Baltimore Madonna turns out to be the genuine article Authentic: Carbon-14 testing indicates that an ivory Virgin at the Walters is not a 19-century impostor after all, but the real 13th-century thing.

July 28, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

For years, a Madonna carved from ancient ivory has resided at the Walters Art Gallery amid shadows cast by art-historical misgivings. Lately, however, the figurine has been basking in the glow of scientific approbation.

In repose, the Madonna appears serene and secretive. She is not what she seems: She opens up to form a triptych -- a set of three panels -- carved with intricately fashioned biblical scenes.

Called "Vierge Ouvrante" -- and known among international scholars as the "Baltimore Virgin" -- the small, pale statue is extremely rare.

There are only three similar ivory objects in the world, all of them in France. They reside in museums in Lyon and Rouen and at the Louvre in Paris. Stylistically, the French carvings resemble the Walters artwork.

But each of the three is generally accepted as a fake.

Most scholars agree that the French ivories resemble work that was done in the 13th century, but they were probably carved in the early 19th century, says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters.

And because of this, a debate has long swirled around the Baltimore Madonna. Is it, too, merely a very good fake? Many reputable art scholars argued yes.

But this summer, to the astonishment of everyone at the Walters, it emerged once again that the Vierge Ouvrante of Baltimore is not what she seems.

Results of carbon-14 testing recently completed at Oxford University in England indicate that the ivory from which the figurine was carved dates from 1020 to 1220, museum officials announced.

And, they say, the figurine is real.

"It's a surprise. I don't know how else to put it," Vikan says. "This test was like a lottery card. You think, 'Well, maybe when I scratch that little circle, it will be a $10 winner.'

"But I would have bet against this one."

The Baltimore Madonna is on display at the Walters through Oct. 6 as part of an exhibit called "To Arrest the Ravages of Time." The sign that identifies the figurine, however, now will have to be changed, museum officials say.

Curators theorize that the Madonna was made in the Limoges area around 1200 to 1240, says Kelly Holbert, museum curatorial assistant. It was brought to Baltimore in 1908, five years after Henry Walters bought it in New York for an unknown amount.

Its provenance can be traced as far back as 1792 -- to an abbey near Limoges, says Holbert in a telephone interview from France where she is researching the three French carvings. But for years, the Madonna and the two parts that open, which curators refer to as "wings," were separated.

During the French Revolution, the priory near Limoges was dissolved, and a nun named Anne Hugonneau took the wings to her brother's home in Saint-Mathieu.

The main portion of the statue was claimed by a man named Chaperon, the abbey's land agent, Holbert says.

Over the next 106 years, the Madonna, still in two parts, was handed down among families (and occasionally passed among acquaintances). Records indicate that in the 1820s-1830s, the "wings" were glued together and a string was tied around them so that children could play with them as though they were a pull toy.

In 1898, the pieces were reunited under the ownership of the Hugonneau-Beaufet family, says Holbert. Two years later, the Madonna was sold to a Parisian dealer for 1,360 British pounds. The dealer sold it to a London collector named Sir Thomas Gibson Carmichael.

From Carmichael the statue went to a London dealer -- who brought it to New York, where Henry Walters saw it.

The Walters' discovery may mean that the Madonna is the only one of its kind known to exist. And as word of the test results travels, scholars worldwide are reconsidering its place in art history -- and are taking another look at the three French works of art.

"I am quite surprised about the Walters piece, actually," says Neil Stratford, keeper of medieval and later antiquities at the British Museum in London.

"It has always been something which has been argued over. But you see, stylistic judgments in art history are always to some extent subjective. If that piece is genuine, then it's very, very amazing."

The carbon-14 test determined the age of the ivory, says Terry Drayman-Weisser, director of conservation and technical research at the Walters. But it also raises many other questions.

If the Baltimore Madonna is authentic, what about the three French ivory triptychs?

Or, if the French pieces are fakes, then perhaps the Baltimore Madonna was the model the forgers copied. If so, how did the forgers -- working during the early 1800s -- have knowledge of the original, which was in two pieces in two different places during those years?

Could there have been another source of inspiration for the forgers?

"I feel confident that [the Baltimore Madonna] is a good piece. Its status has risen in the museum and eventually its value in the history of art will be elevated," says Weisser, adding, "It will be interesting to see how scholars react to this discovery."

Nonetheless, the Madonna remains shrouded in mystery.

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