The Timeless Virgin: From 14th-Century France to 21st- Century America
by Cristina Tagliavia
The Virgin and Child
Artistic productions of the Middle Ages have been valued in the international art market since the mid-19th century. Private and public collectors alike have bought and sold medieval artifacts such as sculptures, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, and tapestries. During the French Revolution, works of art associated with the monarchy were ripped out of their original locations and destroyed, lost, or sold. Due to their displacement, medieval artifacts have circulated in the art markets of Europe and the United States. A 14th-century French statue of the Virgin and Child, now in the Cloisters, has survived a Revolution and the vicissitudes of the international art market to find its permanent home in America.
The Caring Virgin
The Virgin and Child, once belonged to a church in the region of Île-de-France. Little information about that church, or even the sculptures placement within the church, remains. According to Michael Camille, author of The Gothic Idol, “taller-standing images were most often placed directly on the altar cloth.” The image to the left is an example of how Camille believed statues of the Virgin and Child would have been venerated. However, the Virgin and Child at the Cloisters has a rectangle cut out on her back, making it more reasonable to assume that she was installed against a wall, rather than placed on an altar.
Slightly larger than life-sized, the sculpture at The Cloisters exemplifies 14th-century conventions for representations of Mary holding the Christ child. The Virgin’s body curves in an “S” shape, with her left hip slightly raised to support her child. The child’s arm leans against his mother’s chest, explicitly showing an interaction between the subjects. This maternal connection signifies a design shift where the Virgin is made to look emphatically human and emotionally attached to her son. Penny Gold, author of The Lady and the Virgin, explains that “instead of the hieratic, metaphysical majesty of the twelfth century statues [...] Mary appears as a gentle mother.” Therefore, it is likely that this depiction worked to create a deeper emotional connection between the Virgin and 14th-century women. Marian Bleeke argues that while sculptures like the Cloisters Virgin and Child depict a more humanistic representation of Mary. Such representations put forward “an impossible idea for [women] to emulate.” In this sculpture, the Virgin looks past the viewer with squinted eyes as a reminder that while she is a mother, she is still holy and above the earthly worshipper. Working to reiterate this separation, her blonde and curly hair, under a golden crown, flows away from her face to create a sunlike radiance.
Although, some of the polychromy on the sculpture has worn off, enough paint remains to reveal the orignaly luxury of the work. The garments of the Virgin and Child are painted in bright yellows, blues, and reds, and are given a silk like essence through the repeated stenciled pattern. In fact, at the time of acquisition in 1938, the Curator of the Cloisters, James Roriemer, declared that there was “no other French Gothic statue of the period with so much of its original surface and with such fresh colors.” Indeed, Rorimer stated that this Virgin set a new standard against which other “Madonnas suffer by comparison."
The Traveling Virgin
The French Revolution played an essential role in bringing medieval artifacts into the international art market. During the Revolution, churches were sacked and destroyed as paintings, statues, crowns, reliquaries, and crucifixes were ripped out of their original settings. While this striped them “of their original intention and function,” it created a singularity which allowed them to be seen in isolation and admired by more people than if left untouched.
Although it is unknown when the Virgin and Child left the Île-de-France, its earliest known owner was Lord Caledon of southwest England. There is limited information on how Lord Caledon acquired this sculpture, but it is clear that he owned several religious works as listed in Gustav Waagen’s Galleries and Cabines of Art In Great Britain from 1857. It is also known that this sculpture was owned by James Simon of Germany and the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum of Berlin where it stayed for twenty years. It was then sold by the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum at the time when that instituation “was negotiating the purchase of the major portion of the Guelph treasure.” From there, the work made its way to the Parisian art market, eventually being aquired by the Brummer Gallery. Although there is evidence that the sculpture was in the hands of Parisian dealer Nicolas Brimo before being aquired by the Brummer's, the Brummer Gallery record for the work indicates only its earlier home in the Berlin museum–this provenance apparently serving as a testament to the work’s high quality. Therefore, the Brummers were responsible bringing the sculpture to the United States. The figure on the top left, shows how the Brummer Gallery showcased its acquisitions as singular entities, rather than elements integrated within a grand setting of medieval architecture. The card on the bottom left lists a description of the Virgin and Child’s medium, height, date and country of origin. It also shows, Oct. 18, 1935, which is when the Brummer family may have purchased the work. On the bottom right of the gallery card there is writing in pencil which says “Metropolitan Museum, Nov. 16, 1937, $70,000.” In 1938, James Rorimer wrote an article listing “New Acquisitions For The Cloisters” of which the Virgin and Child was one. The gallery card brings us to the percieved value of the Virgin and Child in the 1930’s and reveals which aspects of its journey through the art market and the museum world were considered most relevant.
The Permanent Virgin
Today, the Virgin and Child is located in the Early Gothic Hall of the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, New York. This Early Gothic Hall is a wide,and shallow space with three large stained glass windows, as seen in the figure to the left. The Virgin is placed on a concrete platform, at the southern side of the room, high above her viewers. Not only must the Virgin be looked up to, but her grandeur demands attention and respect. Unlike her prsumed original instillation, attached to a church wall, she now stands in the middle of an open room allowing viewers to see the marks of her voyage. At the Cloisters, medieval-like architecture, complete with the stained glass windows, recreates the atmosphere of the Virgin’s inital setting therefore repurposing her “original intention and function."
As a member of the Cloisters collection, this sculpture is viewed by audiences that might never have the opportunity to see her grandeur elsewhere. Across the Met’s three locations,“The Met Fifth Avenue, The Met Cloisters, and the Met Breuer,” more than 7.35 million people have visited over the 2018 fiscal year. If the sculpture remained in a chapel in Île-de-France, she might have stood neglected and dusty in a corner only to have relevance for long-gone medieval viewers–or those today with the art historical knowledge or interest to seek out this particular Virgin and Child.
The Virgin and Child is a magnificent statue that has transcended the trials of time from the 14th-century Île-de-France to her final home in the Cloisters. Once serving as a motherly image venerated by faithful Christians and especially women of the 14th-century, her voyage through the hands of many owners has given her a new story. Today, she can be admired by people of all faiths as an example of 14th-century religious art.
Bleeke, Marian. Motherhood and Meaning in Medieval Sculpture: Representations from France, 1100-1500. Woodbridge:Boydell Press, 2017.
Camille, Michael.The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-making in Medieval Art. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Emery, Elizabeth and Laura Morowitz. “From the living room to the museum and back again:The collection and display of medieval art in the fin de siécle.” Journal of the History of Collections 16, (2004):285-309.
Gold, Penny Schine. The Lady & the Virgin: Image, Attitude, and Experience in Twelfth-Century France. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Hollevoet-Force, Christel. “Brummer Galleries: Paris and New York,1909-1964.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, March 2018.
Rorimer, James J. “New Acquisitions for the Cloisters.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin,Vol. 33, No. 5 (May 1938).
Rorimer, James J. The Cloisters. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1963.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Met Museum Sets New Attendance Record with More Than 7.35 Million Visitors.” Press. Last Modified July 5,2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/press/news/2018/met-museum-sets-new-attendance-record
Waagen, Gustav Friedrich. Galleries and Cabinets of Art In Great Britain: Being an account of more than forty collections of Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures, Mss. Treasures of Art in Great Britain, 3.(1857) Google Books.