July 20, 2017

The Value of a Keen Eye


This carved stone Madonna is finely rendered, and a treasure worth being cared for.  We know it to be from the 14th/15th century, but how could you determine this dating if you were to simply pass it by in a shop window, or for that matter in the wall of a local church? Every piece of art is a piece of history, and many have a story to tell. When looking at any piece of art or any object to ascertain age, one of the first steps is to look for physical signs, forensic evidence if you will, and work backward just as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s hero of fiction would. We notice four condition aspects straight away on this stone sculpture: weathering, staining, losses, and breaks.  But what do they tell us?

The weathering exhibits itself in the form of rivulets running vertically down the face and body. Clearly defined on the front we simultaneously note that the wear to the back is mottled, not vertically streaked and that the robe lines on the back are much crisper. We also note that on the front side the hair, set under the overhanging crown, retains much more of the original definition in the carving than the surrounding areas.  While examining the back and the front, we see a slightly reddish tinge of staining. The above wear, when considered together, indicates that the carving was outside.  It was exposed to rain, ice, snow, avian droppings, as well as dust and atmospheric soot, possibly over centuries.  The pink colored staining is likely from several sources: dust, soot, and/or metal. The rivulets to the front are signs of corrosive rainwater draining downwards, again over a long period of time.  The lack of wear to the hair and the back, as well as the vertical striations, indicate these areas were protected, and that the front had the greatest exposure. We can deduce that the sculpture was displayed underneath a covered area, with only one side exposed.  We also can infer that this space was possibly a domed or arched niche set into an exterior church wall, or more likely, a ruined early church where it had been venerated in a chapel.

The last two pieces of information we have are the breaks and the lost head.  From the severity of water damage it would seem that this stone is not as compact as marble, nor as soft as limestone, but rather somewhere in between in its composition.  The erosion caused by the water may have weakened the stone allowing it to shatter at one point, or it may simply have taken a fall.  What is most interesting however is not the damage, but the care that was taken in its reconstruction.  Without having a clear history of an object, it is not possible to know where and how long ago damage occurred. The restoration shows, however, that this

When looking at the loss of the head of the infant Christ, we notice immediately the difference in weathering to the surrounding area. This is the last condition we will explore. The break where the head was still has some coarseness, indicating later damage, but we cannot know exactly when the loss occurred. We can only speculate that after the head was broken and lost, the beautiful and mystical allure of the Madonna captured the imagination of a savior, who chose to treasure it and keep it away from further damage by the elements. There are always signs of wear to all works of art claiming to be of any age, however insignificant they may seem.  These signs combine with one another to give us, the contemporary viewer, the confidence to confirm an object as authentic or condemn it as fraudulent.


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