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Art history students uncover statue’s origin

| By Stephanie Weaver
The Virgin and Child statue
The Virgin and Child statue. Photos by Marjorie Allen, '14.

For years, a statue of Mary and baby Jesus was hidden in plain view in the Loyola/Notre Dame Library, waiting to be rediscovered.

Finally, it caught someone’s eye.

Kerry Boeye, Ph.D., assistant professor of art history, noticed the statue tucked away in a display case on the Library’s second floor. He began questioning the Library staff about the statue, wondering when and why it came to the Library.

All the Library staff knew was that The Virgin and Child had been given to the Library, probably in the late 1960s or early 1970s, by a nun at what is now Notre Dame University of Maryland. The Library has no documentation of the transaction. The piece was likely on display at eye level until the Library’s renovation in 2006, when The Virgin and Child was apparently moved to a location next to a stair where it was easily overlooked.

Given the lack of information, Boeye decided to make a research project for his students, since the project offered a rich hands-on experience in art history or museum studies courses.

“It’s been gratifying as a teacher because it’s really the students’ work,” Boeye said. “It’s nice for them to have created something that has a visible outcome from a class—something that’s not a paper—and is going to be seen by a lot of people and have a lasting impact.”

Uncovering the Past

The wooden carving of The Virgin and Child may not look like much to the common eye, Boeye’s students said, with a laugh. In 1967, H.E. Sloane appraised the statue at $2,750, and it would probably not fetch much more on today’s art market.

“We know it’s not the prettiest object in the world, but it’s one of the oldest objects on campus, and it’s valuable in that way,” said Emily Inglis, senior art history major and student in Boeye’s class.

The work began in Boeye’s Gothic Art and Architecture course in spring 2014. The students researched the origin based on the material and subject matter. Through their coursework, the students determined that the statue was a devotional statue dating back to the late 14th century in northern Spain.

Originally, the 2-foot-high statue would have been mounted on a column against a wall or pillar of the church. Boeye said church-goers would have prayed before, and perhaps even kissed, the Virgin and Child.

The piece was once painted—brightly and boldly, almost gaudy to our eyes today, Boeye said. The paint was removed sometime in the 19th or early 20th century, when the market for medieval art developed, and a dealer scraped the paint off and stained the object to make it more saleable.

Displaying the Statue

After uncovering the statue’s origin, Boeye decided to continue to have his students play a role in the statue’s life. In his Museum Studies course in fall 2014, students spent the semester creating a plan to properly display the object in the Library.

The Virgin and Child will be displayed in a glass case, at eye level, beside the Saint John’s Bible. Boeye hopes the juxtaposition of these objects will encourage a dialogue about the historic objects. 

In addition to the real-life museum studies experience the students have gained, the long-term project has helped the Library staff, said Anna Clarkson, head of archives and special collections for the Library.

“The project has been extremely rewarding not only for the students, who gain real world experience, but also for the staff of the Library and its patrons, whose knowledge grows through their findings,” Clarkson said. “Through their inter-disciplinary research, the Library’s understanding of the work has greatly increased in the areas of provenance, conservation, preservation, display, attribution/authorship, as well as the religious and cultural history of the object within the material world.”

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