✜ The Thrones of Wisdom ✜ (Dennis Aubrey)


Some of my favorite photographic subjects are these Throne of Wisdom madonnas, captivating and powerful iconographic images of the Romanesque era. Most of these are small (30 inch/76 centimeters), polychrome wooden statues from the 12th and 13th centuries. The Sedes Sapientiae(“Throne of Wisdom”) is an icon of the Mother of God in majesty and was found throughout Romanesque Europe.

Notre Dame de Seu, Seu d’Urgell (Lleida) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

These Vierges have some interesting characteristics; Mary is not usually a young mother, but a mature woman. The child is small, but is not depicted as an infant or a baby, but rather more like a small adult. Both look directly ahead at the beholder. In few of these sculptures will we find the maternal warmth of the Renaissance Madonna and Child or the sorrow of the Mater Dolorosa. Instead, there is often a distant look, as if Mary is looking into the future, into the sacrifice that will be demanded of both herself and her Son. This image of Notre Dame d’Heume is from the small town of Heume l’Eglise in the Puy-de-Dôme exhibits that wonderful melancholy.

Notre Dame d’Heume, Heume l’Eglise (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is a group of these figures that are blackened (sometimes intentionally and sometimes through the processes of time) that have reputations for working miracles. They are, as a whole, revered as a type, as Black Madonnas. The French, who have the largest collection of them in the world, identify them as Vierges Noires. It doesn’t matter if they were not originally black, or were repainted. This very blackness of the Madonna changes the iconography of the Throne of Wisdom in some way that provokes a very powerful response. There is a great deal of speculative nonsense surrounding them, but no representation of the Mother of God was so especially venerated and they were often the specific objects of pilgrimage.

Notre Dame de Meymac, Saint-André et Saint-Léger, Meymac (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Some people profess to see the faces of these Vierges in the faces of young women in the countryside where they were carved. In the Pyreneean town of Villefranche-de-Conflent we had the extreme good fortune to meet a local priest, a hermit who carved crucifixes for the local churches. Father Joseph Raaymakers was an entertaining, generous soul who let us shoot to our hearts content in this wonderful church, and even brought out for us a lovely Vierge that was hidden from sight. Father Joseph maintains that he has gone to villages and has seen in the face of a young woman the exact visage that was represented in these ancient carvings. “Go to Montserrat,” he said, “and you will see the Madonna walking in the town.”

Notre Dame la Brune, Basilique Saint Philibert, Tournus (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

As a carver himself, he is completely confident that his predecessors modeled the features of their beloved Madonnas on people who they knew. Looking at the astonishing Notre Dame d’Estours from Monistrol d’Allier, one would be hard-pressed to think that this beautiful face was summoned up from someone’s imagination.

Notre Dame d’Estours, Monistrol d’Allier (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

When taken as a set, these Throne of Wisdom madonnas carry enormous symbolic power, which I find compelling. In the reborn and rejeuvenated Romanesque world of France, these images symbolized the saving grace of the Church, and the protective embrace of one they considered the Mother of us all.

Notre Dame des Fers, Notre Dame d’Orcival (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

If you are interested in seeing more of these images, please see the Via Lucis website.

For those who are interested, here is another post on the subject.

11 responses to “✜ The Thrones of Wisdom ✜ (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I agree, these sculptures definitely have the same eschatological sense that Pope Benedict 16th speaks of in his important book The Spirit of the Liturgy. Iconographers must have been working in the vicinity of the workshops that produced these images, or, the sculptors were familiar with Greek or Byzantine iconography and shared their sense of spirituality.

    • Paul, there are many theories of the source of the style – since most of them date from the time of the Crusades, it is certainly a possibility that the Byzantine models had penetrated into France. Many of the stories of these Vierges are based on the statues being brought from the Holy Land by returning crusaders. Thanks for your commentary and your close attention.

  2. One cannot help but sense the mitachondrial DNA of Byzantine iconography in these images as a source of style. One asks whether the French craftsmen were looking at three dimensional eastern prototypes or transliterating from two dimensional or relief carved Byzantine icons. One also revels in the originality and inventiveness of the French wood carvers.

    They make me want to re-read Linda Seidel’s book, “Songs in Stone,” which deals with the eastern enthusiasms that crusaders brought back to western Europe.

    Many thanks for posting this.

    • Michael, it seems to me that the iconography is derived from Byzantine models; there probably were many examples available, both two- and three-dimensional. But the execution was French – the native Auvergne style of these Vierges exemplifies this. The great book to read on this is, of course, Ilene Forsyth’s “The throne of Wisdom: Wood Sculptures of the Madonna in Romanesque France”. Thanks for your contribution to this fascinating topic.

    • Absolutely, Elliott. Many times. Notre Dame des Fers from Orcival was actually painted black as a “Black Madonna” until a recent restoration brought her back to her polychrome glory. Many of the statues were stained with soot from candles and required restoration and repainting. Some of them, however, have paint that goes back far into the past. We have only shown the best preserved of the Vierges. Take a look at this one, Notre-Dame de Bon-Espoir in Dijon.

  3. Pingback: Part Two: Icons, Icon Painters, and Praying With Sacred Icons « Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts

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