Materia Meditandi: Haptic Perception and Some Parisian Ivories of the Virgin and Child, ca. 1300

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Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art



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Among the many exquisite ivories of the Virgin and Child in the collection of the V&A, the Rattier Virgin, a Parisian work of about 1270, stands out for its delicacy and its fine state of preservation (Figure 1). Viewed in its museum setting, it is an icon of Gothic elegance and refinement, its miniature scale, sumptuous materials, and intimacy of gesture all emblematic of the aesthetic sensibility characterized by Umberto Eco as “vast symbolical ideations [alongside] some pleasant little figures which reveal a freshness of feeling for nature and a close attentiveness to objects.”1 The Christ child’s lively movements seem drawn from observation of how real toddlers behave, his face bears a sweetly inquisitive expression commensurate with his playful engagement with the bird he holds, and his mother gazes at him with the affectionate absorption that very young children do inspire in their adult caregivers. What makes the image poignant rather than saccharine is that these same, deceptively naturalistic visual traits also carry a heavy theological load. The strong chiasmus expressed in the child’s pose inevitably points toward his fate on the cross; the bird, perhaps a goldfinch, is associated with death, and Mary’s tender caress of the pudgy foot calls to mind the nails that will wound that flesh in the course of the Passion.



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