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Humanizing Mary: the Virgin of Jeanne d’Evreux

Virgin of Jeanne d’Evreux, 1324-39, gilded silver, bases-taille enamels on gilded silver, stones and pearls, 68 cm High (Musée du Louvre). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(bright piano music) - [Male narrator] We're in the Louvre in Paris, looking at an extraordinary sculptor from the first half of the 14th Century. - [Female Narrator] This is an incredibly luxurious object, it's made out of silver, covered in gold. Clearly this was made for someone very important and very wealthy. - [Male narrator] In addition to the gold and silver, there's enamel, there are pearls and there's crystal. - [Female narrator] And she originally wore a crown on her head. - [Male narrator] This was likely commissioned by the king of France Charles IV for his wife Jeanne d'Evreux. - [Female narrator] And so this known as the Virgin of Jeanne d'Evreux but this beautiful golden figure is more than a sculptor. - [Male narrator] It's a reliquary, it was intended to hold sacred relics associated with the Virgin Mary. It was given to the abbey of St. Denis, just north of Paris, this was an especially important religious center, it was where the king and queens of France were buried. - [Female narrator] What make this so typical of the Gothic period, is the extraordinary tenderness we see, between the mother and child. Earlier in the Gothic period we saw Mary, represented very frontally holding the Christ child, also positioned frontally on her lap but here Christ is propped up on her hip in a way that seems very natural. - [Male Narrator] And tenderly touching her mouth with his hand. The frontal image that you referred to comes out of the Byzantine tradition but as the Virgin Mary gains increasing prominence in the medieval era especially in western Europe as the cult of the virgin grows there is the introduction of new ways of representing her. - [Femal Narrator] Look at the virgins long neck and the way that tilts gracefully toward the Christ child. In his left hand, he holds a pomegranate. - [Male Narrator] A symbol of resurrection, recalling not the beginning of his life but the end. - [Female Narrator] Which is not unusual in the images of the virgin and child, we frequently see a foreshadowing of Christs suffering and death on the cross. - [Male Narrator] But if it wasn't for the pomegranate, we would have no inkling of that terrible end because there seems to be nothing but tenderness that's represented here. - [ Female Narrator] We see this increasing interest in human emotion, in human interaction, here in this small statuesque but we also see it on the gothic cathedrals that were built in and around Paris. - [Male Narrator] And in fact in Notre dam de Paris, the major cathedral in the city itself, there is a large sculpture that looks quite similar to this. It has the same emphasis on an elegant drapery, on an elegant sway to the body especially the jutting hip and we see it in the manuscript that had also been owned by this queen that is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in one particular elimination that shows the annunciation. - [Female Narrator] To me the sway of the body gives the figure a sense of movement and animation that's incredibly life like but we shouldn't confuse this with the later contrapposto that develops in the renaissance or that we see in ancient Greek in Roman sculpture, where we clearly see a bent knee pressing through the drapery and a figure that's in correct proportion. This figure is very elongated and that sway is not so much created by a body that's realistic but instead on this very complicated curving of the drapery. - [Male Narrator] The metal workers who produced this where taking great care with that drapery, I'm particularly fond of the way that her sleeve wraps over her arm. - [Female Narrator] And I like the way it pulls down at her feet. If we go to the virgins left side, there's this wonderful passage of drapery where it forms a zig-zag pattern down her legs. - [Male Narrator] The figure stands on a base that is itself a work of art. - [Female Narrator] The base is carried by four lions and then we see figures in niches and these frame enamel scenes showing moments from the life of Christ. So for example, we see the annunciation, where the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive Christ and then as we moved around the reliquary, we get the scenes of the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ. - [Male Narrator] Enamel is the addition of usually ground colored glass that's heated on a metal surface and adheres to that surface and creates these lovely deep colors in this case. - [Female Narrotor] And it makes sense to me that the prophets are on the base that the Virgin Mary stands on, the prophets are figures from the old testament who, according to Christian tradition, foretell the coming of Christ and above we see Mary holding the Christ child. - [Male Narrator] The sumptuousness of this sculpture, creates a clear relationship between the political power of the king and queen of France and the spiritual power that the Virgin Mary and Christ represent. (bright piano music)