Height: 33.500 cm
Bequeathed by Sir Harold Wernher. Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax.
Room 40: Medieval Europe
Ivory Figure of the Virgin and Child
Medieval, about AD 1330
The curve of the elephant tusk creates the exaggerated sweep of the figures which conforms perfectly to the stylistic conventions of the period. The Virgin's anatomy - her long abdomen for instance - increases the effect of mannered elegance popular in aristocratic circles. The quality of the execution of this piece suggests that it belonged to a wealthy noble or a prominent church official.
Between the fingers of the Virgin's right hand there is a hollow tube. This may have contained a flower, perhaps a lily, a common attribute of the Virgin. The flower could have been made of ivory, but is more likely to have been metallic and decorated with enamel.
While the artist has focused on the tenderness between mother and child, the Virgin tramples a demon underfoot. This is a reference to the Lady of the Apocalypse from Revelation, the last book of the Bible. This mysterious character was often seen as a further manifestation of the Virgin and images drawn from Revelation were gradually incorporated into her iconography.
The fine workmanship is characteristic of only the most important Paris workshops. It is constructed from two pieces of ivory, one for the figures and another for the cylindrical plinth which keeps them upright. Most of the polychromy which remains probably dates to the nineteenth century, but traces of original paint exist beneath
J. Robinson, Masterpieces: Medieval Art (London, British Museum Press, 2008)
C.T. Little, 'Ivoires et art gothique', Revue de lart (1979)