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Sedes Sapientiae (fragment)

Origin / Date France, 1150-90
Material Wood (perhaps poplar)
Dimensions 40cm high
Availability Not for sale


‘Une douce dame du douzieme…’

Sedes Sapientae (Fragment)
France c. 1150-90
Probably poplar, remains of original polychromy as well as early subsequent layers, probably from the 13th or 14th centuries.
overall height 40cm, with the head from chin to base of crown 12cm.

The role of the Sedes Sapientae or Seat of Wisdom figure in the High Middle Ages is well-known and it had perhaps become the most popular devotional figure in Christendom by 1200, found from Spain to Sweden. In France this may have been helped by the decision around 1150 at Chartres, a Cathedral dedicated to Mary, to show a Sedes on the tympanum (Royal portal south door), followed soon after by Notre Dame in Paris (St Anne Portal) modelled on it and other works such as the Crespieres group in the Louvre.
At that time the main production centres of this kind of statuary in France were still the Auvergne and the Pyrenees, providing two styles, the former more Byzantine, with round veil and hieratic frontality, of less broad physiognomy, crowned, and varying the dress and veil types. It seems that in the second half of the twelfth century a northern French version became prominent, of which ‘La Diege’ (MNMA Paris) and the Harvard Art Museums figure are the best (and almost only) examples, characterised by greater refinement and elegance. These perhaps followed the Chartrain impulse just mentioned. Other surviving northern examples, in stone, the women on the archivolts of Senlis cathedral of the 1170s, also share this model. The present figure has something of the severe facial symmetry characteristic of the best-preserved early Gothic work, the Queen from Compiegne in the Louvre.

This unique head has the half-length veil and large crown type also seen in examples from Cerdagna in the Pyrenees (Virgins of Hix and Ger (Barcelona MNAC) but the oval face and greater refinement of the northern figures. The collar type, here beautifully preserved, is one current in the second half of the twelfth century, in all regions, the most famous examples again found on some figures of the Royal Portal st Chartres, and this latter’s Visitation group on the south door tympanum also features the wavy hair and scooped folds.
One figure, virtually a stand-alone, that is very close in head-type, is the so-called Beaulieu (Correze) Sedes, silver-clad, and which, by virtue of several traits as well as of geography can be argued to be a link between the Pyrenean, Auvergnate and ile de France types.


Excepting a number of famous manuscripts, vanishingly few works from the twelfth century have come down to us intact or unaltered. Again, among the fragments vanishingly few posses what ultimately remains the sole quality, - often hard to define and fleeting as a glimpse, - that gives its value to a work of art: beauty.  If styling this head as the Nefertiti of the Middle Ages would err on the side of hyperbole, it would also be a mistake to underestimate its quiet attractiveness, which no photography can convey, for it is without doubt among the most accomplished and arresting heads from the surviving 12th century Sedes groups. Most importantly, being in a virginal state, without any restoration or intervention, it is also an important witness to canons of feminine beauty at the time. As with all early sculpture this partly relied on the painted finish, as can here be seen on the polychrome remains of hair strands on the true left side. Nevertheless, it is a beauty perfectly captured by the still Romanesque delicacy and refinement of the sculptural treatment, undiminished by its fragmentary state, and one that brings us closer to understanding why the faithful were prompted to prayer when in the presence of the douce dame par excellence, most blessed of women.


Private collection French Pyrenees.

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