Virgin and Child, c. 1500–1510
South German (Upper Rhine Valley)
Limewood, painted and gilded
63 × 24 × 15 inches (160 × 61 × 38.1 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund
Habits of Mind
- UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy
Analyzing Assumptions and Overcoming Bias:
Understanding Points of View
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Southwest Asia/North Africa, during discussion of monotheisic religions
- Europe—Culture, Medieval vs. Renaissance
- Initial discussions on culture/characteristics of culture
Connecting to the Work of Art
In medieval Europe, images were commonly used to inspire piety, prayer, and a closer relationship with God. This depiction of the Madonna and Child, a rare example of a lime wood sculpture that has retained its original paint and gilding, represents a vision described in the New Testament book of Revelation, "A great, a wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head." Polychrome sculptures (an object decorated in many colors) were intended to look as life-like as possible. This realism helped church members relate to the figures of Mary and the Christ child in a personal way. They also believed that the figures acted as intercessors to God. Later sculptures, popular in the medieval period, included fewer colors and relied more on detailed carving to portray realistic images.
While today’s viewers experience this work in a well-lit gallery, the sculpture would originally have been placed in a dimly-lit gothic cathedral during the 14th century. The bright colors and shimmering gold on the robes and crown were designed to be seen in candlelight or indirect sunlight. To keep such sculptures looking bright, they were periodically repainted and re-gilded. After cleaning this sculpture, conservators discovered that, over the years, it has been painted with up to six different color schemes. In contrast to her brightly colored robes, the Mary holds a rosy, naked baby Jesus, who seems ready to wriggle out of his mother's arms.
Mary’s hair has been carved in long waving ringlets that flow down on either side of her robe with its realistic folds of fabric cinched together, as if with a drawstring. This sculpture's distinctive carving style reveals it as a product of the workshop of Niclaus Weckmann the Elder. Here, Mary is depicted in a relaxed, naturalistic pose as she cradles the Christ child and gazes out toward the viewer. The highly skilled carving technique is evident in the detailed facial expressions, Mary’s cascading hair, Christ’s curls, and especially in the folds of Mary’s robe and collar. The lime wood used to create the sculpture was believed to hold holy powers that would help to scare away the plague.
The directness of her gaze, contrasted with the Christ child who looks out into the distance, makes Mary the primary focus of the work, Mary is rendered in luxurious, rich colors, with heavy gold highlights that would have glowed in candlelight, ornate drapery, and the symbolic crown on her head and moon at her feet. Mary was often depicted in either red, which represented nobility and elevated status and was the favored color of German artists for their renderings of Mary, or blue, traditionally the color of purity but also associated with nobility and high status. In Byzantine culture, blue was the color of an empress, thus the color was popularly associated with the Virgin Mary as the “Queen of Heaven.” The color blue used in medieval painting was derived from lapis lazuli—a stone of high value comparable to gold at the time. Hence, the use of blue was an expression of devotion and glorification, as well as a not-too-subtle expression of the patron’s wealth.
- What details do you notice? Consider the face, hair, and the robes.
- Describe the surface of the sculpture. Is it smooth or rough?
- Describe the relationship between the two figures. Does this seem like a natural way for a mother to hold her child? Why or why not?
- Does the figure of the infant Christ look like a realistic baby? Why do you think he was portrayed in this manner?
- Which figure does the artist place emphasis on? Using evidence from the object, explain your answer.
- How does the woman’s staring gaze add to the regal tone of the work?
- What if the figure was lovingly gazing at the child? How would that change the tone of the work?
- What do you notice about the woman’s clothing?
- How does the artist’s choice of colors add to the realistic appearance of the figures?
- The artist’s choice of color is not only pleasing to the eye but holds symbolism as well. The blue paint was made from lapis lazuli—a stone of high value, comparable to gold, at the time. What does the artist’s choice of expensive paints reveal about the importance of the sculpture?
- When this sculpture was carved in the 14th century, it would have been placed in a dimly lit gothic cathedral and would have been viewed by candlelight. Imagine how this different context would change how viewers experience the work.
- Why would it be important for images such as this one, to be made to be life-like? Consider the attitudes of the Church at this time.
- This sculpture contains many symbolic references, such as the crescent moon, which refers to a passage in the Revelations: "The woman clothed in the sun, and the moon beneath her feet." What do you think other elements of work, such as the crown and the colors, could symbolize? What resources could you find their meanings in?
- The symbolic imagery of Mary and Jesus was important to Catholic worshippers of the 14th century. It provided them with great comfort and spiritual solace. What other religions or cultures use images in this way?
Connecting to the Classroom
- To what extent does this piece show effects of the Italian Renaissance? Why is this significant?
- What aspects of Christianity are shown in this piece? To what extent is the image of God different in the three major monotheistic religions?
- What does this piece tell us about the culture of the artist or owner? To what extent do the subject matter, color, and material tell us about the culture?
- Compare and contrast with the Male Spirit Spouse.
- To what extent does personal devotion play a significant role in each?
- How do these human representations change the worshipper/culture?
- What role does symbolism play in each? How is this alike or different?
- Compare with earlier and later representations of Mary and Jesus.
- How does the realistic representation help the worshipper relate to these figures?
- Compare and contrast with The Cradle.
- To what extent does each show the relationship between mother and child?
- How are these pieces similar or different?
- Consider the purpose of each piece. What role does this play in the overall mood or experience of each?
Subject Matter Connection
In order to study cultures, students must be able to understand different points of view and to communicate their own ideas, as well as the thoughts of others. This work of art allows students to view an image that might be familiar to them and to understand the aspects of culture/points of view presented.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.