This Virgin and Child Enthroned from the 13th century is a perfect example of Marian devotion during the Romanesque period with her hieratic position and straight bust. Realism was not something sculptors wanted to achieve, they favoured symbolic conventions and codes instead. We call her Sedes Sapientae meaning throne of wisdom.
Marian devotion is an essential part of the 12th century. Main intercessor between humans and God, the Virgin seats on a throne-bench. Her body adopts a strict frontality and becomes the throne itself for the Savior to seat on.
The Virgin holds in her hands the Child centred on her knees. Her oval face with almond-shaped eyes and distant gaze, straight nose and small lips, is framed by the veil secured with a crown. A long cloak covers the narrow shoulders of Mary and reveals the round collar tunic she wears beneath.
On her knees Christ stands straight. The position of His right arm suggests He was raising His hand, blessing the worshippers. He is dressed with a long-sleeved round collar tunic over which is worn a pallium, a piece of clothing worn by the first Christians and traditionaly associated with the iconography of Christ. As expected, Christ’s face resembles his mother’s. It is a way to express the divine and transcendental dimension of Christ while Mary is only the passage of God made man.
With its severe appearance and serene face this important Sedes Sapientae Virgin turns to the worshippers and give them all her strength. The Virgin’s solemn attitude is a physical translatation of John of Damascus’ reflexion /
« Her hands will cary the Eternal and her knees will be a throne ».
This sculpture still presents some traces of polychromy.
This Virgin and Child Enthroned can be compared with two Burgundian works. The Virgin and Child Enthroned from Nolay as well as the one from Arnay-Le-Duc both kept in the Fine Arts Museum of Beaune and presented in the following pictures.
Vierge en Majesté provenant de Nolay
Vierge en Majesté provenant d’Arnay-le-Duc
VIRGIN AND CHILD ENTHRONED, A SYMBOLIC DEPICTION
The depictions of the Virgin and Child draw their origins from a very a long tradition. Reminiscing pagan deities such as Gallo-Roman mother goddesses they appear as a synthesis of past centuries’ art and answer the believers’ desire for worship and protection.
With the Council of Nicaea in 352 has been raised the question of the true nature of Christ. It would be answered with the Council of Ephesus in 431 during which is proclaimed the double nature of Christ, humane and divine. These two essences are united through Christ thanks to the mystery of the Incarnation. The Virgin Mary then becomes the Theotokos, the Mother of God. The Marian devotion appears and would never stop growing.
The first depictions of the Virgin and Child Enthroned appear in West Asian art ; frescoes, mosaics, carved ivories. In Europe the Virgin and Child adorn illuminated manuscripts before being carved in stone on cathedrals’ tympanums. As soon as the 9th century wood Virgin and Child carved in the round and covered with precious metals are subjects of devotion. The oldest was perhaps the one in Clermont in 946. This sculpture has not survived and we know its existence thanks to literary sources. It is possible that this sculpture served as a model for all the Virgin and Child Enthroned that have been made next.
The humane and maternal figure of Mary allows a certain intimacy with the worshippers by opposition with the fear inspired by God Himself. However, as mother of the Infant God she is hardly accessible. This duality is particularly visible in artworks from the 12th century. As a mother Mary carry her Son on her lap, as the mother of God she is the seat of the Divine Wisdom Incarnation – Sedes sapientae. This way the mystery of the Incarnation is explained to worshippers, illustrating both the humane and divine nature of Child Jesus.
With Virgin and Child Enthroned from the 12th century the Child is always the main protagonist. The Virgin is there to present the Child. Mary is subservient to her Son while as a mother she reflects the House of David, the human lineage of Christ.
This symbolic representation carries a strong meaning. It demonstrates the mystery of sacred art. During Romanesque time, Sedes sapientae was the tangible depiction of divine hierarchy.
Abbé Laurentin et René Oursel, Vierges romanes, les vierges assises, Zodiaque, 1988
Jacqueline Liévaux-Boccador, Edouard Bresset, Statuaire médiévale de collection, tome I, Les clefs du temps, 1972
Ilene H. Forsyth, The Throne of Wisdom: Wood sculptures of the Madonna in Romanesque France, Princeton University Press, 1972
Galienne Francastel, Le droit au trône, un problème de prééminence dans l’art chrétien d’Occident du IVe au XIIe siècle, Paris Klincksieck, 1973