The Virgin Mary: Woman, Mother, Queen

Exhibition at the Niguliste Museum - Art Museum of Estonia Foundation

Art Museum of Estonia

Presentation of Christ in the Temple (1445) by Master of the Lichtenstein CastleArt Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary: Woman, Mother, Queen

The Virgin Mary is the most prominent and beloved woman in Christian culture. She is a lasting presence: in the past, the present and the future. She accompanies us through images, stories, thoughts, prayers and songs. A magnificent and majestic queen, a caring and loving mother, and a gentle and shy maiden: as the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary embodies both the divine and the worldly. Through the centuries, she has served as the intercessor and mediator between the earthly life and the afterlife. The meaning of the Virgin Mary can be different for everyone: she addresses people in different ways, and venerating her has grown over the course of time and changed with the development of Christianity. The images presenting Mary embrace her presence: through them she is here and now. Two of the most important types of images in the Christian culture depict the Mother and Son together. The image of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child celebrates the beginning of all things and birth, sharing with the viewer the closeness and warmth between the Mother and Son, the Mother of God and humanity. The image of the crucified Christ with his mother presents the end of the journey of the Son of God here on Earth. Such spiritually charged images have, over time, helped the viewer to partake in, comprehend and experience the joys and sorrows of the Mother of God.

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

The exhibition tells of the life of the most prominent woman in the Christian world through medieval and Early Modern art: altarpieces, paintings, sculptures and objects. All of them historically originate from the churches of medieval Livonia (present day Estonia and Latvia) and their stories closely relate to the local history and cultural memory. The journey through the story of the Virgin Mary proceeds through works of art that possess their own narratives and paths through time. The exhibition includes the oldest and most valuable medieval artworks from Estonia and Latvia, including a sculpture of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child (1270s) from the Kaarma church and a sculpture of the Virgin Mary in childbirth (second half of the 14th century) from Vormsi. Two sculptures from the Ruhnu church, which date back to the early 14th century and are currently in the National History Museum of Latvia, will be exhibited for the first time in Estonia. Small ceramic holy figures and pictorial plates from the 15th century, which were discovered in 2018 during the archaeological excavations in Jahu St. in Tallinn, will also be exhibited for the first time. One section of the exhibition is devoted to works from the permanent exhibition of the Niguliste Museum which manifest the story of the Virgin Mary. / The exhibition curator: Merike Kurisoo

The Retable of the High Altar of St Nicholas’ Church in Tallinn (1481) by Workshop of the Lübeck Master Hermen RodeArt Museum of Estonia

The Family of the Virgin Mary 

The presentation of the family of the Virgin Mary is connected with the significance of the human nature of Christ as the Son of God and his being born as a human being. The Bible does not mention the descent and parents of the Virgin, and the first stories were written down during the period of Early Christianity. In the course of centuries, dozens of new legends connected to her family history arose. Mary’s mother, Anne, developed into one of the most beloved saints: she was venerated as an influential grandmother and mother. During the Late Middle Ages, the entire cult of the Holy Kinship became a focal point, having been compiled with the purpose of explaining the discrepancies in the New Testament pertaining to Jesus’s family and next of kin. Later, Anne’s parents Emerentia and Stollanus were added to the family tree, as well as Anne’s sister Esmeria, who John the Baptist was descended from. 

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View. (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

St Anne Altarpiece. Original location: the Pühalepa church. Second half of the 15th century. Art Museum of Estonia

Anna Herself the Third, the group presenting St Anne, the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, symbolises the earthly trinity and introduces the maternal family of Christ. St Anne is enthroned in the corpus of the altarpiece. The Virgin Mary, depicted as a young girl, is sitting on her left knee, wearing a crown as a reference to being the future mother of Christ. The altarpiece, from the Pühalepa church on the island of Hiiumaa, was taken to Riga before the First World War, whence it reached the collections of the Art Museum of Estonia in 1922.

The Family Tree of the Virgin Mary. A drawing from the manuscript. Tallinn City Archives by 13th–14th centuryArt Museum of Estonia

The Family Tree of the Virgin Mary. A drawing from the manuscript from the book from the library of the Tallinn Dominican Friary, Innocentius III. Ritus celebrandi officium missae. Tractatus de sacramentis. Versus. 13th–14th century. Tallinn City Archives

On the trunk of the three-branched tree, St Anne’s face is depicted inside a medallion shaped like a leaf, and the branches bear the families of the daughters Anne had from her three marriages. The middle branch carries the Virgin Mary and three leaves grow out of it, the most imposing of them symbolising Christ. The other two branches represent the families of Anne’s two other daughters, Mary Cleophas and Mary Salome.

