Saint Agnes, Austria, Salzburg, c. 1420

Saint Agnes

Poplar, with original polychrome and gilding
Austria, Salzburg, c. 1420


68cm; 2ft 2¾in.
30cm; 1ft.
16cm; 61/3in.


Dr. Gustav Rau Collection, Southern France


Musée du Louvre, Paris, Sculptures allemandes de la fin du Moyen Age: dans les collections publiques francaises: 1400-1530, 22 October 1991 – 20 January 1992
Museum Schnütgen, Köln, September 2009 – December 2012 (on loan)


Musée du Louvre, Sculptures allemandes de la fin du Moyen Age: dans les collections publiques francaises: 1400-1530, exhibition catalogue (Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 22 October 1991 – 20 January 1992), no. 4, pp. 58-60

Related literature

A. Legner (ed.), Die Parler und der Schöne Stil 1350-1400: Europäische Kunst under dem Luxemburgern, exhibition catalogue, Vol. 2 (Schnütgen-Museums in der Kunsthalle Köln, Köln, 1978), pp. 688-690
A. Legner (ed.), Spätgotik in Salzburg. Skulptur und Kunstgewerbe 1400-1530, exhibition catalogue (Salzburger Museum Carolino Augusteum, Salzburg, 18 June – 17 October 1976), pp. 43-74
D. Grossmann, Schöne Madonnen: 1350-1450, exhibition catalogue (Domoratorien, Salzburg, 17 June – 15 September 1965), pp. 24-45
O. Pächt, Europäische Kunst um 1400: Achte Ausstellung unter den Auspizien der Europarates, exhibition catalogue (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, May – July 1962), p. 53
Grosse Kunst des Mittelalters aus Privatbesitz, exhibition catalogue (Schnütgen Museum, Köln, April – June 1960), no. 54, pp. 40-41

This exquisite sculpture was one of a small group of works sourced from private collections for the highly important exhibition, Sculptures allemandes de la fin du Moyen Age, held in late 1991 at the Musée du Louvre. A superb illustration of the quality and charm of Salzburg models produced during the third and fourth decades of the 15th century, the beautiful young Saint Agnes projects an almost hypnotic allure. 

The composition follows the traditional pose and drapery scheme of the Schöne Madonnen (Beautiful Madonnas), characteristic of the International Style from 1390 until around 1430, such as that seen on the celebrated Virgin and Child in the Church of Saint Bartholomew in Plzeň in western Bohemia – with Christ represented in substitution for the lamb. Schöne Madonnen are among the most recognisable and sought-after works of art from a distinctive movement that departed from the generally more expressive style of the 14th century and introduced a more refined language. Focus was placed on decorative effect designed to evoke a fairy-tale environment for the viewer. Graceful silhouettes, a calm charm and, famously, a voluminous drapery style characterised by cascading folds became the leitmotivs of the style, as exemplified in the serene and petite present work. 

The emergence of the Schöne Madonnen represented a stylistic development that appeared at its clearest in the regions of Bohemia, Silesia, Western Poland, Bavaria and Austria. Integral to the movement was the House of Luxembourg, the ruling family of Bohemia. In the second half of the 14th century it employed the architect Peter Parler from Cologne and a group of manuscript illuminators who would introduce many of the style’s distinctive traits. During the early stages, images of the Virgin in particular were laden with a supernatural grace which was distinctly human at the same time. This coincided with the fresh resurgence of the Marian cult in which new texts celebrated Mary’s physical beauty as a reflection of her spiritual beauty. The centre of the movement in Austria, a number of exceptional examples originate from the province of Salzburg, including the exceedingly beautiful Virgins and Child in the Franciscan Church of the city and in the Saint Maria Basilica in Altenmarkt in Pongau. A further similar work was also included as part of the 1991 Musée du Louvre exhibition (op. cit., no. 3, pp. 55-57). 

