Virgin and Child

French (Soissons?)
Medieval (Gothic)
1210–25
Unidentified artist


Dimensions

154.9 x 53.3 x 45.1 cm (61 x 21 x 17 3/4 in.)

Accession Number

59.701

Medium or Technique

Wood with polychromy and gilding

On View

Museum Council Gallery (Gallery 254)

Collections

Europe

Classifications

Sculpture

This group of the Virgin and Child displays a calm serenity and stillness. The Virgin wears a crown and probably once held a scepter in her right hand, characterizing her as Queen of Heaven. With the Christ Child seated on her lap, she is also the “Throne of Wisdom”. This sculpture would have decorated an altar and similar images, painted and lavishly gilded, were known to inspire intense devotion and were sometimes thought to perform miracles. The long, smooth folds of the drapery and the elongated proportions and small heads of the figures recall sculptures that decorate the exterior of Gothic cathedrals, especially the famous cathedral of Chartres in France.

Provenance

Acquired in France by Joseph Mezzara (b. 1820 - d. 1901), Paris [see note 1]; by inheritance to his daughter, Mme. Marthe Ida Mezzara Dufet, Paris; 1942, sold by Mme. Dufet to Walter Bornheim (b. 1888), Cologne; taken by Bornheim to Munich for conservation and displayed at the Galerie Alte Kunst [see note 2]; 1942, exchanged by Bornheim with Dr. Otto H. Förster, General Director for Museum of the City of Cologne, for the Wallraf-Richartz Museum [see note 3]; taken to Tegernsee, near Munich [see note 4]; 1945, collected by Allied forces and returned to France [see note 5]; restituted to Mme. Dufet; 1959, sold by Mme. Dufet to the MFA. (Accession Date: May 14, 1959)

NOTES:
[1] According to Hanns Swarzenski, "A Vierge d'Orée," MFA Bulletin 58 (1960): 78, the sculptor Joseph Mezzara discovered the Virgin and Child while conducting conservation work in an abandoned chapel near Conflans, France. Mezzara took the sculpture to Paris around 1900.

[2] Following World War II, Walter Bornheim was interrogated by the Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU) of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services for his activities on behalf of Hermann Göring. According to this report (September 15, 1945), Bornheim negotiated with Mme. Dufet for several months before purchasing the sculpture. He was granted an export license and took the sculpture to Munich for conservation work, first at the Doerner Institute, and, in Cologne, by Frau Brabenden. This account is corroborated by Bornheim's testimony in a letter to Hanns Swarzenski of the MFA (March 10, 1960).

[3] Although Bornheim worked for Göring during the war, he claimed (ALIU report; see above, n. 2) that he had wanted the sculpture to go to a German museum rather than to Göring. Göring agreed to give up his right of first refusal. Bornheim exchanged the sculpture and a painting by Lancret with the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, for 300,000 RM and sixteen pictures; Göring took four of these for having ceded his rights. Press accounts mistakenly claimed that Göring himself had acquired the sculpture (see, for example, Life, December 7, 1959, p. 101, and Connoisseur, May 1960, p. 212).

[4] Presumably the sculpture was removed to Tegernsee by the city of Cologne for safe keeping.

[5] Hans Förster claimed in a letter to Hanns Swarzenski (December 17, 1959) that the sculpture rightly belonged to the Museums of the City of Cologne, and referred to Tegernsee as its "hiding place." However, as Swarzenski stated in his response (February 9, 1960), the restitution to France was done according to Military Government regulations (Title 18, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives) as wartime sales to German buyers in occupied countries were considered invalid. This was agreed upon by the Allies in "The Declaration of London" (January 5, 1943), reproduced in Elizabeth Simpson, ed., The Spoils of War (New York, 1997), Appendix 9, p. 287. Additional directives relevant to the sculpture's restitution are laid out in a letter from Hayden N. Smith, New York, to Andrew Ritchie, New Haven (January 8, 1960; in MFA curatorial file).

Credit Line

William Francis Warden Fund