Framed by the Body

"The most important thing here is the relationship between the two bodies."—Griffith Mann, curator

Virgin and Child in Majesty, 1175–1200. French. Walnut with paint, tin relief on a lead white ground and linen. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1916 (16.32.194a, b). Learn more about this object.

How does the sculpted body communicate? Hear from Met experts, leading authorities, and rising stars, each with a unique viewpoint on the language of gesture, facial expression, and pose.

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Melanie Holcomb: As twenty-first century viewers, we tend to look at the face. But for a Medieval sculpture, what you really need to do is to look at the rest of the body and, in particular, the hands. If you look at the hands of this sculpture, you can see they're outsized; they're out of proportion. They may even seem a little clown-like to us, but that's really because they are serving as super-obvious arrows as to what is happening and what is important here. They're really kind of directing you to God, to Jesus sitting right there. That's the precious and regal figure that she is framing with her body.

Narrator: How can we interpret the figure's static facial features?

Melanie Holcomb: For a Medieval sculpture, for a divine figure, it's unseemly for a face to have a highly expressive countenance. That's really reserved for devils and monsters and the sinful and the hell-bound. You know, the divine is meant to be serene and impassive.

Narrator: From a distance, the composition communicates something more.

Griffith Mann: The most important thing here is the relationship between the two bodies: the body of the Christ Child, who represents wisdom, seated on the lap of the Virgin Mary. And in this instance, that carries a symbolic message: Mary is serving as the throne of the Christ Child.

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