Wings of the altarpiece from the Kaarma church. EELC Kaarma Sts Peter and Paul Congregation by Jacob van Utrecht, Lübeck workshopArt Museum of Estonia

Wings of the altarpiece from the Kaarma church. Holy Kinship on the outer sides of the inner wings. Jacob van Utrecht, Lübeck workshop. 1520s. EELC Kaarma Sts Peter and Paul Congregation

The mother of the Virgin Mary, Anne, and the legend of her three marriages are at the centre of the Holy Kinship. In the story of Christ’s maternal family, St Anne and her three daughters are the most significant women. Anne is sitting in the foreground, holding the small Christ Child. Opposite them is the Virgin Mary, inviting the child into her embrace; next to her is her sister Mary Cleophas, with her four sons: James the Lesser, Joseph the Just, Simon and Judas Thaddeus. Anne’s third daughter, Mary Salome, is with her, as well as Mary’s sons James the Greater and John the Apostle. According to the legend, five of Jesus’s cousins were also his apostles.
The wings of the altarpiece were parts of the altarpiece of the Kaarma church, assembled from the parts of several retables in 1547 as a donation from the owner of the Kaarma manor, the administrator of the Saaremaa diocese Berent Berg and his wife Jutta von Uexküll. The work has been deposited in the Saaremaa Museum.

The Holy Kinship Altarpiece by Brussels workshopArt Museum of Estonia

The Holy Kinship Altarpiece. Original location: one of the churches of Tallinn. Brussels workshop. Around 1500. Art Museum of Estonia

The late medieval pictorial programme of the altarpiece was dedicated to the Holy Kinship. Only three of the original figures of the corpus have survived: the Virgin Mary, her sister Mary Salome, with her son James the Greater, and their mother St Anne. They were surrounded by the other members of the Holy Kinship, with their children.
The original location of the altarpiece is unknown, but it is very likely it came from one of the churches of Tallinn. In 1652 the town council of Tallinn sold the altarpiece to the Jüri church in Harju County and the pictorial programme of the work was changed at that time. Beginning in 1870, the work was located in the Provincial Museum of Estonia, and since 1940 it has been in the collections of the Art Museum of Estonia.

The Holy Kinship Altarpiece. Outer side of the wing with the vision of Emerentia by Brussels workshopArt Museum of Estonia

The Holy Kinship Altarpiece. Original location: one of the churches of Tallinn. Brussels workshop. Around 1500. Art Museum of Estonia

The outer sides of the wings of the Holy Kinship altarpiece present four scenes from the lives of the grandmother of the Virgin Mary, Emerentia, and Mary’s mother Anne. In the first painting, Emerentia is on Mount Carmel together with the Carmelite monks and receives a vision that she will become the progenitor of Christ. A plant is growing out of her womb, with the Virgin Mary as its flower and Christ as its fruit.

The Holy Kinship Altarpiece. Outer side of the wing with the birth of St Anne by Brussels workshopArt Museum of Estonia

The Holy Kinship Altarpiece. Original location: one of the churches of Tallinn. Brussels workshop. Around 1500. Art Museum of Estonia

The second picture depicts the birth of Anne, the third the marriage of Anne and Joachim, and the last one presents Anne and Joachim giving alms to the poor. Anne’s life story followed the tradition of the Old Testament, where mothers chosen by God were childless for years before giving birth.

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

St Anne with the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Original location: the Kaarma church. 15th century. EELC Kaarma Sts Peter and Paul Congregation

Anne, clad in red and green garments, is holding her daughter, the Virgin Mary, in her left arm. The figure of the Christ Child, in her right arm, has not survived. During the Middle Ages, red and green became Anne’s colours: the first of them symbolises love and the latter rebirth, referring to her being the one who gave birth to the Virgin. The sculpture, found in the 1990s in a room on the first floor of the tower of the Kaarma church, is located in the Saaremaa Museum.

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

The Retable of the High Altar of St Nicholas’ Church in Tallinn (1481) by Workshop of the Lübeck Master Hermen RodeArt Museum of Estonia

The Mother and the Son 

The Virgin Mary with the Christ Child is the best known and most beloved type of Christian image, emphasising God becoming human and the closeness between the mother and the son. The scenes of the birth and childhood of Christ are also connected to the events that followed: the death of Jesus and salvation. The presentation of the mother and son changed and developed over the centuries. During the 5th century, the church officially came to venerate Mary as the Mother of God. In the High Middle Ages, images of the influential enthroned Virgin Mary were replaced by images of a mother tenderly holding her little son and interacting with him. Such images presented Mary as the Mother of God and helped believers understand the story of Christ’s birth, as well as emotionally experience the bond between the mother and the son.

