Description & Technical information
This exquisite early 14th century Virgin and Child is one of the finest and most beautiful examples of French medieval stone sculpture still in private hands. In an almost perfect state of preservation with virtually all of the original polychrome and gilding intact, it is a rare fine grain hard limestone work carved around the third decade of the century in the old diocese of Langres, on the border of Burgundy and Champagne, near the town of Mussy sur Seine (Aube), the former residence of the Bishop of Langres in the 14th century.
Her back arched, the Virgin supports the weight of her child carried on her left hip. Her long heavily pleated blue dress falls to the ground, her right leg resting slightly to the side.
A thin green and gold belt, adorned with alternating rosettes and loops, highlights her high wasted ensemble, the end falling diagonally with the folds of the dress. She wears a rich red cloak, held together at the front with a thin cord fastened with two floral tassels. The treatment in relief and volume of the cloak contrasts with the flat pleats of the dress, the design similar to that seen on examples from the region now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (from the church of Saint Maurice d'Epinal, Vosges) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (from Chatenois near Saint Dié, Vosges). Carved largely in the round with a flatened decorated back, the reverse of the figure is as beautiful as the front, the veil draped with delicate vertical folds, the cloak falling in three large V-shaped folds on each side.
A crown with foliate and floral motives tops the Virgin’s short veil, her elegant hairnet, painted in red, green and gold, holding her hair in place, visible on each side underneath. At the top of her forehead, waves of blond hair peak from beneath, her locks tucked behind her ears. Her face is wide with a straight nose, long arched eyebrows and slightly open blue almond-shaped eyes, her small mouth perfectly formed, a slight double and dimpled chin outlining her red lips and sweet smile.
The treatment of the Virgin’s hair contrasts with the regular well drawn strands of the hair of the Christ Child. His long folded golden tunic opens at the neck to reveal two inverted red triangles, typical of the period, held at each edge with a button. Under the tunic, at his neckline, can be seen a small green shirt, visible also at the forearms. The Christ Child holds out his right hand in response to the gesture of his mother who, in the same way as the Virgin found in Our Lady of the Fontenilles Hospital in Tonnerre, would have lifted her hand as a sign of prayer. In his left hand the infant Jesus holds a wild rose flower. As seen on other similar works of the region, his bare feet emerge from the bottom of his tunic. In our example, both feet are exposed with the sole of the turned right foot more visible, the toes clenched. His face, framed by his little ears, looks across the distant gaze of his mother.
The present Virgin and Child possesses almost all the characteristics of those from the ‘Group of Saint Dié’ defined in 1936 by William Forsythe (op. cit.). It is very similar also to the group studied in 1968 by Pierre Quarré (op. cit.) situated on the borders of Burgundy and Champagne, around the town of Mussy sur Seine. Several features typical of the former group can be seen here: the body of the Virgin is similarly arched, the right leg is similarly positioned slightly to the side, the top of the dress is held by a belt decorated with rosettes the end following a pleat of the drapery, the vertical folds of the short veil are similar, the Christ Child holds a book or a wild rose flower and his tunic opens at the neck with two triangular lapels.
Although displaying characteristics similar to the group of Virgins produced in Lorraine during the early 14th century, those from the churches around Mussy sur Seine and the dioceses of Langres are subtly different. As with our representation, the position of the hips of the Virgin is less noticeable than those of Lorraine. The dress, taken in at the waist by a delicate belt, is pleated above. The right arm of the Virgin is raised causing the bottom of the cloak to lift. The veil is short and the crown is often comprised of fine floral motifs, as it is here. The Virgin has a wide neck and a dimple on her chin. The hair that peaks from beneath the veil or hairnet at the centre of a bare high forehead is similar to our example. The right hand of the Christ Child reaches out to touch his mother’s hand. His long tunic does not cover his forearms revealing his under shirt. His hair is comprised of what Quarré described as ‘diamond-shaped tufts in transverse and parallel bands’.
Exhibiting features of both of the studied groups, it can be concluded with confidence that our Virgin and Child comes from the region on the borders of Lorraine and the old comté de Bourgogne. Studios of the border region of Burgundy and Champagne flourished at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th centuries, especially in Tonnerre (Yonne), Mussy sur Seine (Aube) and Langres (Haute Marne). Of the greatest rarity, surviving virtually completely intact, the tool marks of the sculptor still clearly visible, this outstanding Virgin and Child is a masterpiece of early 14th century craftsmanship of the region.
Period: Middle Ages, 14th century
Origin: France, Mussy sur Seine
Medium: Original polychrome, Limestone, Gilding
Dimensions: 94 x 32.5 x 22 cm (37 x 12³/₄ x 8⁵/₈ inches)
Provenance: Private collection, France
Literature: J. A. Schmoll, gene. Eisenwerth, Die Lothringische Skulptur des 14. Jahrhunderts (Michael Imhof Verlag, Petersberg, 2005), p. 141, no. 75
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
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