An 800-year-old figure of Christ that hung in one of England’s most important abbeys and survived the dissolution of the monasteries is returning to its spiritual home.The Yorkshire Museum in York will on Friday put on display its new acquisition of an internationally significant example of medieval religious art, one which has been in Germany for more than a century.
Importantly, it will be shown very close to where it would have been seen in the 13th century.
The 16cm copper alloy figure was something of a stunner, said the curator of archaeology at York Museums Trust, Lucy Creighton: “The pictures do not do this object justice at all, it is so much more wonderful and exquisite in the flesh. It is a wonderful object for York and it is fantastic to bring it back to the city, it hasn’t been here for 200 years.”The object was bought at auction in Germany and subsequently purchased by the museum. It was made in Limoges, France, a centre for high-quality champlevé enamel production, and belonged to the monks at St Mary’s Abbey, York.
Creighton said it would have been a “focus of wonder and worship” in the church, one of the richest, most important religious houses in the north of England. When the monasteries were dissolved in the 16th century by Henry VIII, someone evidently managed to hide the figure.
It was rediscovered in 1826, just before the Yorkshire Philosophical Society acquired the land – on the site of the old abbey – to build the Yorkshire Museum.What happened afterwards is hazy. The figure seems to have disappeared for 100 years before making its way into a private German collection in the 1920s. It remained there until its recent auction, where it was bought by a dealer for €8,500 (£7,530).The value for Yorkshire Museum was priceless, Creighton sasid. “It is an exquisite example of its type, I’ve never seen any which has such detail and such colourful decoration.”
The body of the figure is copper alloy, although if you were to glance at it you might think it was solid gold. It is also embellished with precious stones, which need to be studied further to determine precisely what they are.
Creighton called it an “incredibly rare and extremely valuable” find. “It gives us new insight into the treasures which once decorated the abbey and provides rare tangible evidence of the wealth and power the ecclesiastical institution once held.”