THERE are no queues of devout crowds. No one is kneeling and praying before her. Walk too quickly along the hall and you’ll miss her. She is in the Sculpture Room of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (The V&A). She is small and unobtrusive. She stands in a glass case, among other objects of antiquity and curiosity, holding the Christ Child in her arms, looking quite beautiful and somewhat mysterious.
The V&A’s Virgin and the Christ Child is an exquisitely carved ivory statuette that was made, in all likelihood, in Manila by Chinese or Filipino sculptors, sometime in the 18th century or possibly even earlier. The vagaries are what make this figure so enigmatic. I was overjoyed to see her. London’s museums hold a great many of the world’s treasures, but it is rare for Hispano-Filipino ivories, as such pieces are known, to reach here and be on public display. More usually they end up in private hands. In Spain they can be found in a number of religious and royal collections in Madrid, Valladolid, and Seville.
Both the Virgin and her Child have unmistakably oriental features, with heavy lidded eyes and full lips, and were once richly colored: their striated hair bear traces of gilding, and on their lips and eyes are remnants of red and brown pigment. The Virgin’s face is serene and there is a hint of a smile. She looks a little like Guan Yin, the Chinese Buddhist goddess of mercy and fertility. The Christ Child is naked, plump and playful. Perhaps he was once clothed in fabric. He tugs at his mother’s headdress with his right hand while mischievously kicking up his right leg.
The Virgin’s robe is a masterpiece of fine carving. It cascades in long, sensuous, liquid folds, and pools around her feet which remain hidden beneath the extravagant drapery. A portion of her blouse peels away to reveal a single bare breast. At the back there is a distinctive little tuck in her dress, an idiosyncratic detail common to Madonna figurines made in the Philippines. It is a sophisticated carving, executed by a skilled and confident hand. There is little else to say about her anonymous creator, which make her origins a matter of guesswork.
From the late 16th century onward, Manila was the hub of a galleon trade that was a magnet for anyone mercantile minded. The galleons, monumental ships heavily laden with luxury goods and treasures, from silks and spices, to porcelain and jewelry, would sail yearly from Manila across the Pacific to Acapulco on the west coast of Mexico, where the goods would be paid for in silver, mined from the conquered lands of South America, that was demanded by the Chinese.
Manila was the epicenter of fine craftwork wrought in luxurious and costly materials, including ivory. Chinese artisans flocked to the city. In 1620, there were about 16,000 Chinese, known as sangleyes, not much less than the native population of 20,000.At that time there were only around 2000 Spaniards in the city. The Chinese artisans lived in the Parián, an enclave specifically designated for the Chinese population. Craftsmen were presented with a ready market. Ivories of sacred and divine subjects that adhered to Christian themes and the Catholic faith were hugely popular export items. In the Parián, there was a more or less organized and efficient production line that repeatedly churned out the same images in large quantities.
Raw ivory from elephants’ tusks was sumptuous and exotic. It was imported into the Philippines from various sources: from Africa via the slender waterway connecting the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea, and from Cambodia and Thailand. Chinese and Filipino sculptors had earned a good reputation for producing high quality work. The first bishop of Manila, a Dominican friar, paid fulsome praise, declaring the carvings made by the sangleyes to be better than those from Flanders.
Small-scale figures such as the Virgin were produced for the friar and missionary orders – the Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits – who pursued commerce and religious conversion with equal fervor. Religious images were effective evangelical aids. As devotional objects they helped to convert and instruct converts in the new faith. In 1622, it was claimed that 500,000 natives of the Philippines had been converted to Christianity. The collectors’ market was also important. Ivory objects were sought out by aristocrats and elites in Spain and elsewhere in Europe, who admired and valued the precious and rare ivory itself.
A private donor, an Englishman, who was possibly a medical doctor, bequeathed the Virgin to the V&A in 1902. The Sculpture Room, where her journey ends, can be a busy place. There is the constant milling about of tourists and art aficionados, and plenty of art students who sit for hours on little foldable chairs sketching the glorious statuary.
Seeing the Virgin and the Christ Child in this secular setting can be a rather jarring experience. Marian images are, after all, venerated and admired the world over. But in contemplating her, we should also think of her incredible history that is essentially to do with global trade, making money, religious conversion, and the part played by colonial art in all these activities. She has spanned time and space. If she ever performed a miracle, it is that 21st century eyes are still able to see her.