The Dramatic Effects of Subtlety

A Fifteenth-Century Virgin and Child
11.01.2015

Sometime between 1490 and 1500, a group of artisans in a Brussels workshop carved and painted this wood sculpture of the Virgin and Child. In broadest terms, this is a late-medieval version of the Byzantine “Throne of Wisdom” iconography, with the seated Virgin Mary serving as a throne for the Christ Child on her lap, himself an embodiment of Divine Wisdom.1 By the time this sculpture was made, depictions of holy figures were often domesticated and familiarized. The Virgin Mary especially had assumed an important role in medieval Christianity as intercessor between man and God, and her identity as divine but also human is reflected in devotional art of the time.2 Only 15 1/2 inches tall, with peeling paint and curtly truncated back, the RISD Virgin and Child is somewhat small, understated, and perhaps even unremarkable at first glance. Yet, these seemingly undesirable qualities have played a key role in its meaning, function, and history from the 1490s to today. 

Madonna and Child ⁄ Sculpture
1490 - 1500
15.108

Elements of holiness and humanity are carefully balanced in this Virgin and Child. The throne has been replaced with a folding X-frame chair then used throughout Europe (see above). In preceding centuries, the Roman Catholic Church had adopted the design of the ancient Roman magistrate’s chair as a symbol of power and authority. It was thus a suitable throne substitute, though the Virgin and Child stool is devoid of any ornamentation and simple in design. Beneath this stool is a crescent moon, a complex symbol of Mary’s divine status associated with the Apocalyptic Woman described in the Book of Revelation as “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet.”3 By the time this sculpture was made, contemporary viewers would have instantly recognized the meaning of the crescent moon, and perhaps this enabled the sculptor to relegate it to a more minor position. Mary’s voluptuous robes cover most of the moon, and where the crescent’s tips protrude, they closely follow the contours of the robes, making the moon even less pronounced.

Unlike the partially hidden moon and throne, the Christ Child and book are front and center—the large swath of white of the book’s blank pages particularly draws our eye. The book holds a longstanding tradition in Marian iconography with the Christ Child writing, reading, or gesturing toward the book as if teaching Mary or the viewer about the Holy Scripture. In the RISD Virgin and Child, the book and its original symbolism remains, but the figures’ interaction with the book is much more natural: the toddler Christ wrinkles the open pages. This type of playful engagement with the book appears in only a small subset of Marian imagery traceable through a handful of fifteenth-century Flemish paintings and prints, like Rogier van der Weyden’s Duran Madonna of 1435–1438 (see below).4 Within sculpture, three similar works are known to exist that were likely made in the same decade in Brussels—all in European collections.5  

Virgin and Child, 1435–1438. By Rogier van der Weyden, Flemish, 1399–1464. Oil on panel. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The sculpture’s small scale, as well as the delicate carving and polychromy, suggests that it was meant to be viewed at a relatively close range in a private devotional setting. If the remaining polychromy is reflective of the original, this statue would have seemed humble in comparison to flashier sculptures made around the same time in Brussels. Gilding on the RISD sculpture is used sparingly to accentuate certain components that hold special significance—like the crescent moon or Mary’s crown—which are themselves understated. However, the decision to limit costly gilding is likely an aesthetic choice rather than an economical one; conservation analysis of the remaining paint has found traces of lapus lazuli, the extremely expensive ultramarine pigment that was sourced exclusively from Afghanistan in the Middle Ages. This is not necessarily a lowly piece of sculptural work commissioned by a poor patron, but rather a more refined work made to invite a closer connection between viewer and devotional object, or worshipper and intercessor to God. 

The small size and relatively light weight of the wood also made the Virgin and Child an ideal portable sculpture—large enough to command a sense of presence, but small enough to be moved around. Mobility and functional flexibility is a hallmark of these sculptures stretching back to the Throne of Wisdom of preceding centuries. Typically, they were carved completely in the round to accommodate viewing from all angles. The RISD Virgin and Child was probably carved in the round like the other extant versions, but at some point the back was cut down and painted over. 

Virgin and Child (15.108) in a RISD Museum traveling education exhibition labeled "Gothic," 1940s–50s. Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print. RISD Museum archives.

The reason for this modification is one of the many lacunae in this sculpture’s history. The provenance is undocumented before 1915, when the Virgin and Child became the first medieval wood sculpture to enter the museum collection. At RISD, the sculpture began a second phase of life that is strikingly similar to its first. In 1943, the museum’s Education Department began a program that circulated small, thematic groups of about six museum objects to local junior high schools. A photograph from the museum archives shows the Virgin and Child in one of these traveling exhibition kits, labeled “Gothic” (see above). By this time, the museum had significantly increased its holdings of medieval and gothic art. Yet, the single figural sculpture chosen to illustrate gothic art is this Virgin and Child—for reasons that match remarkably well with the object’s original function. Besides being an excellent candidate for traveling around the state in a trunk, this sculpture perfectly embodies the liminal space between precious art object and perhaps less valuable but nonetheless sturdy teaching object. It fulfilled the needs of both the mid-twentieth-century museum education staff as much as it fulfilled its role as devotional object and intercessor between the devout and their God: small, lightweight, and modest, but displaying enough gilding and skillful carving to catch the viewer’s interest. In all accounts, the education staff took great care in selecting these objects, and the inclusion of this sculpture is evidence that someone sixty years ago appreciated approximately the same things that we can see today, or maybe even a medieval viewer saw in the sixteenth century. 

We could also argue that the sculpture had become a bit too understated. Its monetary value may have increased with age, but its appearance had deteriorated and its liturgical value had diminished to the extent that this fifteenth-century devotional sculpture ended up in the halls of Providence junior high schools. After this, the museum lost track of the sculpture completely, and a 1995 collections inventory listed it as missing. The Virgin and Child was found only in 2014, still packed in its traveling exhibition crate from a half century ago. The rediscovery fortuitously coincides with its 100-year anniversary at the museum: the perfect time for the Virgin and Child to resume its place on display and catch the eye of a new generation of devoted viewers at the museum.

Josie Johnson is a second-year PhD student in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University. Her research interests include the history of photography and Russian and Soviet avant-gardes.

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  • 1Ilene H. Forsyth, The Throne of Wisdom: Wood Sculptures of the Madonna in Romanesque France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 8–30.
  • 2Catherine Oakes, Ora pro nobis: The Virgin as Intercessor in Medieval Art and Devotion (London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2008), 7–17.
  • 3Natasha O’Hear and Anthony OHHear, Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 111–30.
  • 4Alfred Acres, “Rogier van der Weyden’s Painted Texts,” Artibus et Historiae 21, no. 41 (2000): 75–109.
  • 5Sophie Guillot de Suduiraut, Sculptures Brabançonnes du Musée du Louvre: Bruxelles, Malines, Anvers, XVe-XVIe Siècles (Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2001), 81–85.