Lot 33
  • 33

Mosan or North French, circa 1250-1260

800,000 - 1,200,000 GBP
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  • Virgin and Child enthroned
  • ivory, with traces of gilding and polychromy
  • Mosan or North French, circa 1250-1260


probably acquired by Syon Monastery, Isleworth, Middlesex, before their excommunication in 1559;
brought to England by the Bridgettine Nuns of Syon Monastery fleeing the French invasion of Portugal, January-April 1809;
purchased by John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, 16th Earl of Waterford, Alton Towers, Staffordshire, in return for a £30 yearly pension for the nuns, circa 1836;
bequeathed to Bertram Arthur Talbot, 17th Earl of Shrewsbury, 17th Earl of Waterford;
included in his sale, the Magnificent contents of Alton Towers, the princely seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury, Messrs. Christie and Manson, 6 July 1857 to 8 August 1857, lot 1956, withdrawn;
bequeathed to the Earl's niece, Charlotte Sophia Fitzalan-Howard (née Leveson-Gower), Duchess of Norfolk, Arundel Castle, West Sussex;
thence by descent to, Henry Granville Fitzalan-Howard, 14th Duke of Norfolk;
by whom bequeathed to his son-in-law James Robert Hope-Scott, husband of Lady Victoria Fitzalan-Howard, Norfolk House, London, 1860, possibly on the occasion of their wedding;
loaned to the South Kensington Museum, London, 29 July 1867- 26 September 1873;
probably bequeathed to Hope-Scott's brother-in-law, Henry Fitzalan-Howard, 15th Duke of Norfolk, according to a letter from his grandson, Major General Sir Walter Maxwell Scott, dd. 25 January 1935;
with Hermann Baer, London, 1949;
from whom purchased by a private collector, the Netherlands, 1949;
and thence by descent to the present owner.


London, The Archaeological Institute, 1861;
London, South Kensington Museum, Special Exhibition of Works of Art of the Mediaeval, Renaissance, and more recent periods on loan at the South Kensington Museum, June 1862, no. 204;
London, South Kensington Museum, 1867-1873


‘Proceedings of the Institute’, The Archaeological Journal, XVIII, 1861, pp. 275-276;
J.C. Robinson (ed.), Special Exhibition of Works of Art of the Mediaeval, Renaissance, and more recent periods on loan at the South Kensington Museum, exh. cat. South Kensington Museum, London, 1863, pp. 16-17, no. 204;
W. Maskell (ed.), Description of the ivories ancient & mediaeval in the South Kensington Museum, cat. South Kensington Museum, London, 1872, p. XCI;
W. Maskell, Ivories. Ancient and mediaeval, London, 1875, p. 101;
E. Waterton, Pietas Mariana Britannica. A history of English devotion to the Most Blessed Virgin Marye Mother of God, London, 1879, illustrated on the frontispiece;
G. V. Charlton, List of Relics, etc. in the possession of the Bridgettine Nuns in Lisbon1738 brought to England in 1809, 1935, 3428 Box 50, Exeter University, Syon Abbey Library, no. 23;
J.R. Fletcher, A History of Syon Abbey and its Bridgettine Community, 1940, MS95, Exeter University, Syon Abbey Library, vol. 17, referring to the Alton Towers sale catalogue of 1857;
C. de Hamel, The Library of the Bridgettine Nuns and their Peregrinations after the Reformation, London, 1991, pp. 132, referring to The Archaeological Journal, 1861.


