Rare medieval Madonna that survived Reformation, Revolution goes home

One of very few English-made statues of Catholic iconography to survive the Reformation has been acquired by the British Museum and will return to its homeland after centuries abroad. The alabaster figure of Virgin and Child was made in England, likely in the Midlands area, by an unknown artist in around 1350-75. Alabaster was highly prized by carvers in the 14th century because of its translucent glow, ivory tones and a surface that welcomed painting and gilding. Cheaper and easier to carve than marble, gypsum alabaster was extensively quarried in the Midlands during the 14th and 15th centuries. During this period, Nottingham had an active and lucrative trade in small devotional statues and reliefs, buoyed by the rich supply of local raw materials.

How this statue survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the destruction of icons of the Protestant Reformation is unknown.

Early religious royal injunctions issued by Henry VIII had merely called for objects of religious “idolatry” to be taken down, citing the words of the second commandment: “Thou shalt make thee no graven image, neither any similitude of things that are in heaven above, neither that are in the earth beneath, nor that are in the waters under the earth.”

But a more severe injunction followed after the succession of his son, Edward VI, in 1547. It called for the clergy “to take away, utterly extinct and destroy all shrines, coverings of shrines, all tables, candlesticks, trindles or rolls of wax, pictures, paintings, and all other monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition: so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glass-windows or elsewhere within their churches or houses. And they shall exhort their parishioners to do the like within their several houses.”

In the following months religious statues were smashed, while a few were hidden behind walls and under floorboards. Some had their eyes deliberately damaged or their heads lopped off.

All we know is that at some point after it was created, the Madonna and Child made its way to Saint Truiden Abbey, in the Flemish province of Limburg, Belgium. Founded in the 7th century by Saint Trudo, aka Saint Truiden, the monastery was an important site of pilgrimage for centuries during the Middle Ages. A deep-pocketed pilgrim could have bought the statue in England and gifted it to the abbey shortly after it was created. Or it could have been saved from destruction in the 16th century and smuggled out of the country.

It then survived another orgy of destruction: the French Revolution. French Revolutionary forces arrived at Saint Truiden in 1794. They looted and pillaged the abbey and church, setting the latter on fire. Everything of value was stripped and sold for cash, from the artworks to the building materials. Perhaps the statue survived by being sold.

It first appears on the historical record in Brussels in 1864 where it was exhibited and purchased by Austrian collector, Dr. Albert Figdor. After his death it was acquired by an anonymous European family who put it up for auction. That’s where it was spotted by the British Museum who arranged a sale through art dealers Sam Fogg with funding from the Art Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Whatever traumas it has experienced, the statue is in incredible condition. It still retains some of its polychrome paint and gilding. Quite a signficant amount of red and gold still decorates Mary’s crown. Most of the visible wear is the result of devotion, not violence. The faces of both Mother and Child and foot of the Child are worn from centuries of kisses and caresses from pilgrims.

The statue is now on display in the British Museum’s medieval gallery next to the South Cerney head and foot. The head and one foot of Christ are all that remain of the wooden crucifix of All Hallows Church in South Cerney, Gloucestershire. They were found hidden behind the wall of the church’s nave in 1915. It seems it was secreted whole, a desperate attempt to save it from destruction, and then over the centuries most of the crucifix rotted away leaving only the head and foot. The placement illustrates the shared context of the still-beautiful Madonna and Child and the ruins of the crucifix.

3D model time! I enjoyed zooming in and searching for polychrome paint remnants.

15 thoughts on “Rare medieval Madonna that survived Reformation, Revolution goes home

  1. A graven image of a neolithic fertility goddess: the Jews spent centuries trying to suppress such things then the Christians brought them back. Was that one of the the Greek/gentile influences on Christianity? It seems to me that the nativity yarns are clearly Greek intrusions into tales otherwise set in a plausible Jewish milieu.

    How foolish, though, to smash up most of such things when they could have been sold profitably on the Continent.

  2. Every step in the survival story of this statue seems to have been a miraculous fluke. I imagine that 99% of the medieval art objects that once existed.. were destroyed, changed or hidden in one revolution or another.

    I recently read this story in The Guardian, just as you said. The statue was exhibited in Brussels in 1864, bought by a famous Austrian banker and private collector, Dr Albert Figdor. On his death it entered the private collection of a European family before being spotted at auction. What was the chance of survival of an art object, from one country to another, from one collection to another??

  3. In response to dearieme:

    I think you conflate two different arguments: one is to attribute pagan (both neolithic and Greek) influence to the veneration of statues, and the other is to attribute Greek influence to the nativity narratives.

    To limit myself to the former – as that is subject of this post, after all – I think it could be plausibly argued that it stems from a Judaic root. When looking at pre-Hellenistic Israel, the Ark of the Covenant was adorned with several figurines, which were given the highest of veneration. Secondly, Israelite tradition dictated that it was the mother of the King, rather than his wife (wives) who had the title of Queen.

    Thus, looking strictly at the Judaic roots of Christianity, there would be nothing extraordinary with honoring a representation of the mother of (believed to be) Messiah King. No pagan Greek influence was necessary for this practice. The conflicting practices between Greek and Jewish Christians is discussed quite plainly in the Acts of the Apostles, and the iconographic tradition is not one of them.

