Treasures of the Hall: A Catalan Madonna?

The Campion Hall collection contains several sculptures of the Madonna and Child, ranging from the majestic fine metal cast of Michelangelos Bruges Madonna donated by Frank Brangwyn, to the intimate French Smiling Madonna dating from the 14th century. One which attracts particular admiration, and even devotion, is the Madonna pictured left, about which today we know almost nothing for sure. Our Curator, Prof Peter Davidson, writes:


Catalonian 13th century

The Polychrome statue of the Madonna and Child, originating, it is conjectured, in Catalonia in the later 12th or earlier 13th Century is one of the most moving, yet puzzling, works of art in the Campion Hall collection.

We do not have a great deal of information about the origins or immediate provenance of the statue.  The entry in the Campion Hall Benefactor’s Book is factual: it indicates that the statue came to the Hall via the distinguished art-collecting Master, Fr Martin D’Arcy SJ, along with other donations.  The entry is fairly late in the sequence of recorded donations, suggesting a date in the 1960s for the arrival of the statue.  It is the kind of early polychrome work valued highly by mid-twentieth century collectors, which was handled extensively by the London dealer, John Hunt, from whom the Hall acquired a number of items by purchase and gift.  His own collection became the Hunt Museum in Limerick.

The description in our Benefactor’s Book is "Statue of Madonna and Child (Catalonian 13th Century) Gesso on Wood ”, which would appear to be substantially accurate, although the description “gesso” may be a simplification, as we shall see later.  We have no indication of provenance, of where the statue has been, but a surprisingly detailed history of the statue can be reconstructed from a close study of its present condition.

The iconography of the statue is of the Christ Child seated upright on Our Lady’s knee, formally displayed to the beholder.  Our version is visibly shaped from one tree trunk (spliced additions positioned forward of the main cylinder have vanished over the years, as is not uncommon with wooden statues) and lacks the throne-like chair of state on which most northern Spanish statues of this type position the figures.  The most celebrated example of this type of Madonna and Child (although exceptional in some details of colouration and gilding) is the image venerated as Our Lady of Monserrat.

A fair number of closely related 12th to 13th century polychrome statues survive, mostly in Catalonia and Northern Spain, enough to confirm that the Campion Hall example is of the same date and origin.  The iconography is an interesting manifestation of the long tradition which ascribes certain aspects of the Old Testament Holy Wisdom to the figure of Our Lady.  This particular manifestation focuses on her as the throne of Christ who is positioned formally on her knee.  This type of image had a long life, even before the invocation, Sedes Sapientiae (seat of wisdom), was incorporated into the Litany of Loreto in the 1550s.  Indeed, insofar as can be conjectured, the image venerated at Walsingham in Norfolk was of this very type of the Seat of Wisdom.

Years of veneraton

If we examine our polychrome statue for traces of its history, we are not presented with a simple picture.  The origin is clear, and the exposed wood, particularly on the face of the Virgin, suggests perhaps centuries of touching in veneration wearing away the layers of paint and gesso.  Curiously, both the crowns have been worn back to bare wood, where one might have thought that gilding would have had a certain resilience.  One part of the child’s robe offers a familiar appearance to those who study polychrome statuary: there would appear to be clear signs of a red bole (a size made into paste with claydust) which is the classic ground for water-gilding.  If so, the robes of the Child must have been gilded, and that gilding would have aimed at the sophistication still discernible on the French Vierge Riante also in the Campion Hall collection.  This offers a puzzle when considered alongside the staring white gesso now visible on the faces, with some evidence of unconcealed and undisguised rot damage to the lower part of the statue.  The greatest puzzle is the contrast between this sophisticated mediaeval surface and the very bright polychrome of the Virgin’s robes and the deep green of her patterned overgarment, also with the coarse patterning and the lustrous (almost oriental) quality of the varnishing of these details.

Unlike so many ancient religious images, my current conjecture is that here we have no evidence of neglect, far less of vandalism.  It looks, rather, as if a twelfth century statue, perhaps water-damaged slightly, or simply worn from years of veneration, has been re-gessoed and coloured according to the tastes and techniques of the eighteenth or even nineteenth centuries; but the work has been undertaken in a far more rustic workship than the one which produced the original.  This seems a likely sequence of events.

Recent history

A pure conjecture follows on the possible history of the statue in the twentieth century: Northern Spain was the scene of bitter fighting in the Spanish Civil War and of savage attacks on churches and church property.  It is easy to imagine that this image might have left Spain at this time and made its way to England.  It seems possible that, in the hands of a well informed dealer, its early origin was recognised under the later polychrome, which was partially stripped back.  It seems likely that the light-blue colour, which looks at least to the naked eye like a relatively modern pigment, was applied at this time in an attempt to harmonise and smooth out evidences of a long and interesting history.

In a sense all of this matters and none of it matters.  The strength of the original artist’s idea and the affect of the statue have been undiminished by subsequent interventions, and the very idea that the alterations mostly record a continuous history of veneration and renovation in one place in northern Spain is, of itself, touching and moving. 


Text courtesy of Campion News, Issue 12. See the Full issue on our "News" page.