The Golden Virgin of Essen - Queen and Mother

Since the 10th century, on the eve of the Feast of the Purification on February 2, a canoness in charge of the Essen Abbey treasury would hand over the Golden Virgin, to the youngest canon of St. Michael Church. The canon would carry the statue in his arms, carefully wrapped in his own cloak, to the church. Early on the morning of the Holy Day, the precious image was carried - veiled - in a solemn procession back to the Essen Abbey where it was received by the Abbess, unveiled and capped with a precious imperial crown. This celebration continued on and off for a millennium, until significant changes – first in the guise of the Reformation with its unrests, then wars, and later the frail condition of statue's armature, made it impossible for the image to be handled for prolonged periods of time.

The Golden Virgin of Essen, a masterpiece of Ottonian art, is widely acknowledged to be the first free standing large-scale image of Our Lady venerated and carried in processions in Christendom. The Essen crown is also a first in its kind – first crown made intentionally for a statue of the Virgin, crafted in gold, decorated with gems and natural pearls, and most importantly featuring the first artistic instance of a lily flower, a symbol that will later also be associated with the French monarchy. It is believed that both the statue and the crown were commissioned by the Abbess of Essen, Mathilde, granddaughter of Emperor Otto the Great. Essen was an abbey and church for women from eminent families; over decades, abbess-princesses built up a treasury there that owed its spectacular holdings to their refined taste and no doubt material affluence that made acquisition of such amazing liturgical and devotional artefacts possible. As a matter of course, devotion of these ladies built one of the most significant and impressive liturgical and religious art collections in history - the Golden Virgin with Crown being their hallmark possession.

The identity of the workshop or the artists who might have crafted this statue for the Essen Abbey are unknown, but it is almost certain that the statue was made around Cologne area were a number of master goldsmiths resided, not far from the Cathedral. Similarities between the august Gero crucifix and artwork in the Essen treasury are easily discernible; besides, nowhere else that style was as yet practiced in Europe. The Golden Virgin shows Byzantine influence – with its large eyes, straight narrow nose, and small mouth – very much like one would expect to see in an icon. Nonetheless, the statue has a clearly Western modelling, exhibiting certain ease of form and a nascent liberality of expression that will reach its zenith in the Renaissance and Baroque carvings.

The statue was first crafted from wood, most likely a fruit tree. Among several possibilities, pear or plum tree are usually privileged as most likely sources of material. The wood carving was then entirely covered in delicate sheets of pure gold, cut and modelled according the surface where they were applied, fastened together by minute golden bolts. Faces of the Virgin and Child were hammered from single sheets of gold each – a mark of singular achievement in precious metalworking. The eyes are enameled. The Virgin is depicted seated with Child Christ resting in her lap – perhaps as an iteration of the Seat of Wisdom. While she wears a dignified yet simple robe and veil, the child is shown in a formal pontifical gown. He presses a small, gem decorated book to his breast while the Virgin is holding what is generally acknowledged to be an apple – an indication of her role as a new Eve. The spiritual efficacy and fecundity of Our Lady is implied with the use of gold, enamel, as well as fruit and flower symbolism. Certainly, the Christ Child easily reposing in her lap is the most important reason she wears a crown modelled on no less than imperial precedents. It is also an unequivocal declaration that the Golden Virgin shown to the faithful only during major liturgical solemnities was venerated as Queen of Heaven.

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