She survived state-sponsored, destruction, revolution in Europe and the ravages of time, now, to return to our shores after 600 years. Sunday early alabaster statue of the virgin and child takes its place among the most rare medieval glory of the British Museum; presented to the public as a Testament to forgotten artistry of the 14th-century English sculptors.
“This is a great Christmas gift for the Museum and its visitors,” said Lloyd de beer, co-curator of the medieval collections in the Museum. “This statue is a wonderful and amazing because there is so little that has remained untouched since that time. It says collection in the British Museum, and also with recent stories of religious and cultural destruction that is happening elsewhere.”
The statue, which stands 75cm high, believed to have been made around 1350 in the Midlands by an unknown and highly skilled force. It is considered the best surviving example of its kind in the UK.
“This testifies to the deep creative heritage of this part of England,” said de BEER. “We know that alabaster was mined near Derby and Stafford already in 1330. He was especially popular in the 14th century because of its translucent whiteness and how it takes paint and gilding, and as ivory”.
Somehow, the statue escaped the wholesale wrecking of religious subjects in the churches during the Protestant reformation in the mid 1500 years to travel across the channel. De BEER and his colleagues suggested that it could be bought for a rich foreigner long before the threat of destruction of the icons that came with the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Alternatively, it could be smuggled later, as a threat to religious works became clear.
The greater part of his life spent in seclusion in the monastery in Sint-Truiden, Belgium. There he escaped the violence of the French revolution, when many icons were destroyed.
Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum says the statue ‘sharp acquisition as it approaches the festive season. Photo: Alamy
“When you look at an object like this and think what she went through is so touching,” said de BEER. “If the British Museum there is nothing else, it exists for this. I hope that people will come to see it to know its history as they do with your significant other exhibits, like chess from the island of Lewis, or the Royal Gold Cup, but then realize that the Great artists we had to work here.”
Amazingly, the part still retains some of the original decorative color and gilt. Virgo, who is standing, is depicted in the crown as the Queen of heaven, and the Christ child holding the Orb in his right hand. Both persons were erased by a devotee kisses and touch.
“When it was bought at auction in London, a specialist it was covered with a thick, brown varnish,” said de BEER. “During conservation varnish was stripped and she came out to sing.”
Studies have shown that the statue was exhibited in Brussels in 1864, and then snapped the famous Austrian banker and collector, Dr. albert Figdor. On his death it came into the private collection of a European family before being seen at auction. The statue, said British Museum Director Hartwig Fischer as “beautiful and touching” and “sharp acquisition for the British Museum, so as you approach the festive season,” was received from the dealer Sam Fogg, with the help of the art Fund and National heritage Memorial Fund.
Early religious Royal prohibitions, Henry VIII, was the only religious “idolatry”, which needs to be taken down, citing the words of the second commandment: “make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth.”
English alabaster sculpture has a bad rap so far. Here, however, we can see the workmanship a true work of art.
Lloyd de BEER British Museum
But then a more severe ban, after the coming to power of his son, Edward VI in 1547. He urged 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 was no memory of the same in walls, stained glass Windows or elsewhere within their churches or houses. And they should instruct their parishioners to do the like in their several houses.”
In the ensuing months, religious statues were smashed, and some of them were hidden behind walls and under floors. Some had their eyes deliberately damaged or their heads lopped off. “We set a new statue in the gallery, near the head of South Kearny and leg, shattered the other statue, so that visitors can see what happened to most of these works,” said de BEER.
“It is also located near the French Virgin and child in ivory so we can show that this simply sophisticated piece. English alabaster sculpture has a bad rap so far, because there is an element of mass production to some more recent work. Here, however, we can see the workmanship a true work of art.”