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Ivory Madonna from the convent of Santa Clara in Estella in the British Museum


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Diario de Navarra

Clara Fernández-Ladreda Aguadé

History, History of Art and Geography Dept.

Among the works of art that left Navarre is the statuette of the Virgin and Child carved in ivory from the convent of the Poor Clares of Estella. The existence of this sculpture in the Estella monastery was made known by Javier Hermoso de Mendoza in his blog, in 2012, who published a photo of it, indicating that it had been sold in 1901. At that time its whereabouts were unknown, but, later, Mikel Zuza in his blog, in 2016, identified it with an image owned by the British Museum (No. 1978.0502.3 of inventory).

The community, pressed by the needs, was forced to sell it. The documentation reveals that the operation was set in motion in 1901 -culminating in 1902-, mentions the price -30,000 pesetas- and quotation as buyer to a French antique dealer -Julio Anieu-. Shortly after, it went to England, to the collection of Sir Julius Wernher, where it was when the nobleman died in 1912. In 1978 it was acquired by the British Museum.

Its departure meant a loss B for the heritage of Navarre. Indeed, it is a piece of excellent quality, as can be seen from the photos we publish, and as demonstrated by its acquisition by a museum of the level of the British Museum and its inclusion in two of the most important exhibitions of medieval art in recent decades, Les Fastes du Gothique. Le siecle de Charles V (1981) and L'art au temps des rois maudits (1998). The damage is aggravated by the fact that, although Navarre possesses several Hispano-Muslim ivory works -such as the famous Leire chest-, it has not preserved any Romanesque or Gothic ones. 

The Virgin, a little more than 30 cms. tall, is seated, and presents a very elongated torso and an accentuated curvature, supposedly due to the format of the elephant tusk in which she was carved, although lately it has been pointed out that this feature is not exclusive to ivories, but appears in works from other Materials - goldsmithery, miniature - which would question the explanation. The left arm encircles the body of her son, while with the right she holds -with sophisticated gesture- a small hollow tube perhaps destined to hold a metallic floral attribute. The left foot crushes a small dragon -a demonic symbol-, evoking Mary's triumph over Satan; the presence of this animal is an exceptional, though not unique, feature. The Child, standing on Mary's left knee, rests his right hand on his mother's breast and with his left hand he holds the typical poma.

 Mary covers her head with a short veil fastened with a crown of which only remains and wears a tunic tight to the waist with a strap belt enriched with motifs in relief, on which she wears a long cloak whose lower half is divided from right to left and has in its center a striking V-shaped fold. Jesus' clothing is reduced to the tunic. These garments were enriched at the neck and edges with rich golden and polychrome borders, partially preserved.

The throne is decorated with three-lobed pointed arches over which runs a border of rosettes that adorns the upper edge.

The Estella sculpture is very similar to a series of statuettes of the seated Virgin and Child, also carved in ivory, belonging to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (no. 4685-1858), the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The group and specifically the Estella image has also been related to the famous ivory Virgin of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, with which it has notable coincidences -general composition, the presence of a dragon under the left foot and the decoration of the throne-. These parallels have led to include them in the same chronological framework -between 1300 and 1340 approximately- and to attribute them to the same focus -Paris-, although the Villeneuve-lès-Avignon image is attributed to a different workshop. The Virgin of Estella is dated specifically between 1310 and 1330. 

According to an old tradition -which dates back at least to the beginning of the 17th century, as it was recorded in a manuscript graduate Fundación, reedificación y privilegios de los reyes, written by the abbess Violante Guerrero in 1616- it had been donated to the convent by Queen Doña Blanca (1425-1441), who in 1430 had rebuilt the monastery -giving the neighboring royal palace of Estella for this purpose- and gave this carving as a gift, along with other precious objects. Although not all authors agree with agreement, the information is plausible, given that the Infanta had a nun of Santa Clara de Estella -Gracia Périz- as her teacher and showed other signs of interest in the fate of the monastery. In any case, the exceptional quality of the piece and the provenance of the Parisian workshops that worked for the French court point to a member of the royal family as the donor, if one takes into account the close ties of the Evreux dynasty with France - specifically with Paris - and with the French Crown. In view of the chronology attributed to him, it is possible to think that he had entered the family in the time of Doña Blanca's great-grandfather, Louis the Hutin -king of Navarre since 1305 and of France since 1314- or of her grandparents Joan II (1328-1349) and Philip of Evreux (1328-1343).