Hiding the divine in a medieval Madonna: Shrine of the Virgin

Shrine of the Virgin, c. 1300 (German), oak, linen covering, polychromy, gilding, gesso, open: 36.8 x 34.6 x 13 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art); a conversation with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We wanted to talk about this amazing object. There’s a French term for this, but the literal English translation is “opening Virgin.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] There are dozens of these that survive. They were made across Europe, so they were a very popular type of image. Some were small, like the one we’re looking at, but some were close to life-size.

Dr. Zucker: [0:28] This one comes from the Rhine Valley, in what is now Germany. It looks to me so Gothic in the representation of the Virgin Mary.

Dr. Harris: [2:04] If we even just look around this room, we can see other examples of sculptures of Mary holding the Christ Child — as she is here when the sculpture is closed — on her left knee with her arm around him. Her figure is elongated and thin and graceful in that way that is very typical of Gothic sculptures. We know how popular the Virgin Mary was during this Gothic period.

Dr. Zucker: [1:02] For most of the year, when somebody went into a church, a church that we don’t know in this case, and looked at this sculpture, that’s what they would have seen. They would have seen the outside. On certain occasions, on feast days perhaps, this sculpture would be opened.

Dr. Harris: [1:17] Very much the way that we think about Northern altarpieces that opened and closed.

Dr. Zucker: [1:22] But unlike altarpieces, this sculpture is in the form of the human body.

Dr. Harris: [1:27] Most of these sculptures, like the one we see here, had inside scenes from the life of Mary, or scenes from the life of Christ. In addition — usually in the center, as we see here — an image of God the Father holding the crucifix on which was the crucified Christ, together with the dove which represents the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Zucker: [1:50] In this particular sculpture, which is 700 years old, Christ on the cross has been lost. The dove that represents the Holy Spirit has been lost. But if you look closely, you can see a small hole, which is undoubtedly where Christ would have been attached, and if you look at God the Father’s torso, you can similarly see a hole which is likely where the Holy Spirit would have been attached.

Dr. Harris: [2:11] You have inside this image of the Trinity, the three-part nature of God.

Dr. Zucker: [2:16] This is a specific kind of image, known as the “Throne of Mercy,” which is recognizable to many people because it is the subject of one of the most famous early Renaissance paintings, Masaccio’s “The Holy Trinity with the Virgin and Saint John.”

Dr. Harris: [2:30] This very frontal image of God the Father, this frontal image of the cross, this sense of God’s divine plan for mankind, which is revealed through the Virgin Mary. It is the Virgin Mary who makes possible God becoming human in the form of Christ.

Dr. Zucker: [2:51] This was made at a time when the Virgin Mary becomes especially important as a pathway, as an intercessor, to Christ, to God.

Dr. Harris: [2:59] At this time, we often see Mary on the trumeau at the very doorway into a church. We know that theologically, Mary herself was associated with the church. Mary as this gateway to the divine.

Dr. Zucker: [3:14] Such a complicated object. Not only do you have the exterior image of the Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child, who in turn holds a small bird — probably a goldfinch — but you also have this additional layer of complexity because you have carved, dimensional, sculptural figures in contrast to a series of six interior painted scenes which are, of course, largely two-dimensional.

Dr. Harris: [3:37] Beginning with the Annunciation, that is, the moment when God is made flesh, the very moment of the incarnation. As we move down, we have the Nativity, the birth of Christ. Then at the very bottom the Adoration of the Magi.

Dr. Zucker: [3:51] Opposite that, the Adoration of the Shepherds, which is depicted with unusual energy. You can see the shepherd on the right seems to be pointing down to one of the sheep, a common reference to Christ.

[4:02] Above that is the Presentation in the Temple. And then this lovely image, which just has enough room for two figures appropriately, and this is the Visitation. This object really rewards close looking. I just noticed, for example, that there is a correspondence between the dress of the Virgin Mary and of God the Father.

[4:20] You can see a closure that’s beautifully painted with a zigzag pattern just below the neckline on both of those figures.

Dr. Harris: [4:27] God the Father is so richly dressed. The cloak is raised in areas, suggesting golden embroidery, also around the hem of his sleeves and the hem of his garment. But what I’m struck by is that Mary turns her head. In the version closed, she would be looking toward Christ, Christ looks up at her as he nurses, there’s this real connection between a mother and a child.

[4:52] But when Mary is opened, we enter a divine world where the figures are frontal, where they’re symmetrical, where we’ve transcended the earthly, and God’s plan for mankind is revealed.

[5:06] [music]

Shrine of the Virgin at The Met

Read more about the Shrine of the Virgin at Yale’s Center for the Study of Material & Visual Cultures of Religion

Q&A about the Shrine of the Virgin at the University of Dayton

Elina Gertsman, Worlds Within (Opening the Medieval Shrine Madonna) (Penn State University Press, 2015)

Melissa R. Katz, “The Non-Gendered Appeal of Vierge Ouvrante Sculpture: Audience, Patronage, and Purpose in Medieval Iberia,” Reassessing the Roles of Women as ‘Makers’ of Medieval Art and Architecture vol. 7 (Brill, January 2012)

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”virginshrine,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Hiding the divine in a medieval Madonna: Shrine of the Virgin," in Smarthistory, December 30, 2020, accessed June 13, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/hiding-the-divine-in-a-medieval-madonna-shrine-of-the-virgin/.