Art historian shares her adventures to study rare medieval statues

Elina Gertsman CWRUAfter learning about Shrine Madonnas years ago as a graduate student, Elina Gertsman became so infatuated with their complex and controversial history that the Case Western Reserve University art historian spent several summers on an Indiana Jones-style trek to find and document the 40 or so that remain.

Gertsman’s travels took her as far north as Övertorneå, Sweden, on the Arctic Circle, and south to Palau-del-Vidre, near the French-Spanish border.

She often relied on the kindness of friends and strangers to guide and host her in some remote places where the statues still function as cult objects.

At Övertorneå, she was treated to a meal of moose stew as the small Swedish town showed appreciation for her interest in their statue. At Palau-del-Vidre, a construction worker in the local church climbed a long ladder to retrieve a statue from a niche under a lofty roof beam, clutching it like a football under his arm on the way down.

“It was great fun, but also quite difficult to gain access to some of those,” said Gertsman, who has just finished a book about the statues that’s due for publication in 2015. Worlds Within: Opening the Medieval Shrine Madonna (Penn State Press) is based on her research: on object study and on archival evidence, of course, but also on occasional search of dusty sacristy closets.

“My French, German, Italian, and Spanish, and even whatever modicum of Swedish and Finnish that I have, got quite a workout,” she said.

Shrine Madonnas, popular between the 13th and 17th centuries, are polychromed wood or ivory statues of the Virgin Mary. They split open to reveal richly carved and painted interiors, many of which contain the image of the Trinity or the Trinity and Christological and Marian narratives. Some were also puppet-like, with moveable and removable parts inside and out. The objects ranged from life-size for display in sacred spaces to doll-size for more intimate devotional use.

Gertsman, now an assistant professor of medieval art, was first drawn to their fascinating history and present-day rarity after learning that Shrine Madonnas were considered religiously offensive—and even dangerous—because of the way they depicted the Virgin Mary.

Medieval art played an important part in pastoral care, and the subversive quality of Shrine Madonnas is seen clearly in the reaction one of them elicited from a 15th century chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, who discerned in it a major theological flaw: It looked like Mary gave birth to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost (the entire Trinity), not just Christ. Moreover, the split through her body suggests violation, by sight or by touch—hardly appropriate for the body that was hailed for its wholeness and virginity.

Considered religiously controversial, many Shrine Madonnas have been destroyed or purposely damaged by being glued shut or having their interiors gutted. Pope Benedict XIV banned them as offensive in 1745. Even today, Gertsman said, some still find the statues both so disturbing and intriguing that they mutilate or steal them.

Fascinated by their little-known story and driven to learn more, Gertsman spent each summer between 2005 and 2012 researching the statues, traveling to see as many of them as possible, and studying their meaning from a myriad of philosophical, theological, social and cultural perspectives.

What statues remain can be found in Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and even the United States. Most are now displayed in museums or still used as cult objects in churches.

Gertsman, who has seen nearly every Shrine Madonna still in existence, hopes her book allows readers a sense of opening a statue and taking a peek inside through an interactive gatefold and 150 lavish images, made possible by a Kress Foundation award from the International Center for Medieval Art and the Millard Meiss Publication grant from the College Art Association. Gertsman also received generous grants to support her research and book publication from the W. P. Jones Award and the Baker-Nord Center for Humanities at Case Western Reserve University.