Virgin Enthroned

Middle Rhine
ca. 1050

Applewood, remnants of original polychromy
Height 54 cm

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The mobile sculptural objects surviving from the Salian era (1024–1125) are largely limited to crucifixes and sculptures of the Virgin Enthroned with the Christ Child. The figure shown here was executed around 1050, probably in Koblenz, Trier, or Cologne, and is one of the earliest and most significant examples of this period. It is said to have come from the hospice church in Kapellen-Stolzenfels near Koblenz. Yet such sculptures were not found widely in churches at the time. Rather, they were reserved for more important collegiate churches, monastery churches or cathedrals, where they functioned as special cult images on – or immediately adjacent to – the altar, or as processional figures.

Medieval sculptures are full of meaningful references. This sculpture in Frankfurt, for example, would have been understood at the time to be, among other things, a visual illustration of two central principles of faith in the Christian church, namely that God became human in the form of Christ and that he was born of the irgin. Executed at a time when the western part of the empire was increasingly sceptical that Mary was the Mother of God, and hence of the Church’s authority, this form of visual depiction is to be understood as an effort to reinforce that central dogma and the Church’s claim to power.

It was perhaps for these reasons that artists increasingly moved away from the older practise of designing figures of the Virgin as wooden cores covered with gold foil, which gave such sculptures an unreal, otherworldly effect. Thanks to its polychromy – one of the earliest examples on a representation of the Virgin – the Liebieghaus Madonna depicts the incarnation of Christ all the more grippingly.