A Taste for Flemish Art
Stephen N. Fliegel Curator of Medieval Art
The museum recently acquired a distinctive and beautiful sculpture of the Enthroned Virgin and Child. This impressively carved work is, on stylistic grounds, probably by the hand of Gil de Siloé or a member of his important workshop. A sculptor of northern origin, Siloé was employed by Queen Isabella the Catholic (reigned 1474–1504) to undertake several large-scale sculptural projects in Burgos and vicinity. He is regarded as the most important Spanish sculptor of the late 15th century and the leading exponent of the Burgos school of sculpture. Siloé worked in both wood and stone, and he is documented as having been employed by Isabella for the production of the important royal tombs at the Carthusian monastery of Miraflores at Burgos. These include the elaborate star-shaped tomb of Isabella’s parents, Juan II of Castile and Isabella of Portugal, which is set with nearly 600 figurative or animal forms, along with the wall tomb of her prematurely deceased brother the Infante Alfonso (1489–1493). These works, like our newly acquired Virgin and Child, are produced in alabaster, a soft stone highly favored in the Middle Ages for interior sculpture.
The Virgin and Child is of exceptionally fine quality. The draperies are deeply undercut in keeping with Siloé’s signature style, and the sculpture retains its high polish and much of its original gilding. Alabaster was highly prized during the later Middle Ages for its creamy whiteness and slight translucence. As a soft stone, it was ideal for interior sculpture and especially small-scale figures like the Virgin and Child (about 12 inches in height). Alabaster was easily polished and readily accepted fine details, gilding, and polychromy. Given the desirability and preciousness of the material, somewhat akin to ivory, small figures were often left unpainted in places. Only details such as the figures’ hair, ornamental details of costume, and the throne were originally colored, with most areas of the draperies and faces left uncolored in reserve.
The Virgin is formally seated holding the Christ Child on an elaborately carved throne, its back decorated with elaborate geometric Gothic tracery. She wears a large cloak draped over a belted robe. The robe has a jeweled edge and the cuffs are deep, turned back to reveal a decorative gilded fabric. She once wore a large crown, long missing. The child holds an object now difficult to identify—possibly a loaf of bread, a symbol of the Eucharist. Substantial traces of the original gilding remain on the hair of the Virgin and the Child, around the edge of the Virgin’s robe where it forms a decorative border, on her belt, and around the neckline of her robe. Original blue polychromy is also visible within the interstices of the tracery of the throne.
The Virgin and Child compares favorably in both style and quality with Siloé’s figures on the tombs at Miraflores. The Virgin’s distinctive seated upright pose, her hair carefully arranged over her shoulder in individual locks, her form given physical breadth by the set of her arms placed wide from her body with the cloak falling over them, are all exactly paralleled by the seated Virtues that decorate the base of the star-shaped tomb of Isabella’s parents. The distinctive carving of the drapery of the Virgin and Child, which is deeply undercut and set in angular, geometric folds, is also a feature of the way Siloé and his team carved alabaster on the Miraflores tombs. The Virgin’s face is closely comparable to the manner in which the portraits of the Infante Alfonso or Isabella of Portugal are conceived, especially in the treatment of the eyes and cheeks, and the overall shape of the face.
Elements of the design of the Virgin and Child suggest that it was a self-contained object, most evident from the way the throne on which she sits has an integral back (unlike the seated Virtues or the Virgin and Child on the Miraflores tomb). This obviates any need to place her within another architectural context, and indeed negates the likelihood that she came from such a context. This statue then was most probably intended to serve as an independent devotional image, likely meant to be viewed at eye level or from slightly below. One can speculate that it was used in a private chapel or oratory. The material, its quality, and the quality of the carving also indicate a discerning patron: Isabella of Castile, who was well known for discriminating taste. While an association between this small but regally conceived Virgin and Child and Isabella of Castille can only be hypothesized at present, in the view of Dr. Susie Nash of the Courtauld Institute, “It is tempting to see this beautifully and distinctively carved Virgin and Child as a private object made for the queen or a high-ranking member of her household.”
Isabella was a great admirer of Flemish art and owned numerous manuscripts, paintings, and tapestries produced in Flanders. The queen’s daughter Johanna lived in Flanders from 1497 until her mother’s death in 1504. Johanna became the wife of Philip the Fair of Burgundy, Maximilian’s son, in 1496 and ordered a set of Flemish tapestries for her mother as a present. It cannot be demonstrated at this time who owned or commissioned the newly acquired alabaster Virgin and Child. However, the resemblance of the Virgin’s face to Isabella herself has been noted by more than one scholar. It would not be unusual for an artist in the 15th century to portray his patron in the guise of a sacred figure as a means of flattery. It is also possible that the sculpture was commissioned by a member of the court for Isabella as a gift.
The addition of the sculpture fills a major gap in the museum’s small collection of medieval Spanish art. It also provides a welcome and extremely rare example of the artistic personality of Gil de Siloé. Very few sculptures by this artist exist outside of Spain and only five are known to exist in U.S. collections (at the Cloisters in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The sculpture complements two other works in the museum’s collection associated with Queen Isabella the Catholic: her book of hours, one of the most prestigious manuscripts of its type, and the panel painting The Birth and Naming of St. John the Baptist by Juan de Flandes, part of an altarpiece commissioned by Isabella for the monastery of Miraflores.
Cleveland Art, November 2009