‘The image of Mary is the Christian rejoinder to the Crucifix… The Madonna is not a pretty, ideal figure for the elevation of the uncouth - a figure in which the cultured find no satisfaction; it is an image of man in his true relation to God as the Crucifix is the image of God in his true relation to man.’ 1
This exquisite relief is a variation on the Madonna / mother and child motif, which first appeared in Gill’s sculpture in 1909 and which he reimagined extensively. The artist typically worked in stone or wood and thus the present sculpture, one of just three pieces he is recorded to have produced in ivory, is notably rare.
In Gill’s earliest works on this subject, the Madonna is depicted nude, offering her breast to the Christ child seated on her lap. This overtly sensual portrayal was not in keeping with religious art and Gill was seen as ‘breaking with a long tradition, and in a most startling way.’ 2 In a later 1920 stone relief, Gill adopted a different approach, placing the Madonna and Child face to face in an intimate embrace. He went on to make a number of variations on this pose, typically showing the two figures with haloes. This work marked Gill’s turn towards a more traditional representation of the subject, reminiscent of Byzantine icons and indeed this influence is evident in the present work, whose composition relates directly to Gill’s wood engraving for a Christmas card - Madonna and Child: The Shrimp, 1922 - and prefigures his Divine Lovers group of prints and sculptures made soon after.
Gill drew inspiration from a variety of historical and religious sources, including the sculptural decoration of Chartres Cathedral, the reliefs of Chichester Cathedral, the carved porches of Malmesbury Abbey, Kilpeck Church, and Ely Cathedral - a plaster cast of a 12th century relief of the Madonna and Child from York Cathedral hung in his stone carving workshop.
Here, the polished surface of the ivory lends this relief a lustrous, ethereal quality. The material also enabled the artist to carve fine details, such as individual strands of the Virgin’s hair, the crease of the eyelids and to delineate the sections of swaddling cloth wrapped around the body of Christ. The highly stylised forms and very low relief technique is highly comparable to Assyrian and Egyptian relief work, both styles admired by Gill for their simplicity and force.
1 The artist in an essay titled ‘Art and Love’, Art Nonsense and Other Essays, London, 1929, p212-214, cited in Judith Collins, Eric Gill, The Sculpture: A Catalogue Raisonne, Herbert Press, London, 1998
2 Ibid, p23
Made for Douglas Pepler (1888-1951)
Fine Art Society, 1988
London, Goupil Gallery
Salon, November - December 1922 (possibly cat no.400?) London, The Fine Art Society, Spring
1988, 3 May- 3 June 1988, cat no. 57, illus b/w p.62
on long loan to the Victoria & Albert
Museum, London, 1988-2016
Judith Collins, Eric Gill The
Sculpture, A Catalogue Raisonné, Herbert Press, London, 1998, cat no.125,
illus b/w, p.129 Marjorie Trusted, Baroque and
Later Ivories, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2013, pl 202 illus
colour, pp219 (detail), 220.
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