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary with the Christ Child from the Kaarma Church. Saaremaa MuseumArt Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary with the Christ Child. Original location: the Kaarma church. 13th century (1270s). Saaremaa Museum

Originally of exceptional quality, the sculpture has been damaged through the centuries: the right side of the figure of Mary and most of the bench have perished. The sculpture, made in the 1270s, probably originates from Lübeck and is one of the oldest surviving medieval sculptures in Estonia. It was found in the late 19th century in the space above the vaults of the Kaarma church and was taken to the museum of the Research Society of Saaremaa.

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary with the Christ Child. Original location: the Ruhnu (Runö) church. Around 1300–1320. National History Museum of Latvia

The Virgin Mary is seated on a low bench. In her left arm, the Christ Child is looking at his mother.
The Ruhnu sculpture have been dated to a period prior to the first records of the island, in 1341. Until 1774 the six medieval sacred statues were located on the high altar of the Ruhnu church, and then they were placed in an outer niche above the entrance to the church. Only four of the six sculptures have survived. In 1892 the sculptures were taken to the Riga Cathedral Museum; since 1930 they have belonged to the collections of the National History Museum of Latvia.

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

St Anne or the Virgin Mary. Original location: the Ruhnu (Runö) church. Around 1320. National History Museum of Latvia

A woman is seated on a throne, gazing towards the viewer. Both of the hands of the figure have been broken off. It is likely a sculpture of the Virgin Mary originally with the Christ Child in her arms, but it has also been assumed to depict St Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary.

Presentation of Christ in the Temple (1445) by Master of the Lichtenstein CastleArt Museum of Estonia

Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Panel painting from a retable. Original location: Sebenstein Castle near Wiener Neustadt. Master of the Lichtenstein Castle. Around 1445. Art Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary, with the Christ Child in her arms, is standing in a small church. Mary is handing the child to Simeon, a pious old man who was told by the Holy Spirit in a vision that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah. A young woman is standing on the right-hand side of Mary, bearing a basket with two doves as a purification offering. In accordance with the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, the parents of a newborn could, after 40 days of purification, present the child in the temple and sacrifice a pair of doves.
The painting was originally a part of an altarpiece consisting of sixteen panels located in the castle of Sebenstein near Wiener Neustadt. Fourteen of the panels from the altarpiece depicting the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ have survived and belong to different art collections all over the world. The Tallinn painting initially belonged to the collection of the Liphardts and was located in Tartu, in the Raadi Manor.

The Virgin Mary in Childbed. The Estonian-Swedish organisation Friends of Swedish Culture (1350/1450)Art Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary in Childbed. Original location: the Vormsi (Ormsö) church. Second half of the 14th century. The Estonian-Swedish organisation Friends of Swedish Culture (Svenska Odlingens Vänner)

The Virgin Mary in Childbed depicts the young mother resting together with her newborn child. The nativity scene has here been reduced to the most significant elements: the mother and son. The sculpture, which could either have been independent or a detail from an altarpiece, was located in the Vormsi church until the Second World War. In 1944 the Estonian Swedes fleeing from the island took the sculpture with them and it was deposited in the Swedish History Museum until 2006. Today it is located in the Tallinn Swedish Church of St Michael’s.

The Virgin Mary and the Christ Child with a Rosary. Tartu Art MuseumArt Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary and the Christ Child with a Rosary. Original location unknown. Around 1500. Tartu Art Museum

The seated young mother has lowered her gaze, and her son, in her lap, has turned his gaze towards the viewer. The Christ Child is holding a rosary made of pearls and precious stones: in the Middle Ages, the Virgin Mary or the prayer Ave Maria was compared to the heavenly rose. Each bead in the rosary marked a different prayer. The number of beads in a rosary varied. The rosary in the painting indicates five groups of ten Ave Maria (Hail Mary prayers); after each ten prayers, a Lord’s Prayer followed. Before the Second World War, the painting was part of the collection belonging to Professor Karl Schlossmann, the first President of the Estonian Academy of Sciences and the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Tartu.

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary with the Christ Child. Original location unknown. Around 1500. Art Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary, clad in a golden cloak, is holding in her arms the Christ Child, who is gently touching his mother’s chin. The masterfully executed relief presents the original rich gilding and polychromy. We can see the colours of the Virgin Mary – blue and red – in her dress and in the lining of the golden cloak. Reliefs of St Peter and St Paul, similar in size and style, also belong to the collections of the Art Museum of Estonia. All three were originally parts of the same altarpiece.