Considering its age and provenance the ivory is in good condition. There are remnants of gilding to the crown, hair, eyes, belt, hems of the drapery and base. Traces of red remain bordering the gilding, to the architecture on the base and the crevices of the drapery of the Child and the two figures on either side of the throne; there were three lines of golden text on the book. There is some blue to the mantle at the Virgin's proper left knee and some green around her collar and to the backgrounds of the reliefs on the throne. Black pigment was applied to deepen the gilding of the hems. There is some dust to the crevices, particularly around the base and in the laps of the figures. There is naturally occurring stable hairline splitting to the surface, including to either side of the nose, the sides of the face, Her chest and around Her thighs. Due to the ivory's size the carver was forced to use the outer limit of the tusk, resulting in some darker grained layers at Christ's proper left knee and to the high points of the drapery around the Virgin's proper left shin consistent with the material. Areas at the Virgin's chest and face are whiter than elsewhere. The trefoil ornaments on the crown were lost at the front and proper left side, as was the central tip of the trefoil at the back. There are losses to the edge of the drapery at the proper right side of Her head, proper left side of Her chest, near the Child's proper left foot, and to the outer sides of both of Her shins. The Virgin's index finger of the proper right hand, the middle finger of the Child's proper right hand, the proper left forearm of the figure on the proper left side of the throne were lost. A section of the left back corner of the throne (41mm) was carved separately and attached with a wooden dowel. Part of the underside of this section was lost. The flower was broken at the stem and the centre of the middle finger and reattached with a metal dowel. The top section with the end of the finger (44mm) is loose. There are eight small circular holes to the underside for mounting. Three of these have wooden dowels inside. There is also a rounded cavity in the centre which is the partially expanded location of the root canal of the tusk. The C14 sample was taken from the inside of this cavity.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Radiocarbon dating measurement report no. RCD-1989, prepared by A.J. Walker of RCD RadioCarbon Dating, East Lockinge, dd. 15 February 2013, states that the ivory dates between 1215 and 1281 (95% confidence interval)

Rediscovered after 150 years, this large and wondrously detailed ivory statuette of the Virgin and Child Enthroned once belonged to the Bridgettines of the 15th-century Syon Monastery.  A courageous and determined community, the nuns and monks kept it out of the grasp of Henry VIII, Netherlandish Calvinists and the French Catholic League before escaping safely to Roman Catholic Portugal in 1594.  The threat of an invasion by Napoleon's troops in 1809 forced them to flee once more, and they sailed for England.  Throughout their peregrinations the community remarkably managed to retain the ownership of this ivory and other works of art.  But in 1836, with only two elderly members of the order remaining, the treasures had to be exchanged for a pension of £30 with an English Lord.  The ivory was shown in several London exhibitions and loaned to the South Kensington Museum between 1861 and 1873.  There it was celebrated as a pre-Reformation relic of national interest.  Since it has escaped the public eye and remained unrecognised until today.

The Bridgettines of Syon Monastery
In 1809 a group of Bridgettine nuns set foot on English soil for the first time since their order's exile in 1559. The ten nuns had hastily fled from an imminent invasion of their adopted hometown of Lisbon by Napoleon's troops in order to safeguard the future of their monastery, known as Syon. Leaving others members of the Order behind, they departed with a set of crates containing some of their most prized works of art. Their decision to leave for England proved misguided: the invasion hardly affected the monastery in Lisbon and the escaped group failed to gain recognition from the Holy See, cutting off important streams of income and the possibility to admit new members. The castaways soon hit dire straits and had to be harboured by a succession of sympathising Catholics in London and the North of England. Poverty forced some of the younger nuns into other monasteries whilst elder sisters fell ill or passed away. By 1836 only two nuns remained and they decided to trade their precious belongings for shelter and a pension of £30 a year with John Talbot, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury. It is in his possession that the present ivory is first recorded. The plight of the ten Bridgettine sisters nearly proved to be the final chapter of what had already been a harrowing flight for a once powerful community. [1]

The Bridgettine Order was founded by the great Swedish mystic Saint Bridget, who lived from 1303 to 1373. One of her many valuable contributions to Catholicism was a set of standards to which a monastery should adhere and could best serve God. This Rule of Saint Saviour teaches that monks and nuns should reside in the same complex and celebrate a special cycle of Canonical hours in a church containing separate choirs for the different sexes. The men chiefly provide spiritual guidance for the community, while an abbess and the nuns rule the monastery as a whole. Saint Bridget founded the first such community at Vadstena in Sweden towards the end of her life. This institution was visited by the British royal family on the occasion of the wedding of the English Princess Philippa to King Eric III of Sweden and since King Henry III had vowed to found three religious houses after murdering a bishop, his successor Henry IV decided to establish a Bridgettine Abbey on the banks of the Thames at Isleworth. It was named Syon after the biblical city and its residents became spiritual advisors to the royal family, their Court and many other dignitaries in London.

