Description & Technical information

Attributed to Jean de la Huerta (active 1431 –1462)

France, Burgundy, probably between Dijon and Chalon-sur-Saône,

This beautiful Virgin and Child is carved in soft, almost white, limestone typical of the type found in d’Asnières-lès-Dijon in eastern France. Retaining traces of original polychrome in the deeper folds and crevices, it is identifiable immediately as a work of 15th century Burgundian master craftsmanship.

In its original position, the base of the work would have been placed just above eye-level. Designed so that the main view is from the side and left, the observer is drawn immediately to the rhythm and curvilinear folds of drapery which cover the Virgin’s body falling to hide her feet. The skill of the sculptor is such that the viewer is nonetheless able to discern the exact position of the body and limbs under the clothes which, in the Late Gothic period, was a rare quality, characteristic of the artistic skill displayed only by the most elite of craftsman such as Claus Sluter, Jacques Morel and Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden.

This technique has allowed the artist to produce one of the principal motifs through which the sculpture conveys an unusual emotional depth. The right hand of the mother supports the chest of her fully clothed and diagonally laid child in the exact place he will be pierced by a spear at Gethsemane. Mary’s fingers feel the body under the skirt of the Christ child – a gesture symbolising that God has become a man through this child; Christ is the Son of God and, also, the Son of Man. This type of representation can be found in the Bohemian ‘Schöne Madonnen’ around 1400 and in works by sculptors active in Burgundy. In these statutes the fingers of the mother are pressed into the skin of the naked body of the child rather than against an outer layer of clothing.

This exceptional Burgundian work is a unique example which connects closely the incarnation and birth of Christ with his future sacrifice for mankind’s salvation. The spread-out five fingers of the right hand of the Virgin reference the five wounds of her crucified son. Connected with this imagery, Mary’s veil which covers part of the head of the child also has an important meaning. The child is still in the care of his mother, under her protective veil; however, his eyes, which seem to be filled with a presentiment of his destiny, are not turned towards her, but away to the outside world. He appears to wish to break free from his mother’s grasp, his missing right arm stretching outwards, perhaps in a blessing gesture, towards the donor.

Other important contemporary examples where the child turns away from the mother are the Madonna of Dangolsheim found in the Skulpturensammlung in the Bode-Museum in Berlin (Inv. 7055) and the Virgin and Child (called Nostre Dame de Grasse) in the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse (Inv. Ra. 788) – in the latter example, the mother and child look in opposite directions. Serving to reinforce the intercession, the protective veil is a highly unusual iconographic element reflective of an artistic confidence and freedom permitted only of those of master status. The Christ child’s refuge under the veil of his mother is a leading motive of the Dangolsheimer Madonna executed in Strasbourg by Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden about 1460 – 1465. The connection to other major works of the period confirms the high importance of the creator of our Virgin and Child. Possessed of the ability to transfer deep theological thought through an appropriate artistic concept, there can be no doubt as to his elevated status and position.

Identification of the author of our work is not without difficulty. No immediately comparable example can be found among the numerous 15th century Burgundian statutes of the Virgin and Child. Despite the various studies undertaken since the exhibitions organised by Pierre Quarré in the 1970s devoted to the successors of Claus Sluter (1360 – 1406) at the ducal court, the oeuvres of Claus de Werve and Jean de la Huerta have not been settled definitively. Principal commissions were imitated in significant numbers without their participation. Furthermore, the influence of Sluter on sculpture production played a dominant role in Burgundy for some decades after his death in 1406 complicating the attribution process. There is, however, now broad agreement with the attribution of outstanding sculptures to Claus de Werve (active 1396 – 1439), nephew, employee and successor of Sluter, such as the Master’s monumental Seated Madonna and Child made in Poligny housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Acc. no. 33.23), the Vierge aux raisin found in the Church of Our Lady in Auxonne, Côte d'Or and the Virgin ‘dite du Fondateur’ in Poligny (Jura).

Similarities between our Virgin and Child and these sculptures are discernible – the stocky figure, the square jaw, the downcast eyes, pursed lips and double chin. The somewhat restless nature of the Christ child is comparable to the infant who sits upright grabbing at the toes of his left foot seen in de Werve’s Vierge aux raisin. The shaping of the head, the thick waves of long hair and the canted angular nature of the Virgin’s veil is reminiscent of the Seated Madonna and Child in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Relevantly also, de Werve appears to have initiated production in Burgundy of this type of Vierge d’Intercession: in his Vierge à l’oiseau found in the Church of Our Lady in Bretigny, Côte d’Or, the Christ child turns, as in our example, from his mother to lean towards a likely donor and, as in our work, Mary holds her son against her with both hands. The finely chiseled hair of both mother and the child is akin to similar elaboration in hair and beards of male figures executed by Sluter and his successors.

Until recently, there has been confusion between the works of Claus de Werve and his successor Jean de la Huerta (active 1431 – 1462) whose arrival in Dijon corresponded with his commission in 1443 by Philip the Good (1419 –1467) to complete the tombs of John the Fearless and Margaret of Bavaria begun by de Werve. Originally from Aragón, Jean de la Huerta is, unquestionably, one of the most important sculptors of the 15th century. There is some doubt as to whether he was an apprentice in de Werve's workshop as is generally assumed. His source of inspiration was the art of Claus Sluter and he is considered rightly to have renewed the style associated with the early Master. Completed around the same time as the ducal commission, our Virgin and Child can be attributed with confidence to Jean de la Huerta based on the outstanding artistic quality and stylistic characteristics of the work.

