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Christ Church Cathedral in 25 Objects: Madonna and Child

Written by Tom Bower, posted on Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Plucked from a Premier League of brains, piety and money, many of the Great and Good in our Cathedral are announced by looming, posthumous fanfares of stone. Some of these worthies we recognise, but others have faded, a distinguished life reduced to a patch of quaint, decorative script that is understood by few and read by even fewer.


These notables are, pretty much, all men. Elite women are also present, but few seem to warrant swags of Baroque marble, or a carved display of implements hinting at some much-lauded professional life (it is often some much-lauded, gruesome death).

Apart from stained-glass windows, how are the mortal (and immortal) celebrated? A slab in the floor remembering so-and-so is rarely a must for the casual visitor, but statues… everyone remembers those. Some attract particular attention: Peter Eugene Ball’s aetherial Madonna and ChildFrideswide, for example, holds a pose that seems to lure gum-chewing, selfie-dependent tourists while, paradoxically, maintaining an air of one having beautiful thoughts, of waiting.


But the statue I want to look at is a woman with a child who look as if they have no truck with waiting. They’ve made it already and own the austere watching loft, perched on the end in an unashamedly blingy fashion. This Mary’s got Jesus (in a proud-mum kind of way), but even His presence won’t upstage her. All the same, she’s still earned her place in the Cathedral the way most other women have: purity, obedience and devotion to duty. Recognition through material gain, plaudits and, occasionally, just sheer staying power, has been, until relatively recently, for peacocks, not the hens.


This little ‘Madonna and Child’, and Peter Eugene Ball’s wonderful modern interpretation of the same subject, are a foil for each other. Ball’s sculpture is a supplicant Madonna and Child seeking communion with God, waiting to receive. The smaller one is already In Glory and asking for little except admiration for her Son. He’s also God’s Son, of course, but this is her moment.


A Madonna and Child, even a (reputedly) 18th Century one from Germany, is perhaps a strange object to pick, as it’s only been there since the 1930s. Canon N P Williams, Lady Margaret Professor of Theology, found it in a bookshop in London and donated it after a restoration and repaint (many thanks to Jim Godfrey for this information). The colour does look extremely authentic and, despite its excellent condition, antique: it is, in fact, so good that it’s easy to forget there are cars out there with older paint jobs than this.


Mary and Baby Jesus inhabit, along with Ball’s version, the Lady Chapel. This, together with the Latin Chapel, is a sort of historical Women’s Corner, but don’t think it’s a place for a historical submissive simper: there’s the Virgin Mary (twice), Saint Frideswide (there’s loads of her) and Lady Elizabeth Montacute. It’s like having one’s mother, Greta Thunberg and the Queen all pitch up at the same table. Any cowering male could seek sanctuary in the more masculine Memorial Chapel – except that, even there, a sadly beautiful Edith Liddell presides over all from a glorious afterlife in glass.


So, what of our little statue’s genes? From Russian icons to church garb, some aspects of Christianity have little time for transient fashion, and that is possibly the case here. Jesus is consistent, but Mary has a 16th Century face and dress bordering on the Mediaeval with very Renaissance decoration on it. Let’s put this down to a restorer’s inner vision. The statue’s original appearance was probably determined by Roman Catholic tradition, the crown and opulent robes indicating what many faithful would consider not just Jesus’ but also Mary’s proper place in a celestial hierarchy.


A fearless vitality pervades Catholic art and attracts me every time, whether in naïve votive paintings executed by frighteningly confident local artists in Mexico or Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of Saint Teresa’ in St. Peter’s. Our diminutive sculpture has that spark and is considerably past the middle point when it comes to skill.


This skill is, in part, down to the carving, and that’s the German bit. From anonymous Rood Screen figures to Riemenschneider’s dynamic altarpieces, Teutonic fascination with crumpled cloth is matched amply by the ability to convey it armed with merely a few gouges and a mallet.  Let’s face it; if you’re absolutely surrounded by something like wood, it makes good sense to be fabulous with it.


Does this piece belong in Christ Church? Perhaps, in this case, we are able to put aside Theology and just find simple pleasure in this little statue that was rescued, restored and put in our Cathedral because someone with no marble swags, fanfares, nor fame, loved it and simply wanted to find it a home worthy of its beauty.