The collections of the Bridgettines at Syon
King Henry IV laid the first stone of Syon with great ceremony in 1415. Judging by some sparse architectural remains and the size of the foundations buried under the Duke of Northumberland's Syon House, the buildings apparently rivalled the High Gothic splendour of Eton Hall and King's College Chapel in Cambridge. From royal documents in the Public Records Office and from Syon's well-preserved medieval manuscripts it is equally clear that the Bridgettines were fantastically well endowed by their benefactors. Research into the library of the community by De Hamel and others suggests that many important manuscripts were acquired in the first decades of the monastery's existence.[2] Other works of art therefore probably also entered the treasury en masse during this time. Firstly, the mother monastery in Vadstena probably sent those objects necessary to conduct the services with the founding brothers and sisters in 1415. Vadstena must have possessed art made abroad as its monks are recorded as being active on the manuscripts market in Paris. One certain exchange took place when a delegation of English Bridgettine monks visited Vadstena in 1427 and was given important relics.[3] Secondly, Henry IV bequeathed the land, buildings and possessions formerly belonging to the alien priories suppressed by the Parliament of Leicester in 1414. Alien priories were satellites of monasteries in Northern France such as Mont Saint-Michel, Séez, Caen and Fécamp, that settled on English land during the Norman dynasty and caused significant economic deprivation by sending their income back to France.[4] After the suppression the works of art at Saint Michael's Mount, a priory in Cornwall belonging to the eponymous monastery in France, for one, were given to Syon, thoroughly surveyed by the abbess, and partly shipped to London.[5] The last way in which the monastery was endowed was through donations in the form of money and objects given by nobility and major merchants. Some of their children were also sent to join the community, occasionally adding objects of their own to Syon's holdings.

Given its association to the royal family and its wealth it is not surprising that Syon suffered immensely during the Reformation. By 1559 the community was so exposed that it was decided to vacate Syon and disperse. Most members fled England under the protection of a retiring Spanish nobleman and the community tried to re-establish itself in the Netherlands. Unfortunately this was only the start of their troubles: diseases plagued the nuns at their first stead in Heemstede in Zeeland, and in Flanders they were bullied from city to city by hostile Calvinists, angry mobs and plundering mercenaries, in Rouen in France they were at the centre of the conflict between the Catholic League and the Navarre. The distrust of the French was such that the community was accused of diverting a stream into their premises after it had dried up. The violent crowd that came to look for the water obviously found nothing and destroyed the monastery in stead. During the subsequent flight to Spain they were so harried by corrupt authorities they were forced to sail to Portugal. In 1594 the Bridgettines finally settled in Lisbon, and after finding firm support from the King and the church authorities, they were recruiting English women among the catholic refugees. Despite religious freedom and peace, the community still had to face the complete devastation of their monastery by fire in 1651, the death of the last male member of the Bridgettines in 1695, and the earthquake in 1755.

Remarkably their most prized possessions seemed to have survived all of this hardship: the abbess is recorded as appearing before an Antwerp magistrate with several crates of books and "images" in 1580 and Thomas Robinson writes in his chronicle of the Bridgettines' customs and history in 1622 that their monastery in Lisbon contained many precious works of art that were carried into exile with the brothers and sisters.[6] A list of relics and silver plate which was probably compiled by Sister Mary Bridget Smith in Lisbon circa 1723 contains numerous objects which were believed to come from Old Syon including an “Image of our Blessed Virgin of Ave Maris Stella”. Its tantalizing description tells us that it came into the possession of the nuns in England when it miraculously appeared at their doorstep during supper one evening. At this hour the nuns were enclosed in their quarters and also protected by an outer wall so they were surprised to hear the bell outside their refectory. When the door was answered nobody was there but a hatch near the door contained the object with a note inside on which was written “AVE MARIS STELLA”. The community promptly took up the eponymous prayer and clearly treasured the object for centuries after the incident.[7] Since the present Virgin has a cavity on the underside it may be the special object referred to in 1723. Added to the written documents, there are a number of objects already in the public domain which were preserved during the Bridgettines' flight, including an important altered English chasuble from the early 14th century in the Victoria and Albert Museum known as the Syon Cope (inv. no. 83-1864) and an beautifully carved stone capital or cross base from the 15th-century monastery on which the body of Syon’s only martyr, Richard Reynolds, was placed during the Reformation. The latter was given by the nuns to the Blessed Sacrement Church in Exeter in 2011. These treasures were probably kept with the present ivory until the nuns' fateful flight to England in 1809.

