A new Madonna in town

04 January 2017 | by Joanna Moorhead


It is impossible not to feel overwhelmed by the British Museum. The antidote, as with all museums, is to home in on one gallery or period of history; or even one object – particularly if that object is the museum’s most significant recent acquisition, a comely 30in tall alabaster sculpture of the Virgin Mary and her infant son.

The statue went on show at the museum shortly before Christmas, and even in Room 40, dripping as it is with fascinating medieval Christian artefacts, it has star quality. To begin with, there is the sheer beauty of the piece: café au lait alabaster, intricately and delicately carved, with the standing Virgin, her halo of hair topped by her Queen of Heaven crown, holding her child in one hand and what looks like a flower-studded sceptre in the other.

The infant is clasping a ball that could be an orb, or could be the globe, and is probably both. He has his hand extended over her heart: the sculpture is all about the majesty of Mary and Jesus, but it is also, and touchingly, about love, a mother’s love for her child, and Christ’s love for the world.

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