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Rare sculpture of St Agnes discovered at Anglesey Abbey

A close-up of the wooden sculpture of St Agnes at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire, clearing showing her cradling a lamb. The photo is softly lit and the wood is gleaming.
The St Agnes sculpture at Anglesey Abbey | © Rah Petherbridge

For many years a wooden carving 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 was identified as a rare bust of St Agnes, made in the workshop of Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden and previously thought to have been lost. When Anglesey Abbey is open to visitors, you can see the bust in the Windsor bedroom.

The startling discovery of St Agnes

You might think that there can’t be many discoveries left to be made in the art world, but every now and then another lost masterpiece is uncovered, often in the most unexpected of places. The recent discovery of a beautiful carved walnut bust at Anglesey Abbey of St Agnes was one such startling revelation.

Its maker, Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden, is arguably the most important 15th-century sculptor in northern Europe.

The Sculpture Research Project

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. Six thousand sculptures across 200 National Trust places were visited, recorded and researched.

At Anglesey Abbey, Senior Research Curator Jeremy Warren worked his 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 him to examine.

‘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, National Trust Senior Research Curator

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.

A reliquary of carved walnut

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

The wooden sculpture of St Agnes show sitting on top of a wooden cupboard at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire
The St Agnes sculpture at Anglesey Abbey | © Rah Petherbridge

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, usually protected by a crystal or glass window.

Completing the group

The bust of St Agnes turned 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 Benedictine Abbey owned relics of St 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 late 19th century. Today, the other three are all in American museums: the Saints Barbara and Catherine in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the St Margaret in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Oil painting on canvas. A head-and-shoulders portrait of Lord Fairhaven of Anglesey Abbey facing right, wearing open neck shirt
A 1941 portrait of Lord Fairhaven by Alexander Christie | © National Trust

How the sculpture came to Anglesey Abbey

The 1st Lord Fairhaven, Huttleston Rogers Broughton, acquired the bust of St Agnes sometime between 1932 and 1940 for his home at Anglesey Abbey, where it joined his remarkable and varied collection. He paid just £10 for the carving, no doubt seeing it as a decorative object rather than an important work of art.

In an inventory of 1940, the bust was incorrectly described as ‘The Virgin and the Lamb’ and for many years it was displayed high on top of a cupboard, in a rather dark corner of one of the bedrooms in the house.

Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden

We know very little about Gerhaert. He came from the Dutch town of Leyden but 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 (c.1450-1500), in Germany.

Only around 20 sculptures by, or attributed to, Gerhaert and his workshop are known to survive today. This makes the discovery at Anglesey Abbey of the lost St Agnes, the only sculpture by him in a UK public collection, all the more exciting.

Embarkation of George IV from Whitehall: the Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817, John Constable, RA (East Bergholt 1776, London 1837). Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire

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