The Virgin and Child in the 19th century
The first time the works of art from Syon seem to be recorded as the possessions of the Earl of Shrewsbury is at the sale of the contents of Alton Towers, the princely seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury. Bertram, the 17th Earl, had died young in 1852 and did not leave an heir. The contents of Alton Towers were sold by Messrs. Christie and Manson and their catalogue includes the keys to old Syon, the monastery's seals and Syon's Deed of Reconstitution under Queen Mary from 1557. Our ivory is lot 1956 in the catalogue where it is described as "the Virgin seated holding the Infant in her lap. A very beautiful Italian carving in ivory".[8] It was withdrawn with the other objects from Syon for unknown reasons. Later correspondence from Syon's archives suggests that these objects were divided among the Earl's executors and other relations.[9] The ivory was part of a group of other works of art from Syon given to Charlotte Sophia Fitzalan-Howard, the Duchess of Norfolk, the Earl of Shrewsbury's only catholic relative. As such the ivory moved to Arundel Castle. A wonderful illuminated manuscript written in Spanish that records the nun’s flight is still kept there today. In 1861 the Virgin and Child was presented to the Duchess' new son-in-law James Hope-Scott.[10] Hope-Scott, incidentally, was one of the executors of the Alton Towers estate, and had acquired other objects from the monastery four years earlier. Whilst in the care of Hope-Scott the statue was exhibited and published on several occasions. The Earl of Shrewsbury's former chaplain, the Reverend Canon Daniel Rock, provided a valuable note on its provenance for the show at the Institute of Archaeology in 1861.[11] The ivory was subsequently loaned to the South Kensington Museum twice and included in Maskell's catalogue of the museum's collections in 1872.[12] Following the death of James Hope-Scott in 1872 the object was collected from the museum and disappeared.[13] According to correspondence between the Bridgettines and a grandson of an executor from the 1930s it was bequeathed to Henry, 15th Duke of Norfolk by Hope-Scott but further evidence of this does not exist.[14] The ancestor of the current owner acquired the ivory from the well-known art dealer Hermann Baer in London in 1949 without provenance of note.

The Sedes Sapientiae and the Meuse Valley
The attribution of the Virgin and Child has been a matter of interesting debate. In the 15 years during the 19th century that the ivory was part of the public domain it was published as being Italian (1857), English, circa 1280 (1861), and 14th century (Maskell, 1872).[15] Today, the composition of the present statuette, referred to as the Theotokos or Sedes sapentiae, in which the Virgin is enthroned frontally, with knees aligned, presenting the Child on the left leg and an attribute such as a lily or orb in the right hand, seems to have been particularly current in Gothic ivory carvings made in the second and third quarters of the 13th century. The type is derived from Byzantine models. It served as an important image for the veneration of Mary's dual role as mother of both God and man because she is represented with her young son whilst enthroned and wearing the crown of the Queen of Heaven. The image was central to the Marian cult in Romanesque times and remained so into the early years of the 13th century.[16] Towards the 14th century a more lively composition was adopted in which mother and child were positioned with a Gothic sway, twisting towards each other and interacting more vividly. The present Virgin and Child is central to this development: the two figures face us in the earnest manner of the early images but the Virgin and Child have more humanised facial features and positions, further enlivened by voluminous drapery and highly detailed carving. The facial type of the Virgin in particular -rounded, simple but idealised, and placid- compares well to small scale ivory carvings of the same subject, such as one in the Musee Cluny (inv. no. CL 23832) and one in The Thomson Collection (inv. no. 29464). These statuettes were dated to 1240-1250 and circa 1250 respectively.[17]

