Enthroned Virgin and Child, Sedes Sapientiae, Eastern France, last quarter 12th century

Enthroned Virgin and Child

Sedes Sapientiae
Enthroned Virgin and Child

Walnut, with original polychrome
Eastern France, last quarter 12th century


77 cm; 2 ft. 6⅓ in.
28 cm; 11 in.
27 cm; 10⅔ in.


Dr. Paul Wallraf Collection, Rheydt-Cologne 
Louis Bresset Collection, Paris, 1970s 
Private collection, Japan


Museum Schnütgen, Köln, Grosse Kunst des Mittelalters aus Privatbesitz, 23 April – 6 June 1960


Museum Schnütgen, Grosse Kunst des Mittelalters aus Privatbesitz, exhibition catalogue (Schnütgen-Museum, Köln, 23 April – 6 June 1960), p. 27, no. 32, pl. 27

This outstanding early work depicts the Enthroned Virgin and Child or Sedes Sapientiae (the ‘Seat of Wisdom’ or ‘Throne of Wisdom’). The Latin phrase likens the Mother of God in majesty to the Throne of Solomon, the Prophet King, referring to her exalted status as a vessel of the incarnation carrying the Holy Child. The association of the Blessed Virgin with glory and teaching in this tradition was popularised in Catholic imagery from the mid 11th century. 

Mary sits, enthroned, in a strict frontal upright position, the Christ Child placed on her left knee sitting with the same formal posture, a book opened to face the viewer resting on his knees and held with his left hand. The head of the Virgin is oblong with a high forehead, a long angular nose sloping to the right tip, the globes of her eyes protruding absent sculptured eyelids, the corners of her mouth drooping slightly, with a large space between the bottom lip and chin. 

Both Mother and Child wear flat crowns decorated with cabochons, that of the Virgin carved in part possibly to secure a later central addition. Mary’s short hair appears from beneath a veil, half covering her ears, which rests on the nape of her neck. The hair of the Christ Child sits smoothly in front, sweeping to the back in large loops sitting high on the neck. 

The large round pleated collar of the Virgin’s tunic sits tight covering her shoulders, reminiscent of liturgical attire, lapel-like sections of gathered ribbon emerging from underneath. The reverse reveals a double fold in the fabric undulating at the hips. The sleeves, tight on the upper arms, flare at the wrists, a slight pleating evident at the left elbow and wrist. A separate narrow fold of material with zigzag pattern, tied belt-like at the waist, hangs over the Virgin’s right knee. Her pleated dress falls to rest just above the ground, stopping at the underside of the ankles. Her feet sit flat on the base of the throne, the front section of her shoes visible. The same patterned narrow fold of fabric drapes over the left shoulder and down the left side of the Christ Child, the end of his mother’s tie emerging below his feet exposed from beneath his similarly pleated tunic. 

The Virgin is seated on a bench throne comprised of four pillars, her scooped seat topped with a cushion. The right side of the throne shows an arch segment. Dowel holes can be seen at the four corners of the seat suggesting that there may have been later fixations of ornamentation, spheres or columns. 

Save for the left hand of the Virgin which rests protectively on the left knee of her son, she, the Christ Child and the throne were carved from a single piece of wood. Traces of the tools used are visible – chisel marks can be seen at the base and reverse of the throne; the left arm of the Virgin has a surface with light facets which were not sanded. The entire work was carved from the one block with the core placed at the back, a design driven by the desire to reduce the risk of exposed cracking following shrinkage over time. 

Importantly, there are significant remnants of polychromy. The face of the Virgin has several layers, partial removal at the left eye revealing that the original iris and pupil was placed high in the middle of the eyeball and that a more recent pupil was centred in the lower plane. The initial position of the pupils gave the statue the hypnotic look found in similar early Romanesque works such as the reliquary bust of Saint Césaire in Sainte Foy de Conques (Maurs, Cantal) and Saint Peter de Bredons (Puy de Dôme). On the robe of the Virgin are large fragments of what is undoubtedly the original polychromy, an extremely rare feature of wood carvings of the 12th century. Clearly visible on the reverse are sections of grey-green and orange circles with white centre points set against a fine vermilion red background, a palate most likely adopted in an attempt to imitate the decoration of Byzantine silk. The veil has a green-blue tone with white points and red borders, an under-tape visible at the upper left hand side. The Christ Child is dressed in a clear shirt covered with a coat decorated with dark red dots. The cabochons adorning the crowns are alternately red and green. The open pages of the book show traces of red lines and inscriptions in black. 

Stylistically, the strict frontal upright positions of this group are similar to the earliest examples of Enthroned Virgins and Child such as the Vierge d'Hermale sous Huy (now in the Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire de Bruxelles) and the Vierge d'Evegnée (now in the Musée diocésain de Liège), both of which are dated to the 11th century. However, several elements indicate the influence of the Christ in Majesty of the Massif Central and Burgundy of the 12th century – the bench throne of northern Auvergne and Bourbonnais, the flat Burgundy-style crowns. The flat crowns decorated with cabochons, Mary’s short veil and the flared cuffs of the sleeves suggest an origin of the eastern parts of present day France: Jura, Franche-Comté or Vosges, regions subject to the influences of workshops of the surrounding plains. 

Although earlier examples of Christ in Majesty can be found with the Virgin’s feet flat on the base of the throne (such as the reliquary bust of Sainte Foy de Conques), the position of the flat feet and the ankle length dress which does not reach the ground point to a date of production in the last decades of the 12th century. The physiognomy of our Virgin is similar to that of the bust of Saint Césaire: they exhibit the same oblong face to the right nose tip, protruding eyeballs, slightly drooping corners of the mouth and, importantly, the same large space between mouth and chin. 

In exceptional original condition, this magnificent representation of Romanesque imagery is of the greatest rarity and highest quality.

SOLD: Private collection, Jersey