The discovery of a masterpiece of late Gothic sculpture at Anglesey Abbey

Jeremy Warren, Sculpture Research Curator Jeremy Warren Sculpture Research Curator
Bust of St Agnes

For many years, a wooden carving of uncertain attribution was displayed on top of a cupboard in a bedroom at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire.

As part of the National Trust's Sculpture Research project, the carving has recently been identified as a rare bust of Saint Agnes made in the workshop of Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden, arguably the most important 15th-century sculptor in northern Europe.

Jeremy Warren, the Trust's Sculpture Research Curator, discusses the discovery of this masterpiece, previously thought to have been lost to the art world.

A startling discovery

Although it might be thought that there can be almost no discoveries left to be made in the art world, every so often news emerges of another lost masterpiece uncovered, often in the most unexpected circumstances.

The recent discovery at Anglesey Abbey of a beautiful bust made in the workshop of Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden (active c.1462, d.1473), one of the greatest sculptors of the late Gothic period (c.1450-1500), was one such startling revelation.  

The bust, carved from walnut, is a half-length portrait of Saint Agnes, an early Christian saint and martyr. She can be identified by her attribute of a lamb, cradled in her left hand. 

Reliquary bust of St Agnes, workshop of Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden, c. 1465, walnut / Anglesey Abbey NT 514456
Reliquary bust of St Agnes,
Reliquary bust of St Agnes, workshop of Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden, c. 1465, walnut / Anglesey Abbey NT 514456

Just below Agnes’s neck there is an oval recess, now plugged with another piece of wood. This tells us that the bust must have been made as a reliquary, an object designed to hold some tangible part of a Christian saint or other holy figure, such as a bone. 

Reliquaries were quite often made in the form of half-length figures, intended to represent the saint whose relics they contained. The recess in the front of Saint Agnes would therefore once have held one or more relics of the saint, no doubt protected by a crystal or glass window. 

An oval recess beneath Agnes's neck, now filled with another piece of wood, tells us this bust would have originally contained a relic
An oval recess beneath the Agnes's neck
An oval recess beneath Agnes's neck, now filled with another piece of wood, tells us this bust would have originally contained a relic

The bust was bought before 1940 by the 1st Lord Fairhaven for his home at Anglesey Abbey to join the remarkable and varied collections being assembled by this avid collector. Lord Fairhaven paid just £10 for the carving, no doubt regarding it as pleasingly decorative rather than an important work of art. For many years now, it has been displayed high on top of a cupboard, in a rather dark corner of one of the bedrooms in the house. 

Huttleston Rogers Broughton, 1st Lord Fairhaven, 1942, by Alexander Christie (1901–1946) / Anglesey Abbey NT 515438
Portrait of Lord Fairhaven
Huttleston Rogers Broughton, 1st Lord Fairhaven, 1942, by Alexander Christie (1901–1946) / Anglesey Abbey NT 515438

The fruit of painstaking research

In 2018 the National Trust embarked upon the Sculpture Research Project, thanks to support from the Royal Oak Foundation, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. Along with colleagues Alice Rylance-Watson and Anna Moore, I have been visiting 200 National Trust places to record and research all 6,000 sculptures in our collection.

In due course I visited Anglesey Abbey, where I worked my way through the varied and impressive collection of over 300 sculptures. While in the Windsor Bedroom, this wooden bust, then understood to be a 16th-century bust in chestnut by the Flemish school, was brought down for me to examine. 

Most medieval reIiquaries are stiff, armless affairs, so it was astonishing to be confronted with such a wonderfully lively and naturalistic sculpture. At close range, the intimate relationship between the saint and her lamb is powerfully suggested through the masterful carving of the subject's hands and fingers, some of which have been skillfully restored. It was immediately clear that this was no ordinary devotional work of art. 

Three different views of the reliquary bust of St Agnes
Three different views of the reliquary bust of St Agnes
Three different views of the reliquary bust of St Agnes
" Most medieval reliquaries are stiff, armless affairs, so it was astonishing to be confronted with such a wonderfully lively and naturalistic sculpture... It was immediately clear that this was no ordinary devotional work of art.  "
- Jeremy Warren


Fortunately, because of the existence of a plaster cast in the Cathedral museum in Strasbourg, where Niclaus Gerhaert worked in the 1460s and produced some of his greatest works, the bust could be quickly identified. 

We know very little about Gerhaert, who came from the Dutch town of Leyden, but who is mainly documented as working in Strasbourg, then a German city, and Vienna, where he died in 1473.  Because of the expressive and naturalistic approach he brought to his sculptures, Gerhaert was undoubtedly one of the most innovative and influential sculptors of the late Gothic age in Germany. 

Completing the group 

The bust of Saint Agnes turns out to be one of a group of four reliquary busts of female saints, made in Gerhaert’s workshop for the Benedictine Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul in Weissenburg (today’s Wissembourg in Alsace).

Two of the four busts are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. St Barbara (left) and St Catherine of Alexandria (right), the workshop of Niclaus Gerhaert von Leiden, c. 1465, walnut
Two busts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Two of the four busts are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. St Barbara (left) and St Catherine of Alexandria (right), the workshop of Niclaus Gerhaert von Leiden, c. 1465, walnut

We know from documents that the Abbey owned relics of Saint Agnes and of the other three saints in the series, Barbara, Catherine and Margaret. The four reliquary busts may have been placed within a major altarpiece in the Abbey, no doubt destroyed during the years of the French revolution, which is probably when the relics contained in the busts also vanished.   

A third bust is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Reliquary Bust of Saint Margaret of Antioch, Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden and workshop, 1465–1470, walnut
Bust of Saint Margaret
A third bust is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Reliquary Bust of Saint Margaret of Antioch, Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden and workshop, 1465–1470, walnut

Perhaps the high artistic quality of the four busts ensured their survival from destruction. They came on to the art market in Paris in the later nineteenth century. Today the other three are all in American museums, the Saints Barbara and Catherine in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Saint Margaret in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Only around twenty sculptures by or attributed to Gerhaert and his workshop are known to survive today. This makes the discovery at Anglesey Abbey of the lost Saint Agnes, the only sculpture by him in a UK public collection, all the more exciting.

Collecting sculpture for Anglesey Abbey

The German oak cabinet and limewood statue of St Christopher in the Dining Room at Anglesey Abbey

A taste for sculpture

Lord Fairhaven amassed a wide-ranging collection of sculpture, including this limewood sculpture of Saint Christopher. He may have collected early Northern European sculpture to add to the 'Gothic' character of Anglesey Abbey where he lived from 1926 until his death in 1966.

Bust on top of wardrobe

From on top of a wardrobe to pride of place

Lord Fairhaven acquired the bust of St Agnes some time between 1932 and 1940. In his inventory of 1940, the bust was incorrectly described as ‘The Virgin and the Lamb’ and for many years it was displayed on top of a cupboard, as seen here. When Anglesey Abbey is open to visitors, the bust forms part of the object trail ‘A History of Anglesey Abbey in 10 Objects’.

Flaxman sculpture

More about our sculpture collections 

From enormous monumental marble statues to miniature carvings in ivory, learn more about our diverse and important sculptures on the National Trust Collections website.