“Sedes Sapientiae”

Around 1250
Pine wood/Zirbe?
Height 65.5 cm

Tyrolean private collection

This seated Madonna of the Sedes Sapientiae (“Seat of Wisdom”) type was carved from pine wood in the middle of the 13th century (65.5 cm). Based on the Old Testament throne of Solomon, Mary is depicted with the baby Jesus – the embodiment of wisdom – on her lap. In the 13th century it enjoyed particular popularity and widespread use.

Enthroned on a cantilevered chair, Mary and child are depicted block-like-static. The infant Jesus is shown in the same posture as his mother over her left knee. Mary presses the child against her with her left hand; Jesus holds an orb in his hands, emphasizing Christ’s status as ruler of the world. The facial physiognomy of the figures is strikingly emphasized, with bulging cheeks, forehead and chin. Both are looking straight ahead. Mary wears a veil, and the crown above it appears to be either worn away or the rough surface on the calotte indicates that Mary wore a metal crown. The garment folds of the dress fall straight down her upper body and are worked out voluminously-stylized on the lower body: In a diagonal movement three bowl folds fall over the right knee. Thick strands of folds spread wave-like to the right, bringing an aspect of dynamism to the otherwise rigid composition.

The first known depictions of the Sedes Sapientiae circa 1200 were made of gilded and enameled copper over a wooden core in Limoges, France, again with the child enthroned over the left knee of the Madonna and the folds falling asymmetrically over Mary’s right knee (comparison: Cinquantenaire Museum, Brussels). Especially in northern and eastern France, this type is found in the 13th century, with a strict frontal erect position reminiscent of 11th century examples (Compare: Vierge d’Hermale sous Huy, Musée Royaux d’Art et d’Historie de Bruxelles; Vierge d’Evegnée, Musée diocésain de Liège). However, the throne depicted as a bench and the flat crowns show influences from northern Auvergne and Burgundy. Comparable is a sculpture of the Rijksmuseum, dated ca. 1250-60, because of the headdress of Mary and the sharp-grained drapery. In contrast, the so-called Königsfelder Madonna (ca. 1260) from the parish church of St. Nikolaus in the district of Ahrweiler in Rhineland-Palatinate can serve as the closest comparison: The hair ornament, the crimped hairstyle, the cloak draped over the shoulders, and the drapery of the bowl folds over Mary’s right knee show clear stylistic similarities.