St Mary’s Figure of Christ
The 13th Century figurine was made in Limoges, France, which was the most well-known European centre for champlevé enamel production during this period. The date ties in with a major phase of rebuilding at St Mary’s Abbey (1271 – 1294) during which the remains that can still be viewed today were built. Such was the financial strength of the abbey – the richest in the north of England – that the new church was built in just one 24 year campaign. It might be presumed that this object was acquired to furnish this newly built and richly appointed building.
The gilt copper Figure of Christ stands at 16cm high. It has remains of enamel champlevé decoration and is embellished with stone settings on the crown, eyes and loincloth. It is incomplete, with hands and feet missing. Delicate cast decoration is displayed on the crowned head, expressive face, finely streaked hair and beard, torso and elaborately embellished loincloth.
Figurines like these were made to be mounted on an enamelled cross, now missing, which would have decorated a religious object such as a manuscript cover or a casket.
Limoges enamelwork is not uncommon but this item is a fine example of work, typical of the style being produced in the 13th century. Most examples are highly fragmentary.
An old adhesive label adhered to the reverse of the object reads “Found in the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey at York: in 1826”. Very few medieval objects, least of all from Limoges, have a known provenance linking them to a major English Abbey as few survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries of the 1530s.
It was rediscovered in 1826, just before the Yorkshire Philosophical Society acquired the land to build the Yorkshire Museum. Prior to this the land was fallow land used for grazing.
It is unknown where the figurine was between 1826 and 1920 when it became part of the collection of Franz Monheim of Aachen (1891-1969) and then passed down to his family.
The item is listed in a Corpus of Limoges Enamels but, being in a private collection, was essentially ‘lost’ to both researchers and the public. By both repatriating and bringing the object back into the public realm the Trust will be able to better reflect the ostentatious decoration of the Abbey church.
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