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Art review: Mary and the Women she Inspired at Sam Fogg, London

05 July 2024

Time to stop and pray, reflects Nicholas Cranfield in Mayfair

Sam Fogg, London

Arnt von Zwolle and Workshop, The Death of the Virgin (Germany, Lower Rhine, Kalkar, c.1490)

Arnt von Zwolle and Workshop, The Death of the Virgin (Germany, Lower Rhine, Kalkar, c.1490)

THURSDAY 27 June was the feast day of St Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) and provided a fitting day for the latest exhibition to open at Sam Fogg, “Mary and the Women she Inspired”.

Cyril rose to become Patriarch of Alexandria in 412 and, against the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius — who taught that two separate persons co-existed in the incarnate Lord, one human and one divine — set out the claim that Christ was a single person, fully human and fully divine.

That doctrine triumphed at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and made possible the cognomen of the Virgin Mary as “Theotokos”, the God-bearer, which remains to this day the agreed catholic belief of the Church.

Christianity had spread south of Gaza and north of Lebanon and Syria and westwards into the Byzantine world, communities and cultures that did not hold the semitic proscriptions against representational images and so had developed iconography for the story of Christian salvation.

Sam Fogg, LondonAn early Christian Icon of the Virgin and Child, northern Egypt (sixth century)

The earliest image displayed in this remarkable show is a woven Coptic textile from Upper Egypt of the Virgin and Child. Christ stands with his hands raised in blessing, while the seated Madonna looks straight out at us through 1500 years. She is clearly “bearing” God to the world. It is suggested that the composition might derive from an even earlier sculpted prototype.

Sculptures here include not only an early-14th-century limestone figure of Mary Magdalene in the desert, standing one and a half metres tall (from the Ile de France), but one, in walnut, of a naked Mary of Egypt (c.1470-80), swathed only in her luxuriant hair and holding three loaves of bread.

The more unusual iconography here is the Deposition of Christ, painted around 1500 (Augsburg School). The panel shows the route of the Dead Christ from below the hill at Calvary towards a second hill where there is a rock-cut tomb.

St John, carrying a processional cross, leads the sad group with an elderly Nicodemus holding Jesus’s torso under-arm followed by Joseph of Arimathea, clutching his knees. Both men are hampered by their robes. The four Marys follow, the last two as myrophoroi (myrrh bearers), bearing spices, the Magdalene acting as thurifer and the Virgin as an acolyte with a taper. On the back is pinned a contemporary note recording that a Margrave said his prayers in front of the image in 1531. In the heart of Mayfair, we too can stop and pray.

“Mary and the Women she Inspired” is at Sam Fogg, 15d Clifford Street, London W1S, until 26 July. Phone 020 7534 2100.


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