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Art Curatorial

From the Collection– “Head of a Noblewoman” tomb effigy

French, Head of a Noblewoman, 14th century. Marble; H: 11 3/4 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of The William Randolph Hearst Foundation through the Milwaukee Sentinel M1958.67. Photo by John Nienhuis.
French, Head of a Noblewoman, 14th century. Marble; H: 11 3/4 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of The William Randolph Hearst Foundation through the Milwaukee Sentinel M1958.67. Photo by John Nienhuis.

Just as you walk into the Museum’s Gallery #3 (Northern Renaissance artworks), on your right is a display case that holds a marble sculpture.

It’s an unobtrusive work labeled Head of a Noblewoman, French, 14th century.   I’m sure many Museum visitors have walked right by it and not even thought twice.  The most interesting thing for those that look closer may be the way the artwork is positioned in the case–it is shown lying down, not upright.

This sculpture is more than just a portrait of a French noblewoman.  It’s a portrait of the noble French woman from her tomb!

Originally, the Museum’s head sculpture would have been part of a full body sculpture of the woman lying down, and it would have rested above her tomb. You can be certain of this orientation because the back of her head is unfinished.

Although funerary portraits were used as far back as the ancient Egyptians, medieval Europe saw an explosion of them.