The grace of the prototypes for the Beautiful Madonnas – the statues of the Virgins and Child from Krumlau, Plzeň and Altenmarkt – was achieved through a set of stylistic traits that would come to characterise all Schöne Madonnen influencing sculpture as far afield as London, Paris, Avignon and Barcelona. The Virgin is represented with a pronounced contrapposto supporting a usually lively Child. His position counterbalances the sway of his mother. Swathes of drapery suspended from one or both arms are given volume and lightness by arranging them in zig-zag folds. 

Characterised by an idealised grace, enchanting appearance, soulful stylisation, soft flowing lines and folds, our female saint assumes the characteristic ‘hanchement’ or s-curve stance. Emphasis on the sway of the upper body is created by the pronounced curve of the left side of the mantle towards the hand on the opposite side. The heavy folds cascading from the sleeves and down the legs onto the base serve to frame the course of the drapery on the torso, creating an even greater sense of movement. Similarly arranged voluminous drapery to that seen on our example can be found on a beautiful Saint Catherine, c. 1430, in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum Munich (Inv. no. MA 1112). 

The small lamb which sits on the left hand of our female saint identifies her as Saint Agnes, a young Roman martyr venerated for her gentleness, kindness and chastity. Her name resembles the Latin word for ‘lamb’, ‘agnus’. ‘Agnes’ is derived from the feminine Greek adjective ‘hagnē’ (ἁγνή) meaning chaste, pure or sacred. 

The captivating pretty features of the youthful rounded face of Saint Agnes – the high bombe forehead, her porcelain-like skin, full rose cheeks and lips, her half-closed eyelids – assume the feminine form typical of Salzburg International Gothic sculpture around 1400, the childlike sweet character distinguishing the work from other ‘harder-faced’ series. Her swept shoulder length golden hair (which, on one version of her legend, served to safeguard her purity and to protect her) is not concealed beneath a veil. Atop her tilted head sits the crown of the martyr adorned with floral motifs. 

Saint Agnes was a beautiful young girl born of Roman nobility and raised in a Christian family. At a very young age, she made a promise to God never to stain her purity, declaring that she could have no spouse other than Jesus Christ. She was martyred at the age of twelve or thirteen years during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian on 21 January 304. She is one of seven females, excluding the Virgin, commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass (the First Eucharistic Prayer). She is the patron saint of chastity, young girls, virgins, rape victims and engaged couples. 

Saint Agnes’ beauty and her family’s wealth ensured that she had many suitors of high rank. Legend holds that the young men, slighted by her resolute devotion to religious purity, reported her to the authorities as a Christian. The Prefect Sempronius condemned Agnes to be dragged naked through the streets to a brothel. Miraculously, her purity was preserved. Various versions of her legend recall different stories by which she escaped – one suggests that as she prayed her hair grew and covered her body; another that all the men who attempted to rape her were immediately struck blind; yet another that the son of the Prefect was struck dead but then revived after Agnes prayed for him, causing her to be released from the brothel. Following trial she was condemned to death. Sentenced to be burned at the stake, the bundles of wood would not ignite or the flames parted away from her (depending on which version of the story is to be accepted), whereupon the presiding officer either beheaded her or stabbed her in the throat. Her blood seeping to the stadium floor is said to have been soaked up with cloths by other Christians. According to some accounts of her martyrdom, Saint Agnes is said to have appeared to her parents upon her death with a lamb at her side, a vision which may be evoked in the present sculpture. Since the Middle Ages she has been represented with a lamb, the symbol of her virginal innocence. 

The Basilica di Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura was built during the reign of the Emperor Constantine (306 – 337) over the top of the catacombs in which Saint Agnes was entombed after her martyrdom. A mosaic in the apse of the Basilica depicts Saint Agnes surrounded by flame, a sword lying at her feet. With the exception of her skull, which has been placed in a chapel in the 17th century Sant’Agnese in Agone, on the Piazza Navona in Rome, Saint Agnes' bones are preserved under the high altar of the Basilica di Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura. Every year on her feast day, two lambs, representing Saint Agnes’ purity, are blessed at the Basilica and from their wool are made the palliums, the distinctive vestment given by the Pope to each archbishop as symbolic of their jurisdiction.

SOLD: Private collection, Belgium