Heritage100

Virgin and Child Ivory

Virgin and child ivory

...a rare and important survival...

This is a rare and important survival of a Christian devotional object dating from the early 14th century. It was unearthed in the “Nun’s burial ground” at Romsey Abbey during excavations by antiquarian W. J. Andrew in 1922. Probably of French workmanship, the object is carved from elephant ivory, and traces of red paint survive in places.

Following the excavation the ivory was retained by Andrew, who exhibited it at the Society of Antiquaries in London in 1927. After Andrew’s death the ivory was sold at Sotheby’s in 1934 and effectively disappeared for more than sixty years.

In 1997 the ivory was offered for sale in Paris, and after raising the funds, it was acquired by Hampshire County Council museums Service.

One unfortunate occurrence between 1934 and 1996 was the loss of the Child’s head. This was restored by a conservator prior to the sale. The conservator suggested that the base of the ivory may have carried an inscription, but that is no longer visible today.

Quick Facts

  • Accession number A1998.20
  • Made of elephant ivory
  • Made in France
  • Dimensions Height 135mm
  • Found at Romsey Abbey (nun's burial ground), Romsey, Hampshire
  • Date made Early 14th century (about 1300-1325)

Facts

  • In the 1934 sales catalogue the item was described as follows –

    “the Virgin crowned is seated supporting the Child who is standing on her left knee, the Child is holding an apple in his left hand and gazes at a flower held by the Virgin in her right hand, the Virgin wears a close-fitting garment girdled at the waist and covered with an outer robe which falls in graceful folds to her feet, traces of red colouring.”
  • W.J. Andrew’s excavations of the “Nun’s burial ground”, to the east of the cloisters at Romsey Abbey, also recovered bones, coffin nails and other remains, but no records appear to exist of the discoveries. Many of the finds were displayed at Broadlands in the Saloon until the 1940s, but were then sold to an antiques dealer at Lyndhurst.
  • W.J. Andrew was also responsible for excavating a “hanging bowl” and other items from an Anglo-Saxon burial at Oliver’s Battery near Winchester, which can now be seen on display in Winchester City Museum.

Did you know?

Scandal struck the nunnery at Romsey Abbey in the early 14th century. In May 1315 the abbess Alice de Wyntershull died after less than five months in office. The consternation this must have caused was heightened when the King (Edward II) issued a commission “touching the persons who killed Alice de Wintreshulle, late abbess of Romsey”. The affair seems to have blown over though judging by a letter from the Bishop ordering the excommunication of anyone speaking the slander that the abbess had been poisoned.

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