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary with the Christ Child from the altarpiece of the Lääne-Nigula church. Around 1510-1520. Art Museum of Estonia

The crowned Virgin Mary is standing as the Queen of Heaven, holding the Christ Child. The masterfully executed sculpture was probably made in Lübeck and has been attributed to the prominent woodcarver Henning van der Heyde. Together with St Nicholas and John the Apostle, it is one of the three surviving figures of saints originating from the corpus of the altarpiece of the Lääne-Nigula church. The work reached the collection of the Art Museum of Estonia probably in 1921. The corpus and its wings were destroyed in the Second World War.

The Passion Altarpiece. Outer Wing with the Virgin Mary and Apostle James the Greater (1520/1525) by Paintings of the outer side of the wings by Michel Sittow and his workshop (?)Art Museum of Estonia

Four saints are standing on the closed wings of the altarpiece: the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child, Apostle James the Greater, St Adrian and St Anthony the Great. These re-paintings date back to approximately 1520, as the wings originally depicted four Franciscan saints. An earlier image was partly used in painting the Virgin Mary. She is handing a white rose to the Christ Child – a symbol of virginity and paradise, marking the unity of Christ and the church, mother and son.
The altarpiece may originally have been commissioned for a church of the Franciscans. After the repainting of the outer wings of the 1520s, it was probably located on the altar of the private chapel of the Lippe family, located in the cloister of the Tallinn Dominican Friary. It is likely that the saints on the outer wings were painted by the Tallinn-born Netherlandish artist Michel Sittow, who lived in Tallinn during the last years of his life, in 1518–1525. In the Lutheran period, in the mid-16th century, the altarpiece was turned into an epitaph and it was located in St Nicholas’ Church until the Second World War.

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

The Annunciation. Baptismal bowl. Nuremberg workshop. 15th–16th century. Art Museum of Estonia

The scene of the Annunciation is depicted in the middle of the baptismal bowl. The kneeling Archangel Gabriel, holding the sceptre, a symbol of power, is addressing the Virgin Mary standing behind a lectern, bringing her the joyous news of the imminent motherhood of the Virgin. Above Mary’s head is the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and the rays proceeding from it symbolise the Immaculate Conception. Similar baptismal bowls adorned with biblical scenes were, during the 15th to 17th centuries, predominantly made in Nuremberg. The widespread bowls had both secular and religious uses. In Estonia, similar bowls were used in baptisms primarily during the Early Modern Period. This particular bowl originates from the private collection of Johannes Mikkel.

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

The Retable of the High Altar of St Nicholas’ Church in Tallinn (1481) by Workshop of the Lübeck Master Hermen RodeArt Museum of Estonia

The Retable of the High Altar of St Nicholas’ Church in Tallinn. Workshop of the Lübeck Master Hermen Rode. 1478–1481. Art Museum of Estonia

The focal point of the open view of the double-winged retable adorning the high altar of St Nicholas’ Church is the Virgin Mary and her family. In the most eminent position, the Virgin Mary, being crowned by her son, is seated on the Throne of Paradise together with Christ, who is blessing her.
In the middle of the lower row, we can see the Virgin Mary, together with her mother Anne and the Christ Child standing between them.
Symbolically, the Holy Kinship, depicted in the open predella, support St Anne, the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. There are eight half figures in the centre, among them Anne’s three husbands and the husbands of her daughters. Lesser known members of the Kinship – Anne’s sister Esmeria and the families of her children – are depicted in the paintings on the wings.

The Retable of the High Altar of St Nicholas’ Church in Tallinn (1481) by Workshop of the Lübeck Master Hermen RodeArt Museum of Estonia

The Retable of the High Altar of St Nicholas’ Church in Tallinn. Workshop of the Lübeck Master Hermen Rode. 1478–1481. Art Museum of Estonia

On the left wing of the closed position of the altarpiece, the Virgin Mary is standing as the Queen of Heaven, together with the virgin saints St Catherine and St Barbara. The Christ Child is wearing a rosary. His right hand is touching the martyrdom attribute of St Catherine, the sword. This refers to the saint’s dream in which the Virgin Mary gave her away in a mystical marriage to Christ.

Altarpiece of the Virgin Mary of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads by Master of the St Lucy Legend from BrugesArt Museum of Estonia

Altarpiece of the Virgin Mary of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads. Master of the St Lucy Legend from Bruges. Before 1493. Art Museum of Estonia

The pictorial programme of the double-winged altarpiece is dedicated to the Mother of God. The open view presents the Virgin Mary and the child, together with the soldier saints St George and St Victor of Marseille. The Christ Child is holding a carnation, a reference to his Passion. There are lilies and irises in a vase in the foreground, symbols of the Virgin’s purity and sorrow.