Attribution to de la Huerta must be based on relatively few sculptures and primarily on the deeply provocative pleurants (mourners) (now housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon) which record the lavish funerals of the dukes of Burgundy in medieval France. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Valois dukes of Burgundy were among the most powerful rulers in the Western world, presiding over vast territories in present-day France, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands from their capital in Dijon. The significant artistic patronage of the dukes drew artists, musicians and writers to Dijon, which became a major centre of creativity and artistic patronage, promoting artists such as Jan van Eyck (c. 1380/90 – 1441) and Claus Sluter. This prolific creativity and innovation extended to the ducal court’s sculpture workshop, which produced some of the most significant art of the period. The tombs of the first two Burgundian dukes, Philip the Bold (1342 – 1404) and his son, John the Fearless (1371 – 1419) are among the very best of their achievements. Both tombs were originally commissioned for the family’s monastic complex outside of Dijon, the Chartreuse (Charterhouse) de Champmol, and were moved following the French Revolution to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, where they have remained since the early 19th century.

The 1443 contract to complete the tombs of John the Fearless and Margaret of Bavaria, begun, as noted, by Claus de Werve, specified that the double tomb was to be made of alabaster and was to resemble (be ‘as good or better’ than) that of Philip the Bold. De la Huerta worked on the tomb and on other commissions for dignitaries in Dijon until 1456, when he left the city without finishing the ducal effigies which were later completed by Antoine le Moiturier (active 1460’s), the entire project spanning some 25 years. The lower registers on both tombs are populated by funeral corteges of monks and clerics, who appear to circulate as if in a cloister. The small scale figures are remarkable in their individuality; they are alternately drying their tears, wringing their hands, engaged in prayer and deep contemplation, and hiding their faces in the folds of their robes. The de la Huerta mourners, although modeled after those executed by Claus Sluter for the tomb of Philip the Bold, are independent masterful variations of the highest artistic standard.

Two other sculptures, attested to have been made by Jean de la Huerta around 1448, are the still preserved statues of the Virgin and Child and Saint John the Baptist in the collegiate church of Rouvres-en-Plaine, Côte d’Or, commissioned by the mayor of Dijon, Philippe Machefoing. At about the same date the artist executed the sculptures for three tomb monuments which Louis de Chalon- Arlay, Prince of Orange, had had built in the Cistercian abbey for women at Mont-Sainte-Marie (Doubs) – regrettably, little remains of them. Amongst the sculptures until recently ascribed to de la Huerta one could certainly, following critical re-examination, discern examples from the Master’s workshop. The Madonna at the west portal of the collegiate church of Saint Hippolyte at Poligny (Jura), which repeats the work at Rouvres-en-Plaine, must now be excluded from his oeuvre. The excellent alabaster statues of the Madonna in Pesmes (Haute-Saône) and the Saint John the Evangelist in Bar-le-Régulier, Côte d’Or, may be ascribed, properly considered as late works of de la Huerta. The figure of a kneeling founder in Poligny is of similar artistic importance, a statue perhaps by the Master in which Jean Chevrot, bishop of Tournai and one of the leading personalities in the Duchy of Burgundy, is represented.

The composition of our work is strikingly proximate to certain of the mourners of the tomb of John the Fearless. Attributable to Jean de la Huerta and, more precisely, to the Master himself and not to his workshop, it may be dated to around 1445 and no later than 1450. Fundamental conceptional similarities may be seen in the subtly differentiated understanding of corporal movement conveyed in an artistic manner in the form of figures whose bodies are almost completely veiled by a rich garment. Further common characteristics are the monumental effect of the works, conveyed even by figures of a small scale, and the intense observation of emotional behaviour. The arrangement of the drapery, a distinct structure, is also comparable because of the combination of harmonised sequences of winding folds with broad vertical lengths. The depth between the hemlines in both works captures the viewer’s eye. The mourners numbers 54, 55, 60, 64 and 69 (Jugie, op. cit.) are particularly suitable for comparison with our Virgin. Stylistic connections may also be made to the figures in Rouvres-en-Plaine – the Christ child with chubby full face and tensed toes, Mary with square full jaw – although her very dramatic gesture and the Sluterian type folds of drapery evident in that work represent a very different style developed from the earlier models of Claus Sluter. Similarities may also be seen with the Master’s Virgin and Child in Ouges – Mary with softened face, her mantle with angular folds and ‘wiser’ drapery. The hands of our Virgin, broad with slender fingers and small nails well marked, are characteristic of the oeuvre of Jean de la Huerta.

Closely related to the ducal court art of the reign of Philip the Good, this previously unpublished masterpiece – an intimate portrayal of emotive imagery and important iconography – is most likely to have been commissioned by a person of a high political or ecclesiastic position.

We are grateful to Prof. Dr. Hartmut Krohm, former Head and curatorial fellow, Skulpturensammlung, Bode-Museum, Berlin, Professor, Institute of Fine Arts and Historical Urban Studies, Technical University, Berlin, for confirming the attribution to Jean de la Huerta based on first hand examination of the work.

Date:  1445 – 1450
Period:  1400-1600, 15th century
Origin:  France, Burgundy
Medium: Limestone, Traces of original polychrome
Dimensions: 112 x 43 x 26.5 cm (44¹/₈ x 16⁷/₈ x 10³/₈ inches)
Provenance: Private collection, Burgundy, 1970s
Literature: S. Jugie, The Mourners – Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy (Yale University Press, 2010), esp. pp. 76-79, 86, 92, 98-99
J. Boccador, Statuaire médiévale en France de 1400 à 1530 (les Clefs du Temps, 1974), Tome 1, pp. 187, 191-207, 228-239; pls. 224, 228-251, 290-307
Categories: Sculpture