The discovery of a masterpiece of late Gothic sculpture at Anglesey Abbey
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.
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.
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.
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.
" 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. "
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).
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.
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.