, or Beautiful Madonnas
, are among the most recognisable and sought-after works of art from a distinctive artistic movement that emerged in Europe around 1400. Throughout the continent, artists departed from the generally more expressive style of the 14th century and introduced a more refined language. It focused on decorative effects which were intended to evoke a fairy-tale environment for the viewer. Graceful silhouettes, a serene charm, and a voluminous drapery style characterised by sinuous cascading folds became the leitmotivs
of the style, as exemplified in this enchanting Virgin and Child.
It was the House of Luxemburg, the ruling family of Bohemia, that gave rise to the prototypes for the Schöne Madonnen
: the statues of the Virgin and Child from Krumlau, Pilzen and Altenmarkt. Their grace was achieved through a set of stylistic traits that would come to characterise all the Schöne Madonnen
and influenced sculpture throughout Europe. The Virgin was represented with a pronounced contrapposto
supporting a usually very lively Child on her hip with both hands. His position counterbalances the sway of his mother. Swathes of drapery suspended from one or both arms were given volume and lightness by arranging them in zig-zag folds. Lastly, both the Virgin and the Child have an expression and physiognomy with a somewhat grave sweetness, lending to the figures the noble air for which the Beautiful Madonnas
have become so well known.
The present Virgin and Child exhibits the characteristic features of the Bohemian prototypes while adding a particularly high level of human interaction. Both Virgin and Child gaze at the viewer, the dynamically positioned Christ Child alert and open-mouthed as if speaking, extending His left hand in what seems to be a gesture of blessing. His right touches the orb presented by the Virgin, a variant of a feature that appears frequently in Schöne Madonnen
. However the Virgin's youthful features and the short broadness of Her form locate Her not in Bohemia but in the area around Salzburg. This Prince-archbishopric of the Holy Roman Empire eagerly absorbed the exciting new style from nearby Bohemia, yet imbued it with a heavy opulence.
The present Schöne Madonna
compares well with several Austrian examples. The relaxed folds of drapery around the Virgin's proper right arm relate to one of the earliest Madonnas
from the Salzburg school, that in Grossgmain (Legner, op. cit.
, no. 43). A slightly later Madonna
in Salzburg, the so-called Maria Säul of circa 1520 (Legner, op. cit
., no. 47) exhibits the same S-curve and positioning of the head, as well as a similar outline of the proper right knee underneath the drapery. Compare also the limewood Madonna
from Ranoldsberg, dated 1435-1440 (Grossmann, op. cit.
, no. 55). Particularly close parallels for the present Virgin are found not in a Madonna but in a figure of St Agnes
formerly in the Gustav Rau collection, which was sold in these rooms on 2 July 2013 (see also Guillot de Suduiraut, op. cit
., no. 4), catalogued as Salzburg, circa 1520. Note, in particular, the narrow, heavy-lidded eyes, and corresponding arrangement of the drapery.
D. Grossmann, Schöne Madonnen: 1350-1450
, exh. cat. Salzburger Domkapitel, Salzburg, 1965; A. Legner, Spätgotik in Salzburg: Skulptur und Kunstgewerbe 1400-1530
, exh. cat. Neues Haus, Salzburg, 1976, pp. 59, 61; S. Guillot de Suduiraut (ed.), Sculptures allemandes de la fin du Moyen Age dans les collections publiques françaises 1400-1530
, exh. cat. Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1991; G. Schmidt, 'The Beautiful Style', B. Drake Boehm and J. Fajt (eds.), Prague. The Crown of Bohemia 1347-1437
, exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Prague Castle, New Haven and London, 2005, pp. 105-111
The present lot is offered with a Radiocarbon dating measurement report (ref. no. RCD-8694) prepared by J. Walker of RCD Lockinge, which states that the wood dates between 1290 and 1403 (95% confidence interval).