackets and with their names in Latin clearly printed beneath them, are a favorite of visitors to the cathedral, but, perhaps, not so much for those who have been a little naughty, what with all the judgment staring down at them.
#4 George Washington (State Capitol, Olympia, Washington)
On a rainy day in Olympia, Washington, I visited the state capitol, an impressive structure from every angle. Completed in 1928, the capitol features the tallest self-supporting masonry dome in the world (and fifth tallest in the world) as well as some of the world’s most beautiful doors. I passed through the latter and entered a striking space of Doric columns, plenty of marble, lamps and Roman fire pots (the largest collection of bronze works by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the world), and a 10,000-lb. chandelier suspended inside the dome. Appropriately enough, there’s a bust of the first president of the United States, for whom the 42nd state is named. (Not so coincidentally, 42 steps lead up to the building’s main entrance). On the balcony of the capitol’s mezzanine level, a bronze bust of a thoughtful George Washington, with creased forehead and dressed in coat and ruffled shirt, overlooks the central rotunda. Sculpted by Avard Fairbanks and donated to the capitol in 1984 by the Mother Joseph Foundation, the larger-than-life-size bust became an immediate favorite attraction of visitors, who rubbed Washington’s nose for good luck. In 2016, the bust was cleaned, George’s shiny nose was repaired, and the entire thing was sealed in wax. Alas, rubbing his proboscis is now verboten.
#5 The Mourning Saint John the Evangelist, Virgin Mary, and Saint Mary Magdalene (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland)
One of the top five things to do in Baltimore, Maryland, is to spend multiple hours in the outstanding Walters Art Museum. Opened in 1934, the Walters has a vast collection of art largely amassed by a father-and-son team of art and sculpture collectors, now housed in a palazzo-style structure. Ranging from 5000 BC to the 21st century, the 36,000 objects originate from every corner of the globe, inclusive of everything from Assyrian alabaster reliefs to Art Nouveau jewelry as well as one of the world’s top five depictions of Adam and Eve. Of particular note is The Mourning Saint John the Evangelist, Virgin Mary, and Saint Mary Magdalene, a sculptural group of busts in terracotta that was originally painted with multiple colors, now stripped off, and that was bequeathed to the museum in 1931. The sculptor remains unknown, but the piece is dated to around 1500 from northern Italy. Measuring nearly two feet tall, the sculptural group depicts the three key Biblical figures in subtly varied responses to the death of Christ after His crucifixion. All three have their heads leaning to their right, as if their necks can no longer support their weight. On the left, a long- and curly-haired John seems both sad and resigned to the fact that this was Christ’s fate. In the center, the Virgin Mary, looking more like a nun with her hair completely covered by a habit and a cowl up to her chin, is portrayed in tear-inducing grief and exhaustion. John supports her, with his arm around her and a hand resting on her shoulder. To the right, Mary Magdalene, with her long locks flowing freely and wearing a far-less conservative dress than the other Mary, appears to still be in a bit of her ecstasy. It’s a remarkable grouping that wonderfully captures different levels of the human condition of mourning, one that you’re bound to remember.
- Queen Victoria (1888; Kelvingrove Art Museum and Gallery, Glasgow, Scotland)
- Roman gods and goddesses (1622; façade, House With the Heads; Amsterdam, the Netherlands)
- Queen Sheba and King Solomon (1573; central portal, Bern Minster, Bern, Switzerland)
- Wild Bill Hickok (1876; Mt. Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, South Dakota)
- Horace Greeley (1872; Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York)
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