The Wallace Collection

Shrine: The Virgin and Child Enthroned (C25)
Treasure of the Month - March 2004

Shrine: The Virgin and Child Enthroned (C25)

The image of the Virgin and Child venerating the Virgin's maternal role, is amongst the most popular Christian subjects of the Italian Renaissance.

The Child holds a bird, symbol of the soul's flight after death and here a reference to Christ's Crucifixion. The bird may be a goldfinch. Legend has it that the goldfinch acquired its red spot when it plucked a thorn from Christ's brow on the road to Calvary and was splashed with a drop of his blood.

Small devotional reliefs, displayed in homes and on street corners, were popular in Italy until quite recently. This shrine, one of only four devotional reliefs set within Gothic niches to survive in maiolica, is exceptional in several respects. Combining a Gothic canopy shape with the vibrant palette typical of early 16th century pottery produced in Gubbio - the blue, the distinctive green and the dark red and gold lustre - it is a very rare example of a lustred maiolica relief. The decorative motifs, comprising angels' heads, rows of flower heads, tufts and small flames, are typical of early Umbrian production.

Maiolica reliefs were usually cast from sculptural models, but there is no known prototype for this shrine, which was probably made by a potter working in Gubbio. Gubbio was an important centre for maiolica production from the beginning of the 16th century. It quickly became renowned for its distinctive lustre wares, with their metallic red, silver or gold decoration. Many were produced in Maestro Giorgio Andreoli's famous workshop (see case B, number 47).

The challenging technique of lustre production was introduced into Europe by Islamic potters working in Spain (see shelf to left, C2, C7, C3) and spread to Italy in the late 15th century. Lustre was produced as the last stage of the production process. After the second (and normally final) firing of maiolica, a mixture of copper and silver oxides was applied to the areas where lustre was required. An additional firing, in an oxygen reducing atmosphere, resulted in a surface layer of pure metal where the compound had been applied.