New discovery of a museum alabaster Madonna

This seated Madonna figure (height 36 cm) made of alabaster can be attributed in its execution to the workshop of Gil de Siloé (1440s-1501), the leading and most important Spanish sculptor around 1500, who worked in Burgos.
De Siloé’s origins are not entirely clear; he came from either Orléans or Antwerp, and his works exhibit both French and Flemish characteristics. The sculptor was commissioned by Queen Isabella of Portugal to execute numerous sculptural projects in both wood and stone, including the royal tombs. He designed the sculptural decoration in Burgos Cathedral; of particular note is the double tomb in alabaster for Juan II and Isabella of Portugal in Caruja de Miraflores, completed in 1493, which is known as one of the richest tombs in Spain, and whose funerary sculptures are stylistically very related to the Madonna described here.

Gil de Siloe, Sitzende Madonna
Workshop of Gil de Siloé, Madonna, c. 1500

Mary is depicted seated on a throne bench with a prominent base plate, as seen in the funerary sculptures. These figures are shown in a similar type, namely representative-seated and holding attributes. It is not the throne that is the focus, but rather the far-reaching seated posture of the Virgin with her arms open in a semicircle, with her right hand holding the naked Child Jesus pressed against her. The coat falls harmoniously over her shoulders and glides across her lap, where the heavy folds fall to the floor in crease and corner configurations in a typical V pattern. The drapery is rendered in a play of naturalism and stylization, characterized on the one hand by the thin undergarment, which emphasizes the figure’s narrow waist gathered with cord by her posture; tightly fitting, it falls over her belly into her lap. On the other hand, the luxurious brocade-like cape emphasizes the volume of the figure. The enthroned Hope (Esperanza) and Maria lactans of the Tomb show strong compositional similarities, also in the folded trajectories hitting the ground.

Looking at the details of the surface decorations, they can be found on the hem of the neckline as well as on the rich crown, which here probably simulates a metal ring set with precious stones. The typical Gothic hair of Mary falls in long wavy strands over her chest, while the child from the calotte shows volute-like curls spreading behind a noble high forehead. The elongated mannerist-thin fingers of both sculptures are also typical features of the Gothic period. De Siloé’s figures also show incisively elaborated, heavy eyelids. The less rich folding of the above-mentioned comparative examples can probably be explained by the larger context of the works as well as the intended uniformity or the collaboration of different sculptors of the workshop. Particularly outstanding in this figure are the unfolded triangular hems and the folded-over lap fold, which in their idealized disorder testify to naturalistically thought-out calculation.

These compositional and stylistic characteristics also apply to the enthroned Madonna in the Cleveland Museum of Art, which is also attributed to the workshop of De Siloé and is dated around 1480. Both the profile of the seat (without accessories) and the compositional posture strongly resemble the Madonna figure presented. Nevertheless, the latter is depicted less floating and more connected to the human sphere, as the child leans back playfully and does not balance on a fragile bowl fold like the child of the Cleveland Madonna. In addition, the figure is more richly decorated overall, both in the more animated drapery and, for example, the snail-shaped curls of the baby Jesus. On both figures traces of gilding and bolus are preserved and testify to the original rich decoration. The fact that these remains of mounts are present reflects the great age and authenticity of the figure.

Although the naturalistically depicted facial features and gestures are close to reality, the sculptural elaboration is primarily representative-idealizing according to its function. It is probably a private devotional painting in its own right, probably commissioned by a noble patron. This is particularly compatible with the smaller size; the sculpture was placed slightly elevated here, as Mary’s gaze is lowered downward, while the child is rapt and looks sideways upward. This fits well with Mary’s role as intercessor between her Son and the faithful, as well as with the growing popularity of Marian devotion in late medieval Europe.


Siloe, Gil de. In: Hans Vollmer (ed.): Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Founded by Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker. Volume 31: Siemering-Stephens. E. A. Seemann, Leipzig 1937, p. 27.

Gil de Siloe, Hoffnung

Workshop of Gil de Siloé, Hope (Esperanza), alabaster, sculptural decoration of the alabaster tomb for Juan II and Isabella of Portugal, completed in 1493, Caruja de Miraflores, Burgos.
Photo ©

Gil de Siloe, Maria

Workshop of Gil de Siloé, Maria lactans, alabaster, sculptural decoration of the alabaster tomb for Juan II and Isabella of Portugal, completed in 1493, Caruja de Miraflores, Burgos.
Photo ©

Gil de Siloe, Thronende Jungfrau mit Kind

Workshop of Gil de Siloé, Enthroned Virgin and Child, ca. 1480, alabaster.
Photo © Cleveland Museum of Art



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