Monday, August 18, 2014

Virgins Chapter: Intro

I've moved on to revising what will be the last chapter of the book, on fourteenth and fifteenth-century Virgin and Child sculptures.  I'm working on a couple of issues here: first, giving the reader a stronger sense of the sculptures themselves as objects and works of art; and second, strengthening the sense of argument throughout.  This is the first, intro section for the chapter and so crucial for both of those points: let me know what you think!

Like the fourteenth-century sculpture featured in the Introduction, this fifteenth-century Virgin stands with her weight shifted to her left, to where she holds the child on her hip with her hand.  The comparison of these two sculptures, however, points to the latter’s exaggeration of the mother’s body’s twists and sways.  Here, the draperies on Mary’s lower body form thick folds that move on strong angles over to the child and the top of her body repeats that action as her head bends over and down towards him.   These exaggerated curves extend this Virgin’s body out sideways and create a breadth to her form. This breadth is further extended as she holds her right hand out and away from her center and uses it to hold her draperies likewise out and away.  These draperies fall from her hand to fill the space that would otherwise have been emptied by her shift to the side and so accentuate her body’s breadth and bulk.  As they fall, furthermore, these draperies form broad folds that zig-zag from side to side, emphasizing the horizontal expanse of her form.
As discussed in the Introduction,the earlier sculpture simultaneously presses the mother and child together within its narrow vertical format, links the two through the child’s reach for her veil and the inside-out twisting of her mantle’s top fold, splits the two apart by contrasting her looping folds to his tight vertical pleats.  The later sculpture uses some similar drapery forms, but to different ends.  Here too long curving folds cross over Mary’s body, however, they now become horizontal lines that lead into the child’s body.  One line in particular runs from her extended arm in a deep fold across her body, into the scroll he holds in his hand, and finally into his legs and her supporting hand.  Below this major line, two other folds cross her body and lead into his legs, and above it, a fold crosses her chest to run into his lower arm.  This sculpture thus uses its draperies to integrate the child into Mary’s ample form.
These are just two of hundreds of sculptural representations of the Virgin and Child that survive, from France alone, from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  These artworks come in a variety of materials – including limestone, marble, alabaster, wood, ivory, and precious metals – in a range of dimensions – from a few inches high for an ivory up to over five feet (69 inches) for the fourteenth century example discussed above – and would have had a variety of original locations – from church interiors and exteriors, to the interiors of private chapels and domestic spaces, to the exteriors of other structures, and to crossroads and other outdoor locations.   The existing scholarship on these sculptures has typically passed over these differences and focused on others; on differences in drapery folds, facial types, other stylistic features, and iconographic attributes.  For the fourteenth-century sculptures, these differences have been used to identify patterns of both change over time and variation over space, with an emphasis on the latter.  Scholars have established regional groupings of the sculptures, considered the relationship between Parisian and provincial sculptural production, and sought to identify individual workshops and hands. The dominating issue in the scholarship on the fifteenth-century sculptures is their relationship to the work of the Burgundian sculptor Claus de Werve: can individual sculptures be identified as his own work, that of his followers, or of other sculptors influenced by him?  
The existing scholarship on these sculptures has thus focused on their production; on understanding who made what, when, and where.  My interest here is instead in their reception by medieval women and in women’s responses to them.   To approach these issues, I first need to focus on the differences noted above in the sculptures’ materials and dimensions, because of what these differences suggest about their original locations and audiences.   The majority of these sculptures are now in museums, after having passed through the hands of private collectors, and so their original situations are frequently unknown.  I have chosen to focus in this chapter on sculptures made in less-precious materials – primarily limestone and wood – and on a larger scale – three feet and above in height – because these are more likely to have been situated in public spaces – church interiors and exteriors and other outdoor situations – where they would have had a broad range of beholders, like the architectural sculptures studied in the first three chapters of this book.   Thus the fourteenth century example from the Introduction is made of limestone, is sixty-nine inches in height, and there is no documentation of its original location.   And the fifteenth-century sculpture introduced above is made of stone, is thirty-eight inches in height, and in this case the sculpture’s original location is recorded; it comes from the portal of the Sainte-Apollinaire castle, near Dijon.
Like the previous scholars who have written about these sculptures, I too an interested in differences in the forms of their draperies, as is demonstrated in the comparison above.  However, instead of using these differences to determine the sculptures’ dates, locations, or makers, I treat them as potentially meaningful aspects of the sculptures for the women among their original beholders and focus on the different relationships the draperies establish between the body of the mother and the figure of the child.   Given the large number of these sculptures that have survived into the present day, there must originally have been many more of them, making them a common experience for medieval beholders.   Medieval women would likely have seen several such sculptures during their lifetimes, which would have given them the opportunity to recognize the differences in the sculptures’ depictions of the mother-child relationship, and so allowed them to use the sculptures to consider the complex and ever-changing relationships they had with their own children.  The comparison above suggests some of the dynamics of those relationships in the contrast between the complete absorption between the mother and child in the later sculpture and the subtle tension between the two in the earlier example.


  1. Oops, did my last comment go through?

  2. Guess not! Okay -- So Marian, I was just wondering if you'd had a look at the recent (2009) catalog ed. by Robert Suckale, called SCHOENE MADONNEN AM RHEIN? I suspect it's outside of your geographical purview, but you may find it interesting nonetheless. Great, helpful essays by Suckale, Hamburger, and (my current hero of Gothic sculpture studies) Michael Grandmontagne. Not much on gender, but certainly a lot of insights here that go beyond the old drapery-fold analysis. (Let me know if you can use other bibliography from east of the Rhein . . .)

  3. Another question -- What kinds of sources are you using to draw inferences about medieval women's responses to these (kinds of) sculptures? (I ask both out of my own curiosity and because that's the sort of thing a press will want to know from the outset, when you submit this for review.)

  4. Hi Jackie,
    You are right that German sculptures are outside of my geographical frame. And to be honest German sources are outside of my linguistic competence: my German used to be good enough to fake reading articles but it has gone down hill from there.
    There is obviously a whole big argument going on here. Do you remember the paper I gave at Kalamazoo a couple of years ago in the Virgins sessions we were both in? This chapter includes that material, which was about Marian textile relics, practices of clothing sculptures, and contemporary women''s clothing, all as ways of thinking about Mary's draperies as meaningful for female viewers.