Altarpiece of the Virgin Mary of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads by Master of the St Lucy Legend from BrugesArt Museum of Estonia

The second view presents the scene of the Double Intercession, in which Christ, accompanied by angels holding his attributes of Passion, is kneeling in front of the enthroned God the Father. John the Baptist is standing on the right, and the Virgin Mary on the left; at their feet are kneeling donors. The Double Intercession carried the idea of gradual salvation. The Virgin Mary, baring her breast, which nurtured her son, turns to Christ to pray for the salvation of the people; Christ, pointing at the wound in his side, appeals to God the Father, who sends the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove as a symbol of his grace.

Altarpiece of the Virgin Mary of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads by Master of the Legend of St. LucyArt Museum of Estonia

The closed position presents the Annunciation; the Archangel Gabriel, holding a lily branch, addresses the Virgin Mary, who is holding an open book. There is an empty band of text between them, symbolically presenting the opening words of the angel’s greeting: “Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus decum.”
The altarpiece was commissioned by the Brotherhood of the Black Heads and the Great Guild, probably for the altar of the Virgin Mary in St Mary’s chapel of the Black Heads, in the church of the Tallinn Dominican Friary. It reached Tallinn in 1493. Fearing the iconoclasm, the Black Heads brought the altarpiece to the house of the Brotherhood in 1524, where it remained until the Second World War.

The Passion Altarpiece. Detail from middle panel (1510/1520) by Workshop of the Bruges master Adriaen IsenbrandtArt Museum of Estonia

Devotion and Sanctity

It was possible to partake in sanctity and saints in sacred locations and through rituals. In public space, sanctity was communicated with the help of magnificent altarpieces, sculptures and paintings. However, people wished to take sanctity with them and experience it in their homes. People carried small sacred images and objects with them or kept them in places of honour in their homes. They prayed with them, had them blessed in churches and temporarily took them to sacred locations. The images and texts depicted on these objects also possessed sacred power. The Virgin Mary, as the mother of Christ, was one of the most significant protectors and a mediator between Heaven and Earth. As a result, her image and the most important scenes from her life appeared on small objects used in personal devotion.

Clay figurine. Tallinn University Archaeological Research CollectionArt Museum of Estonia

Religious Figurines and Ceramic Moulds

Small portable religious figurines of clay or metal were used in personal devotion and during prayer. Such figures reveal the significance of private religious rites. The figurines were probably placed on a small altar or elsewhere at home. The figurines of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, primarily connected with the personal piety of women, were used in both homes and convents. The focal point of personal devotion was frequently the birth of Jesus and his childhood. The figurines, produced using moulds, were widespread and were made primarily in the Rhein-Maas (Rhine-Meuse) region. The four exposed religious figurines or their fragments were found in 2018, during the archaeological excavations in Jahu Street, Tallinn. With the help of miniature moulds depicting religious scenes and images of saints, imprints and reliefs were made of paper, wax, plaster, clay or metal. Small images with religious motifs were widely used in personal devotion and prayer, but also to adorn metal or clay dishes, as well as ecclesiastical objects, such as church bells, baptismal fonts and pilgrim signs. Coloured paper imprints were in use as devotional images and the moulds were possibly also used in baking pastries and gingerbread cookies. Most often, graphic prints served as models in making the moulds.

Ceramic mould. Tallinn University Archaeological Research Collection by 15th centuryArt Museum of Estonia

The Nativity. Ceramic mould. Mid-15th century. Find of the archaeological excavations in Jahu Street, Tallinn in 2018. Tallinn University Archaeological Research Collection

The quadrangular ceramic mould depicts the birth of Christ. The newborn Christ Child, surrounded by a halo, is lying on the ground in a ray of light. The Virgin Mary and Joseph are bowing to him in prayer. There are three angels above the Christ Child, holding a band with a Latin text reading “Gloria in excelsis Deo” or “Glory to God in the highest”. The cited scripture, announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, is from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:14).

Christ Child with a Bird. Clay figurine. Tallinn University Archaeological Research CollectionArt Museum of Estonia

Christ Child with a Bird. Religious clay figurine. Mid-15th century. Tallinn University Archaeological Research Collection

Clay positive of a mould. Tallinn University Archaeological Research CollectionArt Museum of Estonia

The Christ Child with the Attributes of the Passion. Clay positive of a mould. Mid-15th century. Find of the archaeological excavations in Jahu Street, Tallinn in 2018. Tallinn University Archaeological Research Collection

The Christ Child with the attributes of the Passion was a sacred image widespread in the Middle Ages, used in private devotion and prayer. The naked Christ Child, bearing a crown of thorns and a cross, is framed by a band of text with the words from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10–11).

