Virgin and Child, from the Auvergne region, France. c1150-1200 Oak with traces of paint, height 31", Metropolitan Museum of Art, French Romanesque

Virgin and Child,  
from the Auvergne region, 
France. c1150-1200 
Oak with traces of paint, height 31",  
Metropolitan Museum of Art 
French Romanesque

This sculpture is often studied because it is a good representation of how art during the Romanesque and Gothic eras began to evolve into a more naturalistic and realistic style. The other important element in studying this sculpture is that in terms of its iconography it represents a change towards a more humanistic way of thinking about Jesus both in its form and in its iconography.

The sculpture is carved from wood and originally would have been painted in more intense and less subtle colors: We are not seeing it the way that it was originally intended to be seen. Both the figures are probably about three quarters the size of the human being.  This would’ve been a fairly imposing sculpture for the time.

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The sculpture looks realistic and unrealistic at the same time.  The main reason why this is so is because the people who made art during the Romanesque, were trained in a tradition that probably extends from the much earlier period of Byzantine art.  The way in which the drapery is rendered looks very much like a Byzantine painting, the anatomy of the figures is also influenced by the earlier Byzantine style of depicting human figures however, in this instance the faces are starting to look more realistic or naturalistic. This change in how human anatomy is rendered probably represents a slow evolution towards realism that culminates in the later Renaissance and Baroque eras. The faces of Mary and Jesus are not carved with the same proportions that you may see in earlier Byzantine works of art. In Byzantine art the eyes are further up in the forehead and the nose is longer in this instance the proportions of the face are almost realistic.

The overall anatomy of the figures is distorted in that the heads and hands are overly large and the relationship of the figure of the baby Jesus to the figure of Mary are not quite realistic. Jesus is not really proportioned the way of baby would be and also is probably a little too large. 

The rendering of the face and hands was an attempt by the sculptor to represent convincing human forms however, the faces show no real expression and the bodies are completely covered with stylized drapery that conceals both figures bodies.  The child Jesus is not rendered as a child but rather a stiff looking miniature adult.  The poses of both figures are stiff and fairly wooden but in the case of Mary, this is appropriate if you look at her role in terms of the work's iconography or symbolism.

This image of Mary is significant in its iconography because it is a perfect example of the Gothic depiction of Mary as the "Throne of Wisdom." Here she not only serves as a mother but as a platform or throne for her child.  This theme is used both in earlier and in later works such as in Cimabue and in Giotto’s. One of the other things that this sculpture represents is something that we can all relate to, which is the relationship between a mother and her child. The theme of Mary and Jesus is a way of getting the viewer to relate their own experience as a human being to the experience that Mary and Jesus would’ve had.

A good way to think about this piece is that it is a link in the chain between the past traditions depicting Mary and Jesus with those that come up later. Humanism, is an idea that begins to grow and flourish especially in the late Gothic era. When artwork becomes more realistic in European art, it’s possible that it represents the growth of humanism, in this case relating religious ideas to everyday human experience, that flowers during the Renaissance era.

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