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Something Seasonal – the Virgin and Child

virgin & child

This delicately carved ivory plaque was found during excavations by W J Andrew at Romsey Abbey in 1922. The dig was financed by Col. Ashley, owner of Broadlands, but Andrew retained the ivory and displayed it at a Society of Antiquaries meeting in 1927. Seven years later, following his death, it was sold by auction at Sothebys. It then effectively disappeared from view until its re-emergence in a Paris salesroom sixty-four years later.

With the help of grants from the Victoria & Albert Museum Purchase Fund, Test Valley Borough Council and the Friends of Andover Museum, Hampshire County Council was able to buy the piece, and it is currently on display at Andover Museum.

The ivory is 135mm in height. The crowned Virgin is seated, supporting the Child, who is standing on her left knee. There are traces of red colouring in the folds of her gown. He holds an apple in his left hand and was originally gazing at a flower in her right, but one unhappy occurrence between the 1934 and 1998 sales, was that the head of the Infant was lost.

Expert opinion, based on stylistic features and the quality of workmanship, places the ivory in the early 14th century; and considers it to be of French workmanship.  Ivory has been used for making artefacts since prehistoric times. In Northern Europe walrus tusk was popular, as well as the more obvious elephant ivory. There appears to have been a lack of raw material in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, but this was followed by the emergence of a massive industry of elephant ivory carving in Paris, mostly creating large numbers of small objects for private devotion, and this is when the piece was made.

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One strange consequence of the use of elephant ivory is how it influenced artists working in other materials. The Virgin and Child of la Sainte-Chapelle, (above left) now in the Louvre, Paris, incorporates the natural curve of the tusk into the finished piece. This ‘leaning Virgin’ attitude was then copied by sculptors in wood and stone, as is apparent in the Virgin and Child from Sainte-Corneille, Compiègne, (above right) a stone statue which need not have struck such a pose.

Virgin and Child – A1998.20