Ceramic mould with the Allegorical Vine Tree. Tallinn City MuseumArt Museum of Estonia

Allegorical Vine Tree with Christ on the Cross, the Virgin Mary and God the Father. Ceramic mould. 15th century. Find of the archaeological excavations in the Pirita Nunnery in 1975. Tallinn City Museum

The round ceramic mould depicts the Crucified Christ on a vine tree. On medallions growing out of its branches, the twelve apostles are looking towards him. Above the Crucified Christ’s head is the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, together with bands of text. Under the cross, God the Father is hoeing the soil. The allegorical scene depicts the Crucified Christ on a tree of life, together with his heavenly father and earthly mother.

Silver capsule medallion. Tallinn University Archaeological Research CollectionArt Museum of Estonia

Medallions and Rings

Holy images and saints were frequently depicted on round medallions and pendants. Amulets with figures of the Virgin Mary or St Anne, as well as depictions of the Crucifixion, were worn around the neck and occasionally attached to rosaries. Capsule medallions were, in a way, reliquaries: they may have been blessed and held texts of sermons on paper, small parts of sacred objects, or wax. The medallions were used as objects with the power to protect the owner and also functioned as reminders which helped in meditation and prayer. The names of sacred persons or texts of prayers engraved in them reflected this power. Rings are objects that people almost always have on. Sacred images and names protected the owner against evil, serving simultaneously as reminders of and help in prayer and meditation. Symbols and images on rings could also refer to membership in a religious order. After taking vows, the nuns of the Bridgettine Order wore gold or silver rings, which often depicted the Crucified Christ together with the Virgin Mary and John the Apostle. The cult of the Virgin Mary was of key importance for the Bridgettines. The ring symbolised the nun’s betrothal, becoming the bride of Christ. Six medieval rings with the depiction of the Crucifixion Group are known in Estonia; three of them definitely originate from the Pirita Bridgettine Convent. One of them is on display at the exhibition.

Annular ring brooch. Estonian National Museum by 13th–14th CenturyArt Museum of Estonia

Annular ring brooch with the inscription AVE MARI(A). Stray find from the Karja churchyard in Saaremaa. 13th–14th century. Estonian National Museum

Silver capsule medallion. Estonian National MuseumArt Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary as the Woman of the Apocalypse and the Madonna on the Crescent Moon (Mondsichelmadonna). On the back-side, St Christopher. Silver capsule medallion. 15th–16th century. Estonian National Museum

Silver capsule medallion. Estonian National MuseumArt Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary with the Christ Child. On the back-side, the Veil of Veronica. Silver capsule medallion. 15th–16th century. Estonian National Museum

Silver with gold gilt medallion. Estonian National MuseumArt Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary as the Woman of the Apocalypse and the Madonna on the Crescent Moon (Mondsichelmadonna). Silver with gold gilt medallion, semi-precious gemstones (?). 15th–16th century. Estonian National Museum

Silver medallion. Estonian National MuseumArt Museum of Estonia

The Crucifixion Group with the inscription IHESUS UNDE MARIA. Silver medallion. 15th–16th century. Estonian National Museum

Silver Ring. Estonian National MuseumArt Museum of Estonia

Silver ring with the Crucifixion Group. Ring of a nun from the Pirita Bridgettine Nunnery (?). 15th–16th century. Estonian National Museum

Golden ring. Estonian National MuseumArt Museum of Estonia

Golden ring with a heart and the name of Mary. 15th–16th century. Estonian National Museum

Epitaph of Antonius von der Busch (1608) by Workshop of Arent PasserArt Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary after the Reformation

The significance of the Virgin Mary changed after the Reformation. She maintained her role and importance as the Mother of God, although, similarly to the saints, she no longer acted as an intermediary between believers and God, but became, primarily, a role model through her life and dedication. Lutheran art focused on Christ and proceeded from what was written in the Bible. We can see Mary in images of the life of Christ or in typological scenes from the New and the Old Testament. A number of medieval types of images were discarded during the Early Modern Period, including ones depicting Mary as the Queen of Heaven and as the Virgin of Mercy, or presenting her parents and family. The earlier medieval works frequently remained in the Lutheran churches, but could no longer be venerated as sacred images. 

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

Adam and Eve. Outer side of the wings of the altarpiece. Original location: one of the churches of Saaremaa. Around 1600. Saaremaa Museum

Since the days of Early Christianity, the Virgin Mary has been referred to as the second Eve and Christ as the second Adam. Eve closed the Gates to Paradise, with death and sin following her, while the Virgin Mary opened them, bringing eternal life and salvation. As the first woman, Eve was the mother to all living beings, and the Virgin Mary a mother to all Christians. The first word in Ave Maria is an anagram of a variation of Eve’s name. Despite her sin, the comparison with Mary raised Eve to glory, since it was through her that the birth of Christ and salvation became possible. The wings of the altarpiece depicting Adam and Eve originate from the Lutheran period; the inner sides of the wings present scenes from the story of the Passion of Christ. At the turn of the 16th–17th century, most of the churches on the island received new altarpieces with Lutheran pictorial programmes.