The likeness of the present Virgin to the two groups mentioned above provides clues as to where it may have been made. The Thomson ivory was described as Mosan by Lowden on the basis of comparisons with wood sculpture in particular.[18] The statuette in Paris is thought to be from that city but was presented as a closely related evolution of the Sedes sapientiae statues popular in the Meuse valley in the first half of the 13th century in Une Renaissance. L'art entre Flandre et Champagne 1150-1250.[19] This exhibition also included a polychromed oak sculpture from Saint-Omer dating to 1230-1240 known as the Notre-Dame-des-Miracles which shows the Child in a nearly identical pose, languishing on his mother's left upper leg with one foot placed on her right knee, holding a book and making a gesture of blessing.[20] Numerous earlier statuettes in metal, wood and ivory included in the show repeated both the Virgin's and the Child's general positioning.[21] Here, the perfectly rendered motif wherein the Virgin's proper left hand holds drapery to create a cradle for Christ, is repeated in the Thomson Virgin and Child and also in an ivory statuette in the Louvre thought to have been carved in Picardy, a province of France bordering the Champagne through which the Meuse flows (inv. no. AO2742).[22] This gesture seems to be largely absent from the more numerous Parisian statuettes. The weighty and elaborate drapery equally sets the Picardian ivory and the present Virgin and Child apart from carvings made in Paris. This treatment is possibly a remnant of the Muldenfaltenstil and interest in embellishment exemplified in the polychromed wood and gem-set Sedes sapientiae in the church of St. Jean in Liege.[23] A smaller detail of this masterpiece from Liege, which dates to the 1230s, may provide further evidence for a Mosan provenance of the present statuette: the V-neck collar of both Virgins differs from the plain round chemise collar typical of the statuettes carved elsewhere. See also the oak Notre-Dame-des-Miracles from Saint-Omer mentioned previously for this motif.[24]

Further remarkable details are less typical of ivory statuettes attributed to the Meuse Valley and Northern France but can nonetheless be accounted for by some observations of Parisian sculpture. The outline and architectural moulding on the lower and upper edges of the throne are similar to those of the throne of the ivory Virgin with the Rose dating to circa 1260 in the Louvre (inv. no. AO 7271). The thin slits can also be seen on the lower edge of the base of the famous standing Virgin and Child of the Sainte-Chapelle dating to circa 1260-1270 in the same museum (inv. no. AO 57). [25] The latter statuette also has Mary's proper left foot wrapped in her dress much like this statuette. More unusual are the reliefs to the sides of the throne with the female figure reading and the enthroned figure which possibly represent the Virgin. Several statuettes of the Virgin and Child enthroned also have figurative reliefs to the throne, such as an example in The Thomson Collection (inv. no. 68117) which has an enthroned King Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents, and an ivory Sedes sapentiae in the Bargello, Florence with a lion attacking a bull (inv. no. 88C) to the reverse.[26] Figurative reliefs on the sides seem rarer, but there are traces of missing figures in metal or paint on the thrones of further statuettes, including an ivory Virgin and Child in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. no. 17.190.181a,b).[27] The composition of the reliefs, with the single figures presented in architectural niches, was possibly inspired by the series of saints, scholars and scribes carved in the lower registers of the portals of some the great Gothic cathedrals. See, for example, those in each of the three portals of the front façade of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris. An ivory that also incorporates such figures is the lobed cup mounted as a chalice in the treasury of Milan cathedral which was identified as French work and dated to the early 14th century by Vitali.[28]

 [1] The story of the Bridgettines of Syon as summarised here is told by numerous authors including T. Robinson, The anatomy of the English nunnery in Portugal. Dissected and laid open by one that was sometime a yonger brother of the conuent: who (if the grace of God had not preuented him) might haue growne as old in a wicked life as the oldest among them, London, 1622; Anonymous, An Account of the Travels, Dangers and Wonderful Deliverance of the English Nuns, early 18th century, unpublished manuscript kept in Exeter University Library (116, Box 3); M.C., History of the Travels of the Nuns of Sion House, England now resident in Sion House, Lisbon, 1769, unpublished manuscript kept in Exeter University Library (1470, Box 28); G.J. Aungier, The History and Antiquities of Syon Monastery, the Parish of Isleworth, and the Chapelry of Hounslow, Isleworth, 1840; J.R. Fletcher, The Story of the English Bridgettines of Syon Abbey, South Brent, 1933

