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800 year old internationally significant find returns to York for the first time in two centuries

DATE: 20 September 2019

An 800 year old Figure of Christ originally belonging to the monks of York’s St Mary’s Abbey has returned to the city for the first time in nearly two centuries.

The internationally significant find survived the brutal Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII and was rediscovered in 1826 as plans were being drawn up for the Yorkshire Museum, which was built on the site of the Abbey.

The 16cm figure disappeared for nearly 100 years before emerging in the collections of a German art collector in the 1920s.

It remained with the family in Germany, unknown to the Yorkshire Museum, until parts of the collection were put up for auction. With generous support from Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, York Museums Trust were able to buy it and bring it back to York.

It will now go on display in the museum, alongside other new acquisitions and iconic objects such as the York Helmet, Gilling Sword and Ormside Bowl which have returned from a national tour.

Lucy Creighton, curator of archaeology at the Yorkshire Museum, said: “The Figure of Christ is a stunning example of 13th Century religious art – few examples survived in this country in such a complete state. This alone would make it a very special object but to be able to trace its origins to St Mary’s Abbey where the Yorkshire Museum now stands, means it is incredibly rare and extremely valuable find. It gives us new insight into the treasures which once decorated the Abbey and provides rare tangible evidence of the wealth and power the ecclesiastical institution once held. It is a real thrill to be able to put it on display just a stone’s throw from where it would have been on show 800 years ago. ”

The St Mary’s Abbey Figure of Christ

The 13th Century figurine was made in Limoges, France, which was the most well-known European centre for champlevé enamel production during this period. The date ties in with a major phase of rebuilding at St Mary’s Abbey (1271 – 1294) during which the remains that can still be viewed today were built. Such was the financial strength of the abbey – the richest in the north of England – that the new church was built in just one 24 year campaign. It might be presumed that this object was acquired to furnish this newly built and richly appointed building.

The gilt copper Figure of Christ stands at 16cm high. It has remains of enamel champlevé decoration and is embellished with stone settings on the crown, eyes and loincloth. It is incomplete, with hands and feet missing. Delicate cast decoration is displayed on the crowned head, expressive face, finely streaked hair and beard, torso and elaborately embellished loincloth.

Figurines like these were made to be mounted on an enamelled cross, now missing, which would have decorated a religious object such as a manuscript cover or a casket.

Limoges enamelwork is not uncommon but this item is a fine example of work, typical of the style being produced in the 13th century. Most examples are highly fragmentary.

An old adhesive label adhered to the reverse of the object reads “Found in the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey at York: in 1826”. Very few medieval objects, least of all from Limoges, have a known provenance linking them to a major English Abbey as few survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries of the 1530s.

It was rediscovered in 1826, just before the Yorkshire Philosophical Society acquired the land to build the Yorkshire Museum. Prior to this the land was fallow land used for grazing.

It is unknown where the figurine was between 1826 and 1920 when it became part of the collection of Franz Monheim of Aachen (1891-1969) and then passed down to his family.

The item is listed in a Corpus of Limoges Enamels but, being in a private collection, was essentially ‘lost’ to both researchers and the public. By both repatriating and bringing the object back into the public realm the Trust will be able to better reflect the ostentatious decoration of the Abbey church.

Redisplay of Capital of the North

The Figure of Christ will go on display alongside some of the Yorkshire Museum’s greatest treasures in a redisplay of the exhibition Capital of the North. Following the success of the touring exhibition Viking: Rediscover the Legend, which was seen by more than 200,000 people while at venues across the country, some of the museum’s star objects have come back home to go on display for the first time in two years. These include the York Helmet, Gilling Sword and Ormside Bowl. The redisplay will also include other new acquisitions and new interpretation giving insight into York’s position as capital of the North during the Anglian, Viking and Medieval periods.

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