Twenty Objects for Twenty Years: Veit Stoss, “Virgin and Child”, c.1490

March 9, 2013

In contrast to last week’s pathos-laden image of the Virgin with the Dead Christ, this Virgin and Child by the German sculptor Veit Stoss is notable for its joyous mood, a reminder of the emotional range encompassed by figurative art in this period.   It is small – some 20 cm high – and exquisitely carved, the fine-grained boxwood lending itself to virtuosic, detailed treatment.  The Virgin stands on a crescent moon, alluding to her iconographic role as ‘the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet’, (Revelation 12: 1-2) and presents the Child, who is playing with his toes (a detail which for all its babyish charm, is perhaps intended as a reminder of the wounds that will later pierce his feet).  It has a wonderful spiralling composition that reproductions can’t fully convey. The intricate, billowing forms of the Virgin’s drapery, cut in deep spiralling folds, the long tendrils of hair cascading down her back, the tiny dimples in the Child’s flesh, all contribute to the dazzling tactile refinement of this piece.  More than any object in the V&A’s medieval and renaissance collection I long to handle it, revolve it, stroke its delicate grooves.  Its original owner must surely have done so. 

Though it may have been used in the context of prayer, it was probably made primarily as a collector’s piece.  Though this trend is often associated with developments in renaissance Italy, prompted by the desire to own objects from (or inspired by) classical antiquity, there was among north European collectors a parallel appreciation of objects of rare and exquisite craftsmanship such as this Virgin.  It is striking that the emphasis is purely on the quality of the carving: the boxwood is glazed and there are traces of gilding, but this object was not valued for its material richness.

Veit Stoss,

Veit Stoss, “Virgin and Child”, c.1490, carved boxwood.  Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, Room 64. 646-1893 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Veit Stoss (c.1450-1533) was a sculptor from Nuremberg, one of the principal cities of the Holy Roman Empire, a great centre of trade and of artistic production (Albrecht Dürer, another native of Nuremberg, was one of his younger contemporaries, and there are parallels between the calligraphic treatment of drapery folds in Stoss’s work and Dürer’s prints).  Stoss specialised in wood, and was as skilled at producing large-scale statues and carved altarpieces as tiny statuettes.  Between 1477 and 1496 he was based in the Polish city of Krakow; one of his best-known works is the vast altarpiece of the Death of the Virgin in St Mary’s, Krakow, and it has recently been suggested that the V&A’s Virgin and Child was made during his Krakow period.  The city, with its court and university, was an important northern European centre for Italian humanist studies, and may well have fostered the kind of connoisseur-patron who would have commissioned this piece. 

Stoss was internationally renowned, with clients as far afield as Italy and Portugal; one of his large-scale sculptures, the limewood statue of St Roche in the Florentine church of SS Annunziata, prompted the art historian Giorgio Vasari – who generally had scant admiration for northern European art – to describe his work as ‘a miracle in wood’.

Veit Stoss,

Veit Stoss, “Virgin and Child”, c.1490, carved boxwood.  Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, Room 64. 646-1893 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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