[2] C. de Hamel, The Library of the Bridgettine Nuns and their Peregrinations after the Reformation, London, 1991

[3] C. De Hamel, op.cit., p. 57

[4] G.J. Aungier, op.cit., pp. 31-35

[5] T. Taylor, Saint Michaels Mount, Cambridge, 1932, pp. 65-69

[6] Certificate Book CERT #41, 1580, Antwerp, FelixArchief, p. 425 ; T. Robinson, op.cit. p. II

[7]Syon MS 262 Add 1/ B/ 158, Exeter University, Syon Abbey Library, pp. 180-191

[8] The Magnificent contents of Alton Towers, the princely seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury, Messrs. Christie and Manson, 6 July 1857 to 8 August 1857, lots 1435, 1436, 1456, 1956, 3201

[9] G. V. Charlton, List of Relics, etc. in the possession of the Bridgettine Nuns in Lisbon1738 brought to England in 1809, 1935, 3428 Box 50, Exeter University, Syon Abbey Library, nos. 21, 23-26 and 30; Letters by Sir Walter Maxwell Scott and George V. Charlton to Abbess Theresa, Exeter University, Syon Abbey Library, 2218 Box 32, 3652 Box 65 and 1058 Box 13

[10] ‘Proceedings of the Institute’, The Archaeological Journal, XVIII, 1861, pp. 275-276

[11] Ibid.

[12] W. Maskell (ed.), Description of the ivories ancient & mediaeval in the South Kensington Museum, cat. South Kensington Museum, London, 1872, p. XCI and see also W. Maskell, Ivories. Ancient and mediaeval, London, 1875, p. 101

[13] London, V&A Archive, MA/31/3, Art Loan Index Volume C, p. 310 as having been returned to H. Kerr Esq.

[14] Sir Walter Maxwell-Scott to Abbess Theresa, 20 October 1934, Exeter University, Syon Abbey Library, 2218 Box 32

[15] The Magnificent contents of Alton Towers…, op.cit., lot 1956; ‘Proceedings of the Institute’, op.cit., pp. 275-276; W. Maskell, 1872, op.cit., p. XCI

[16] T. Magnier (ed.), Une Renaissance. Lart entre Flandre et Champagne 1150-1250, Paris, 2013, p. 160; D. Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires médiévaux Ve-XVe siècle, cat. Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2003, 274-280, nos. 92-94

[17] T. Magnier, op.cit., pp. 194-195, no. 134; J. Lowden and J. Cherry, Medieval Ivories and Works of Art, cat. The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, pp. 44-45, no. 13

[18] J. Lowden and J. Cherry, op.cit., p. 44

[19] T. Magnier, op.cit., p. 194

[20] T. Magnier, op.cit., p. 162, no. 101

[21] T. Magnier, op.cit., pp. 163, 165-166, nos. 103, 105 and 107

[22] D. Gaborit-Chopin, op.cit, pp. 278-280, no. 94

[23] P. Williamson, Gothic Sculpture 1140-1300, New Haven/ London, 1995, p. 73, pls. 99 and 110

[24] T. Magnier, op.cit., p. 162, no. 101

[25] D. Gaborit-Chopin, op.cit, pp. 293-297 and 300, nos. 100 and 102

[26] J. Lowden and J. Cherry, op.cit., pp. 46-49, no. 14 and Gothic Ivories Project. Statuette (back), available at http://www.gothicivories.courtauld.ac.uk/images/ivory/0fb8fe0e_e5f8b84e.html, [accessed 16 September 2013]

[27] The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Virgin and Child, available at http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/464137?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=17.190.181a%2c+b&pos=1, [accessed 16 September 2013]

[28] L. Vitali (ed.), Avori Gotici Francesi, exh. cat. Museo Poldi-Pezzoli, Milan, 1976, pp. 13-15, no. 1