Virgin Of Paris Statue Case Study

The Virgin and Child of Isenheim is one of the most beautiful German late Gothic Madonnas. It features impressively complex drapery, with turbulent folds artificially broken and puffed up in front of the body. The crescent moon at the Virgin's feet evokes belief in the Immaculate Conception. The opulent beauty of the mother and the complete nakedness of her Son are in line with the humanization of Mary and Christ in the late Middle Ages.

The humanization of Mary

The humanization of Mary and her Son is consistent with the change in religious feeling in the late Middle Ages. The Virgin takes on more opulent forms, an individual feminine face, and a gentle, pensive expression. Her plump, laughing, wriggling Son is shown completely naked to emphasize the human nature of God Incarnate. The bird and the pomegranate in His hands refer to the Eucharist and the Passion. The crescent moon at the Virgin's feet expresses Mary's preeminence over the earthly world and her victory over sin. This symbolic image of the Immaculate Conception was common in the late Middle Ages. It identifies the Virgin with the "Woman" of the Apocalypse, whom Saint John described as a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head (Revelation 12:1). The moon is the symbol of fickleness and corruption.

A masterpiece of Germanic late Gothic art

This monumental figure is imposing because of the mass and complexity of the drapery and its powerful formal inventiveness. The Virgin is holding the material of her mantle in both hands so that it bunches in front of her body and fans out as a seat for her Child, who is thus openly offered for veneration. The cloth is brought alive by deep hollows and sharp, arbitrary folds. The edges of the mantle are artificially turned back to form two broad curving folds suspended in space. This design, which plays with the ornamental and expressive role of the drapery, is specific to German late Gothic sculpture. It is well served by the virtuosity of the carving, to which the soft wood of the linden, used in the southern half of the Empire, is ideally suited. The effect of power combines harmoniously with the delicacy of the modeling, the care given to exact detail and the lively sensitivity of the strong-featured faces.

The attribution to Hoffman

The female type used for the Virgin, the wriggling, chubby Child, and the pattern of the tumbling drapery are found in several Madonnas sculpted in Basel around 1510-20. Stylistically, these works belong in the circle of the sculptor Martin Hoffmann. Heir to the sculptural style of Strasbourg and the Franconian art of Veit Stoff, Hoffmann, who was born in Thuringia, brought a new, expressive, animated style to Basel. The Prophets on the town hall, paid for in 1521, are fine examples. However, as there are no period documents to support it, the attribution of this piece to Martin Hoffman remains hypothetical.


Guillot de Suduiraut S., Sculptures allemandes de la fin du Moyen Age, dans les collections publiques françaises 1400-1530, cat. expo. Louvre, Paris, 1991, cat.26, pp.119-123.
Guillot de Suduiraut S., La Vierge à l'Enfant d'Issenheim. Un chef-d'oeuvre bâlois de la fin du Moyen Age, Dossiers du musée du Louvre, Paris, 1998.

The growth of the Marial cult in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries led to the creation of many Virgin and Child figures. This one, mentioned in the first inventory of the Sainte-Chapelle before 1279, is considered the most successful example that Parisian ivory carvers ever achieved; so perfect that many statuettes from the second half of the thirteenth century appear to have been based on this prestigious model.

Paris, the capital of ivory carving

In the thirteenth century, Paris became the undisputed capital of ivory carving. The material, which during the eleventh and twelfth centuries had reached western Europe only with difficulty, started arriving again in larger quantities, thanks to the development of new shipping lanes to ports on the Atlantic and, above all, Norman coasts. With the new influx of raw material, and the presence of a royal and church clientele, workers in ivory could give free rein to their skills, carving a wide array of objects, including statuettes in the round, diptychs, small plaques, caskets, mirror cases, and tabernacles.

An ideal of beauty

The statuette of the Sainte-Chapelle is unquestionably the most beautiful piece of ivory carving in the round ever made. Rivaling more monumental works, it features all the canons of that art form then in force. Slightly slouching hips, a lissom, slender body, a fine, triangular face surrounded by wavy hair, eyes drawn out toward the temples, and a small, smiling mouth form a complete portrait of the Gothic period's ideal of beauty.

Elegance and harmony

This Virgin and Child comes from the treasury of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, to which it was probably given by St. Louis. In the fourteenth century, Charles V had a gold plinth and emerald-encrusted ornamentation added, which was removed during the Revolution. The exquisite elegance and harmonious proportions of this statuette explain why it was so admired and imitated from the time of its creation.


Gaborit-Chopin Danielle, "Les ivoires gothiques français", Louvre. Trésors du Moyen Âge, Dossier de l'Art, n 16, décembre 1993 - janvier 1994, pp. 34-43.Gaborit-Chopin Danielle, "La Vierge à l'Enfant d'ivoire de la Sainte-Chapelle", La Sainte-Chapelle. L'art au temps de saint Louis, Dijon, Dossiers d'archéologie n 264, 2001.Gaborit-Chopin Danielle, Le trésor de la Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, musée du Louvre, 2001, notice 39.Gaborit-Chopin Danielle, Catalogue des collections du département des Objets d'art, Les ivoires médiévaux, Paris, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2003, n 100.


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