Epitaph of Dietrich Möller (1614) by Lübeck workshop (?)Art Museum of Estonia

Adam and Eve on the Allegory of the Law and Grace. Epitaph of Dietrich Möller. Original location: St Nicholas’ Church in Tallinn. Lübeck workshop (?). 1614. Art Museum of Estonia

The left side of the picture, based on the typology of the Old and the New Testament, depicts the Law and the Fall of Man, and the right side Grace or salvation. The left side presents the story of Adam and Eve. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is in the foreground; the serpent holding the apple in its mouth is in the branches. Adam and Eve, who have tasted the fruit, are standing under the tree. The next scene shows their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In the foreground of the right side of the painting is the crucified Christ. Above him, on the right, there is a figure surrounded by an aureole, probably the Virgin Mary. The painting presents Adam and Eve from the Old Testament, as well as Christ and the Virgin Mary, who made salvation possible. The allegory of the Law and Grace was among the first new Lutheran types of images, initially spread through printmaking.

Adoration of the Shepherds (1692)Art Museum of Estonia

Adoration of the Shepherds. Epitaph painting. Original location: the Türi church. 1692. Art Museum of Estonia

The Gospel of Luke describes the shepherds who came to worship the newborn baby Jesus (Luke 2:1–20). In the biblical scene, the kneeling shepherds surround the mother and son. The epitaph painting was donated to the Türi church by two local peasants, Hans and Jaan. Their portraits and names are visible on the frame of the painting. It is the only known example of local peasants having donated to a church an epitaph commemorating themselves, and commissioning their portraits for the purpose. Since the 1920s, the painting has belonged to the collection of the Art Museum of Estonia.

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

Adoration of the Shepherds, Adoration of the Magi and the Holy Kinship. Triple painting, with scenes of Christ’s childhood. Original location: St Nicholas’ Church (?) in Tallinn. 17th–18th century (?). Tallinn City Museum

The narrative scenes present the two central gospel stories of the nativity, telling of how first the shepherds and then the kings came to worship the newborn Jesus. The upper painting depicts Jesus as a boy, together with his mother Mary and Joseph. At the end of the 19th century, the triple painting was located in St Anthony’s Chapel in St Nicholas’ Church.

The Passion Altarpiece. Right wing (1510/1520) by Workshop of the Bruges master Adriaen IsenbrandtArt Museum of Estonia

The Mourning Mother

Christ’s Passion, his crucifixion and death are the key events in Christianity: Jesus’s sacrifice and resurrection opened the way for Christians to salvation and redemption. The Virgin Mary witnessed her son’s death and suffered with him: Christ was crucified physically, the Virgin Mary spiritually. For viewers, the images of the story of the Passion embrace and mediate such powerful and painful emotions as profound grief, guilt and sorrow, helping them to experience and comprehend the suffering of Christ and his mother, as well as assisting them in meditation and prayers.

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

Calvary Group (Last quarter of the 14th century. 1410s to 1430s.)Art Museum of Estonia

Calvary Group. Christ on the Cross. Last quarter of the 14th century. The Virgin Mary and John the Apostle. 1410s to 1430s. Former location: the Harju-Risti church. Art Museum of Estonia

The Crucifixion of Christ is the most significant and most depicted scene in Christian art. Its focal point is Christ on the cross and the bereaved Virgin Mary with John the Apostle. Mary, standing underneath the cross with her head bowed, has been depicted as a young and beautiful virgin. John, the closest disciple to Christ and also the youngest, is standing to the left of the cross. The ends of the cross are lily-shaped, referring to the Virgin Mary as the bearer of Christ and Life-Giver. The Calvary Group was located in the Harju-Risti church, which served as a chapel of the Cistercian Monastery in Padise in the Middle Ages.

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

The Bereaved Virgin Mary from the Crucifixion Group. Original location: the triumphal wall of St John’s Church of Tartu. Second half of the 14th century. EELC Tartu University St John’s Congregation

The life-size terracotta figure of the Virgin Mary is a part of the Crucifixion Group of St John’s Church in Tartu, originally located on the eastern wall of the triumphal arch.
Of the churches in Europe, St John’s Church in Tartu has the richest terracotta decor. Almost a third of the approximately 2000 sculptured works and components have survived.

