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The book mystery of the Madonna from Kyrkjebø

The beautiful Madonna from Kyrkjebø in Sogn is currently being exhibited to a European audience in Utrecht. But what is her story? And can some fragments from a medieval manuscript, once attached on the inside of the hollow body, contribute to the story of the Madonna?

Madonna med barn frå Kyrkjebø kyrkje
The Madonna from Kyrkjebø in Sogn dates back to the middle of the 13th century, and came from Kyrkjebø to the Bergen Museum in the 19th century.
Photo:
Wikimedia commons

The Madonna from Kyrkjebø in Sogn is one of the University Museum of Bergen’s most striking Madonna figures. It dates back to the middle of the thirteenth century, and came from Kyrkjebø to Bergen in the nineteenth century, to what was then Bergen Museum. For the next few months the Madonna is in an exhibition in the Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, and therefore can be seen by a European audience. 

In Utrecht the Madonna will be in a select and exquisite company among Norwegian and Spanish sculptures and altar frontals dating back to 1100-1350. These represent Church art of an age now mainly lost, but once everywhere. In remote parish churches in the northern- and southernmost parts of Europe, such pieces have often survived whereas in other, more central areas they have been replaced, destroyed or lost. 

In preparing the Madonna for exhibition the opportunity was taken to examine her condition and learn more about her history. Which included a little book mystery. 

More than a beautiful shell

The Madonna sculptures from medieval churches in Norway bear testimony to a society with high reverence for the saints – in public religion and in people’s lives. And they were not all thrown out at the time of the Reformation in 1536/37. The Madonna of Kyrkjebø guarded her congregation until the nineteenth century. Divine, but also of this earth. And in its material representation – fragile. 

When the Madonna underwent conservation some generations ago, three fragments from a medieval manuscript were found as lining on the inside of the hollowed-out body, close to the armpits. They were presumably used to seal holes in the wood from the production process. 

What kind of book the fragments were from was not determined. In connection with the exhibition professor Justin Kroesen of the University Museum was curious to know more about the three fragments. What type of book were they from, and could they give a clue to the origin of the Madonna?

Assistance from England

In February 2019 the English palaeographer Michael Gullick visited the University of Bergen. This represented a good opportunity to examine the fragments more closely. The work was done in collaboration with professor Justin Kroesen, professor Åslaug Ommundsen, and paintings conservator at the University museum, Alexandra Böhme.

Justin Kroesen, Michael Gullick og konservator Alexandra Böhme studerer Kyrkjebø-madonnaen

Justin Kroesen, Michael Gullick and conservator Alexandra Böhme, studying the Kyrkjebø Madonna.

Photo:
Åslaug Ommundsen

It turned out that the three fragments could be pieced together to form an L-shaped piece that was 9,5 cm tall from one leaf. Parchment, being made animal skins, is very strong and durable, but in these fragments the text was in many places unreadable because of different sorts of residue on the surface. 

UV light picked out more of the ink and pigments and made some more of the text readable: it turned out the three pieces came from a missal, and contained texts and prayers for the celebration of Mass on the Tuesday after Passion Sunday.  

A handful of words was enough to identify the Gospel text from John on the recto side: Jesus’s brothers encourage him to leave Galilea and go to Judea to show himself to the world: “For there is no man that doth any thing in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly. If thou do these things, manifest thyself to the world” (John 7, 1-4, in the Douay-Rheims translation). The verso side contains two prayers, among them a prayer for the people (Oratio super populum) used at the end of Mass during Lent: “O Lord, we beseech you, grant us to continously serve your will, so that in our days the people serving you will increase in both merit and number.”

Both the Gospel text and the prayers were hidden on the inside of the Madonna for centuries. 

Fragmentene ble studert inngående for å sette dem riktig sammen og få fram teksten.

The fragments were studied in depth to put them together correctly and reveal the text.

Photo:
Åslaug Ommundsen

French book, French lady?

Since so little is left of the book, it is difficult to say with certainty when and where the book was written. It may be tentatively suggested that the style of the handwriting points in the direction of Northern France in the second half of the twelfth century. Does that mean that the Madonna from Kyrkjebø was made in Northern France? Or was it made in Norway by someone who had the remains of a French missal at hand? Either of these options are possible.    

Because of the international networks of the Middle ages, Northern French missals were no rare sight in medieval Norway. The reamins of many such missals can be found in the large fragment collection in the National Archives in Oslo, and also by items in the Special collection in the University of Bergen library. 

Bokfragmenter funnet på innsiden av Kyrkjebø-madonnaen

The three book fragments found on the inside of the Kyrkjebø Madonna. The remnants of the fixed introduction to the gospel reading, "In diebus illis" (or "In illo tempore") and the word "IOHANNEM" are visible in red on the top line, to the right.

Photo:
Universitetsmuseet i Bergen

The original book was probably 28-30 cm tall and 21-22 cm wide, with the text distributed over two columns, and red pigment was used for the rubrics and initials. The size of the book suggests that it was made for use in a church or chapel rather than by an private individual. The missal was once as an important part of the furniture and fittings of a place of worship as was the Madonna.  

The three medieval book fragments did not go with the Madonna to Utrecht, but were left in the archive of the conservation section at the University Museum of Bergen. In time, perhaps the fragments can convey more than prayers, and contribute to the solution to the mystery of the origin of the Madonna.