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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. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] 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. - [Beth] And there are dozens of these that survive and 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. - [Steven] This one comes from the Rhine Valley in what is now Germany, and it looks to me so Gothic in the representation of the Virgin Mary. - [Beth] 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, and her figure is elongated and thin and graceful in that way that is very typical of Gothic sculptures. And we know how popular the Virgin Mary was during this Gothic period. - [Steven] And for most of the year, when somebody went into a church, a church that we don't know, in this case, and looked at the sculpture, that's what they would have seen. They would've seen the outside, but on certain occasions, on feast days, perhaps, this sculpture would be opened. - [Beth] Very much the way that we think about Northern altarpieces that opened and closed. - [Steven] But unlike altarpieces, this sculpture is in the form of the human body. - [Beth] 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. And 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. - [Steven] But 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. So you have inside this image of the Trinity, the three-part nature of God. - [Steven] But 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. - [Beth] 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. And it is the Virgin Mary who makes possible God becoming human in the form of Christ. This was made at a time when the Virgin Mary becomes especially important as a pathway, as an intercessor to Christ, to God. - [Beth] At this time, we often see Mary on the trumeau, at the very doorway into a church. And we know that theologically Mary herself was associated with the church. And so with Mary, as this gateway to the divine. - [Steven] 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 - [Beth] 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. - [Steven] And 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. 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. You can see a kind of closure. It's beautifully painted with a zigzag pattern just below the neckline on both of those figures. - [Beth] And God the Father is so richly dressed. The cloak is raised in areas suggesting a 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. And in the version closed, she would be looking toward Christ, Christ looks up at her as he nurses, and there's this real connection between a mother and a child. 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. (jazzy piano music)