This exquisite, pathos-filled bust of the Mater Dolorosa (Virgin of Sorrows) was discovered in a private collection in Spain in 2013.

Following its sale at auction in London it was cleaned by Marie-Louise Sauerberg, an expert in polychrome wood conservation, and revealed to be by the hand of Pedro de Mena, one of the greatest sculptors of the Spanish Golden Age. Mena, who was taught to carve by his father in Granada, is renowned for the highly expressive devotional sculptures that were produced by his workshop for private patrons, churches and religious houses. He was a master of both the chisel and the brush, and the delicate carving and brilliance of the paintwork on this small bust are what have convinced experts that it was made by Mena himself. The piece was probably produced for a private patron and is intended to be seen close-up and in the round. It was almost certainly placed under a protective glass dome and paired with a bust of Christ wearing the crown of thorns (known as an Ecce Homo). The images of the Virgin and her son at their most vulnerable were popular aids to spiritual devotion at this time. Verisimilitude was a prized quality of religious sculpture of the period and MenaÂ’s Mater Dolorosa exhibits many of the devices which were used to create the most naturalistic effects. The eyes are of glass painted from behind in a heavenward gaze, the eyelashes on the upper lids are of human hair, and a few glass teardrops have been carefully placed down both cheeks. Added to this is the delicate carving which gives the Virgin her furrowed brow and slightly open mouth revealing pearl-like teeth. The skillfully painted skin tones, with slightly flushed cheeks, complete the effect so that the piece still has the power to move its viewers nearly 450 years after it was made. Much of MenaÂ’s work was destroyed during riots in Spain in 1931 making the Mater Dolorosa a rare and valuable survivor. It now takes its place at the Fitzwilliam Museum as the only example of his work in Britain, and at a time when both scholarly and public interest in Spanish polychrome sculpture is gradually growing.


Private collection, Spain; sold SothebyÂ’s, London, 2013; acquired by Daniel Katz Ltd. An Art Loss Register search has been carried out.

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