Private collection, France
J. A. Schmoll, gene. Eisenwerth, Die Lothringische Skulptur des 14. Jahrhunderts (Michael Imhof Verlag, Petersberg, 2005), pp. 158, 494, 534
W. H. Forsyth, ‘Mediaeval Statues of the Virgin in Lorraine Related in Type to the Saint-Dié Virgin’, Vol. V, Pt. 2 (Metropolitan Museum Studies, 1936), pp 235-258
P. Quarré, ‘Les Statues de la vierge à l’enfant des confins burgondo-Champenois au début du XIVe siècle’ (La Gazette des Beaux-arts, 1968), pp. 193-204
Musée du Louvre, Nouvelles acquisitions du département des sculptures: 1992-1995 (Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, 1996), pp. 18-21
This superb representation of the enthroned Virgin and Child is carved in the round from fine grain hard limestone. Produced in the second quarter of the 14th century, the state of preservation is exceptional with extensive remains of the original polychrome and traces of gilding. The Virgin sits on her throne with decorated side arcatures leaning slightly on her right hip, this posture caused by the position of the Christ Child who stands on his mother's left knee, her left arm wrapped around him just below the waist. He has delicately carved curled tufts of hair and wears a long tunic with three diagonal pleats from beneath which his feet appear, the folds of material expressive of the youthful movements of the child who turns to his mother holding a bird by its wing in his right hand. The bird may be seen as a reference to an episode from the childhood of Jesus when he modelled sparrows from clay and gave them life or, more commonly, as symbol of the Eucharist and redemption.
As with many of the Virgins and Child produced during the 14th century in Lorraine, Mary wears a draped red coat covering a tight belted green dress, folds of voluminous material falling in pleats to the ground, her toes peaking from beneath the fabric, the right shoe over the base of the object. Her forehead is crowned by a tiara decorated with flowers and finials, a veil hiding her curled locks of hair. Her nose is straight, her eyebrows are arched, her lips thin, her dimpled chin small. Her almond-shaped eyes are fixed with a poetic distant gaze suggestive of a motherly premonition of her child's fate. With her right hand she holds a closed book on her knee, perhaps the Gospels or a prayer book reflective of her piety.
Although carved in the round, this petite sculpture was not conceived to be viewed from every angle and would most likely have been placed in a niche. The reverse of the seated Virgin is, however, as beautiful as the front, the pleated folds of her veil and mantel finished and visble, much of the original rich red polychrome remaining. The small dimensions of the work suggest that it was commissioned for an oratory and used for private devotion. The Marian cult and that of the Virgin and Child saw a renewed interest during the 14th century in such objects from those seeking a new spiritual sensibility and a more intimate religious observance.
Although the precise origin of the present sculpture remains unknown, it can be attributed without doubt to Lorraine. The subject of the Virgin presenting the Child on her left knee can be seen throughout the kingdom of France during the 13th and 14th century and especially in Lorraine and in the Rhine valley. This work shows strong similarities to a number of other Virgin and Child produced in Lorraine during the first half of the 14th century. One example now in the Louvre (Inv. Nr. R.F. 4511) (fig. 1) shows Mary with a closed book resting on her right knee, gazing at her child who stands on her other knee clothed in a long pleated tunic. Similar representations with the standing Christ Child may be seen in the Catharijneconvent Museum, Utrecht (Inv. No. 2313) (fig. 2) and in the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen (Kat. Nr. 356) (fig. 3) (see Schmoll, op. cit. pp. 494, 534). Noteworthy also is the very similar Virgin and Child from the parish church in Rosnay-l’Hôpital in the Aube region (Kat. Nr. 98) (fig. 4) (see Schmoll, op. cit, p. 158). As in our example, Mary is depicted seated on a bench-like throne, positioned in the same manner with her child standing on her left leg, holding a closed book on her right leg. Jesus is swathed in his tunic glasping a bird with both hands.
Located between the valleys of the Moselle and of the Meuse, framed north by the duchy of Luxembourg and south by the Vosges, the duchy of Lorraine may be seen as the product of successive partitions – beginning during the 9th century with the partition of the Carolingian empire and continuing until 1736 when it became part of the Kingdom of France. It's geographical position has made it a crossroads of artistic influence throughout the centuries. By the late 13th century, Lorraine had become a significant artistic centre where there developed a particular stylistic represention of the Virgin and Child. As Schmoll (op. cit.) observes, the characteristics of Lorraine sculpture appear around 1280 – 1300 in the Aube region. Characterised by restrained movement and an internalised somewhat severe expressivity, Mary is typically shown with a large forehead, full oval face, strong neck, thin lips and a cleft chin. Comparisions with the present work may be made with three similar examples in our collection, two now sold, the third produced around the same time as this version in Mussy sur Seine (Aube).
Surviving in excellent original condition, this representation of the seated Virgin and Child is an exquisite example of early French medieval stone carving.