Sometimes with the rush of the holiday season, it is nice to take a deep breath and spend some time on your own.
In that spirit, I’d like to consider a small-scale stone relief Virgin and Child, ca. 1550. You’ll find it at the Museum tucked in a case in Gallery #3, with works of the Northern Renaissance.
The artwork, carved in stone, is done in low relief and is set into a wood and silk case with a two-part hinged cover. The small size allowed the owner to hold it in the palm of his or her hand for private contemplation and prayer. The case is probably a later replacement, but it certainly would have had something similar to protect it when slipped into a drawer or carried for devotion during travel.
And what a beautiful image to inspire! The Virgin Mary sits behind a ledge, just beyond the viewer’s space. A curtain drapes across the window behind her, which shows a landscape at the right with buildings, figures, and a tree. The Christ child stands nude on the ledge with all of the requirements of a precious bay: chubby limbs, round face, and wavy hair. Meanwhile his mother lovingly puts her arm around him. She reads a book while he looks out at the viewer.
The composition is based upon an Italian Renaissance artwork, possibly by the Venetian artist Giovanni Belleini (active by 1459-died 1516). You can see a few examples of his paintings of this subject matter at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Galleria Borghese in Rome, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Virgin and Child scene is endearing and perfect for Christmas. The sentiment runs deeper, however, because like most good artworks, every detail has important meaning:
- The Virgin Mary reads a book. This illustrated her educated status—much championed by the church—and most likely contains the scriptures, which not only displays her piety but also foretells the fate of her child, the reason that he was sent to earth. Christ looks out at the viewer, his eye contact making it clear that he understands all of this despite his age.
- Mother and son touch each other tenderly. This emphasizes their humanity, a fulfillment of prophecy that God will become man. The child’s hand is under Mary’s dress, hinting that she will feed him at the breast, a basic need for human babies.
- The scene through the window (at right) shows the everyday life of the people whom Christ has come to save. God sent his son to earth to return the bounty before the fall of Adam and Eve, and the two figures are probably working the fields, reaping the harvest of this miracle. And the strong, tall tree covered with leaves repeats the theme of the replenishing of nature.
The relief also is a great example of Italian Renaissance artistic style. The artists of the Renaissance, inspired by art of Classical antiquity, were interested in realistic depictions of the human body. Consequently, the Christ child is a pudgy baby, rather than a small-sized but adult-looking man, which was common during the middle ages. (Compare to this child in a painting at the National Gallery in London from about 1260).
Mary’s face, detailed at left, is youthful and nicely modeled, very similar to Classical sculptures of women. (Compare her face to this Classical Roman copy of a Greek relief at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
The tricks used in the relief to show special depth, such as the curtain and the scene beyond the window, are also indicative of Renaissance artwork. In particular, the ledge at the front almost projects into the viewer’s space.
All of this talk of the Italian Renaissance might make one think that this is a work by an Italian artist. The material used for the carving, however, gives away its real origin: southern Germany.
Virgin and Child is carved out of a limestone that is only found in southern Germany. The stone is called Solnhofen for one of the small towns in the area. Solnhofen is famous in the natural history world because it has revealed fossils that are unparalleled in their completeness, particularly of soft-bodies organisms. (See this site at the University of California-Berkley).
Because it is easy to cleave, or break into pieces with flat surfaces, it has been quarried for centuries for flooring and roofing. As a bonus, the stone looks very much like marble in color and texture (although it is softer in consistency). All of these reasons made it a popular material for artists of southern Germany. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London holds a number of works in Solnhofen, including a beautiful Virgin and Child from about the same period as Milwaukee’s.
The German artist who made the Museum’s lovely Virgin and Childused as inspiration an Italian Renaissance work (probably seen in a print).
This small jewel on view in the Milwaukee Art Museum packs a lot of information, but at this time of year, the personal scale of the relief is what really speaks to me.
Take a moment to enjoy the little things, like this artwork, this Christmas. Best wishes for the season!
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.