  4. Always remember: Never go anywhere else without your ‘elaborate drinking vessel‘ – Se þurstiga gewilnað beór célincge (so keep it cool) :p


    What exactly makes this statue distinctly English ? Of course, the material itself could possibly be traced and, additionally, that bunch of flowers seems to set it off. To imagine Henry collecting the bits and trading them off to the continent, seems to make sense.

    Distinctly barbaric is, of course, to incite hypocritical idiots to destroy those masterpieces. However, the Marian iconography is Egyptian, i.e. that of Horus and Isis. Stone is obviously also involved here, which makes it ‘lithic‘, if not ‘neo-lithic‘.

  5. Yes, I too think the imagery of Mary holding Jesus on her lap/knee is a knock off from Isis and Horus. I was shocked when I went to Egypt immediately having seen thousands of Madonna and Child paintings in Europe and saw Isis holding Horus her knee EVERYWHERE. Such a clear imitation.

  6. My congratulations to the British Museum conservation staff for the amazing transformation of the sculpture from the purchase at Sotheby’s! At least I assume that is who conserved the piece after it’s sale. Looked to me to be centuries of grime and church smoke/incense coating the piece that certainly covered much of the original beauty of the piece. The remnants of the gilding and paint are remarkable as you pointed out :yes:


    Much thanks for your wonderful blog!

  7. Maybe I missed something somewhere, but where in Israelite tradition was the king’s mother considered the reigning queen?

  8. OK: you don’t want to discuss the nativity yarns – fair enough. Though it is possible that they do have some connection to statues like this, don’t you think?

    “the Ark of the Covenant was adorned with several figurines”: did the Ark of the Covenant ever exist? What’s the evidence? Even if it did, what is its relevance to the Jewish religion of Hellenistic and Roman times which (correct me if I’m wrong) had become strictly monotheistic and hostile to idolatry.

  9. In response to Susie:

    What comes to mind is a passage in 1 Kings, 2:19. This was written c. 550 BC, about events taking place in c. 950 BC. While one may question the accuracy of a 400 year old story, it matters little to my original point, as 550 BC is also before any Hellenistic interventions. After the death of King David, his son Solomon takes the throne of Israel, and his mother Bathsheba comes to her son to plead for the wretched Adonijah:

    “So Bathsheba went to King Solomon, to speak to him on behalf of Adonijah. And the king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a seat brought for the king’s mother; and she sat on his right.”

    It should be obvious to anyone who has read even the most basic customs of monarchy that sitting at the right hand of the King is the highest honor and the powerful position after the King himself.

  10. In response to dearieme:

    I am not convinced that Luke’s nativity account, while certainly more Greek feeling than other parts (I am reminded of stories from Plutarch, for example), directly translates to the veneration of statues, except insofar as what statue one might venerate. Additionally, the nativity accounts are more culturally complex, as Matthew’s account has a distinctly Eastern feel to it. If one were to analyze the nativity narrative as a whole, one should take into account why Matthew would speak highly of Persians and their methods, when living in a Roman empire that was very suspicious of such people.

    To a certain extent, it does not matter whether there was an Ark of the Covenant in this discussion. The point is that it was written no later than 600 BC (before any Hellenistic influences) and was still highly regarded by the Jewish people in Greco-Roman times to the present day. The story about the ark covers the entire distance of the Judaic literary tradition. Furthermore, this story about the ark was written explicitly to condemn idolatry. While it was true that the Israelites were not faithful to monotheism at the time the story took place, the entire moral of the story of the ark is to encourage such single-minded devotion. Thus if even the ark had statuary on its lid, then the veneration of a Marian statue (whom Christians in the very first centuries compared the ark to Mary) would not be a stretch at all.

  11. “except insofar as what statue one might venerate”: there we are agreed. Otherwise, my compliments on your comments.

  12. I feel a slight sting in your comment. “It should be obvious……” ?? Is this a competition? So yes, King Solomon gave his mother a great honor. One time. It is not an Israelite tradition that the Kings mother is THE queen.

  13. To dearieme: Thank you for the compliment! It has been good corresponding with you.

    To Susie: Please don’t take offense when none has been intended. I only say obvious because the importance of sitting on the right hand has been so pervasive in art and literature that it does not bear going through instance by instance. That does not mean there is some kind of “competition.”

    However, Solomon’s great honor upon Bathsheba is merely one instance, and was by no means exhaustive. In the Book of Jeremiah alone, two references are made to the Queen Mother of its own day:

    “Say to the king and the queen mother:
    “Take a lowly seat,
    for your beautiful crown
    has come down from your head.”” – Jeremiah 13:18.

    And again several chapters later:

    “This [the exile of the Israelites as a whole] was after King Jeconi′ah, and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem.” – Jeremiah 29:2.

    So from Solomon (third king) to Jeconiah (second to last king), the mother had the honor of queen. This also makes sense for practical reasons, as most of these kings had multiple wives. Which (or all of them?) would be queen, unless the mother was chosen?

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