The Passion Altarpiece. Middle panel (1510/1520) by Workshop of the Bruges master Adriaen IsenbrandtArt Museum of Estonia

The Passion Altarpiece. Workshop of the Bruges master Adriaen Isenbrandt. 1510–1520. Overpaintings of the outer side of the wings by Michel Sittow and his workshop (?). 1520s. Art Museum of Estonia.

The middle panel of the altarpiece, dedicated to the story of Christ’s Passion, depicts the crucified Christ with his mother, the Virgin Mary, the kneeling Mary Magdalene and John the Apostle. The bereaved mother is standing with her head lowered and her hands together in prayer, expressing both sorrow and her acceptance of God’s will. The original portraits of the donors were repainted during the Lutheran period, in the mid-16th century, when the altarpiece was used as an epitaph, or the commemorative image of the Tallinn Superintendent Heinrich Bock and the mint master Urban Dene.

The Fainting Virgin Mary. EELC Haapsalu St John’s CongregationArt Museum of Estonia

The Fainting Virgin Mary with John the Apostle and Mary Magdalene. Fragment of the scene of the Crucifixion from the altarpiece. Original location: the Haapsalu Cathedral. Around 1500. EELC Haapsalu St John’s Congregation

As a witness to Christ’s crucifixion, the Virgin Mary has fainted from the pain of seeing her son suffer. The bereaved mother is supported by John the Apostle, to whose care Christ had entrusted his mother. Mary Magdalene is with them. The group of sculptures were originally a part of a larger scene of the Crucifixion of Christ on an altarpiece. Until the Second World War, the relief was located in the Haapsalu Cathedral. After the war, its location was unknown for a long time. Since 2004, the work has been back in the Haapsalu Cathedral.

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

Pietà. Mourning Virgin Mary with her Dead Son. Original location: St James’s Church in Riga. Around 1400. National History Museum of Latvia

The Pietà depicts the mourning Virgin Mary holding her dead son. This type of image, which developed in the high Middle Ages, communicated to the viewer the suffering and sorrow of Christ and his mother. The image, representing motherly love and the pain of the Virgin Mary, is symbolically opposed to the type of image where the young mother is happily holding her newborn son.
The sandstone sculpture, originally polychrome, was located in St James’s Church in Riga during the Middle Ages. In the 18th century it was taken to Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Riga. Since 1940, the sculpture has been in the collection of the National History Museum of Latvia.

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

The Virgin Mary. Woman, Mother, Queen. Exhibition View (2020)Art Museum of Estonia

Seven-armed Candelabrum of the Virgin Mary. Lübeck Foundry. 1519. Art Museum of Estonia

Six curved arms designed as plant stalks are attached to the shaft of the candelabrum, symbolising the Tree of Life and the bearer of light. In the centre, there is a double-sided enthroned figure of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child, surrounded by an aureole, on a crescent moon. The Madonna of the Crescent Moon, referring to the Virgin Mary as the Woman of the Apocalypse and the Queen of Heaven, was a widespread type of image in the 15th century, based on the text from the Book of Revelations.
The four-metre-high brass candelabrum is one of the largest medieval candelabra in the world. It was donated to St Nicholas’ Church in 1519 by the Tallinn merchant Hans Bouwer. In accordance with his will, it was commissioned from Lübeck and donated for the high altar of the church.

Credits: Story

Exhibition
"The Virgin Mary: Woman, Mother, Queen"
25.10.2019-26.04.2020
Art Museum of Estonia - Niguliste Museum

Curator: Merike Kurisoo

Exhibition design: Liis Lindvere, Tuuli Aule
Educational programme and exhibition book for families: Mia Maria Rohumaa, Mae Kivilo
Translation into English by: Marju Kubre
Language editors: Klaire Kolmann (Estonian), Richard Adang (English)
Photos: Stanislav Stepaško (Art Museum of Estonia)

We thank: Eve Alttoa, Hedi Kard, Liina Olmaru, Eva Eensaar-Tootsen, Kaarel Eelma, Tõnu Narro, Kerttu Palginõmm, Mati Schönberg

Collections: EELC Haapsalu St John’s, EELC Kaarma Sts Peter and Paul’s, EELC Swedish St Michael’s, EELC Tartu University St John’s Congregations, Estonian National Museum, Estonian Swedish organisation Friends of Swedish Culture, National History Museum of Latvia, Saaremaa Museum, Tallinn City Archives, Tallinn City Museum, Tallinn University Archeological Research Collection, Tallinn University Academic Library, Tartu Art Museum

With the support of: Eesti Kultuurkapital, Overall Eesti AS

https://nigulistemuuseum.ekm.ee/en/syndmus/the-virgin-mary-woman-mother-queen/

Educational programme: https://nigulisteneitsimaarja.wordpress.com

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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