Carved Walnut wood with traces of polychromy
During the late Middle Ages, the Netherlands emerged as a leading economic center. The economic boom resulted in the rise of a wealthy class, who demanded the most luxurious objects, all of which were available thanks to local production and increased trade. The most desired goods were sculptures, paintings, tapestries, altarpieces, and metalwork. At the outset, the consumption of these goods was limited to the cities where they were produced. Soon, they began to cross international borders as Netherlandish art became desirable across the rest of Europe.
Of great significance was the export of arts and goods from the Netherlands to the Iberian Peninsula. Luxury items and works of art from Flanders came through the existing sea route between the Cantabrian and Basque ports and those of the Flemish and Dutch coasts, and were later sold in markets in cities such as Valencia, Barcelona and Medina del Campo.
The production of sculpture, almost completely monopolized by the cities of Antwerp, Brussels and Mechelen, helped to satisfy the growing and intense desire for Flemish art. The city of Mechelen, whose workshops were most likely responsible for the manufacture of our piece, specialized in the carving of small altarpieces, as well as small scale representations of the Christ Child, Saints and the Virgin and Child.
Popularly known as "Poupées de Malines" – Dolls of Mechelen – or "Chuletas de Malinas," due to being carved in high relief, the pieces are dated between the second half of the fifteenth century and the first third of the sixteenth century. They exhibit oval faces with fine and soft features, large and smooth foreheads, almond-shaped eyes, straight and sharp noses, thin eyebrows and a small mouth. These are the same qualities seen in our piece. Also, the soft "V" folds in the clothing are typical of many extant examples of such sculptures.
This sculpture of the Virgin and Child depicts one of the most popular themes in Gothic sculpture. Unlike Romanesque sculptures of the enthroned Virgin, a solemn and static model known as Sedes Sapientiae (Seat of Wisdom), the Gothic versions are more humanistic, exhibiting tenderness between mother and child and a greater freedom of movement. The Virgin has long curly hair, which is masterfully carved and her garments are typical of the period. There are many similarities between her clothing and the costumes seen in the paintings of Roger van der Weyden and Hans Memling. She is carrying the infant Jesus in her arms and caresses his foot with a gentle gesture. It is carved according to the standards of dynamism in Gothic sculpture, with the Virgin posed in the famous Contrapposto stance, where one leg is moved forward and used to support the weight of the body, producing a curve in the opposite hip where she is supporting the Christ Child. By employing this technique, the sculpture created an extraordinary and naturalistic effect of fabric in motion.
Unfortunately, deterioration of the polychromy has worn away some of the relief carving and it is difficult to see some of the fine details that the piece would have originally had. It is unclear whether the work was intended to be part of a larger sculptural ensemble, which is also characteristic the Mechelen workshop, where small altarpieces were created specifically for private worship, for both domestic and monastic environments.
El esplendor de Flandes. Arte de Bruselas, Amberes y Malinas en los s. XV -- XVI. Barcelona, Fundación ''La Caixa'', 1999.
Da Flandes e do Oriente. Escultura Importada. Lisboa, Ministerio da cultura, 2002.