Golden Madonna of Essen
The Golden Madonna of Essen is a sculpture with a wooden core covered all over with sheets of thin gold leaf
Gold leaf
right|thumb|250px|[[Burnishing]] gold leaf with an [[agate]] stone tool, during the water gilding processGold leaf is gold that has been hammered into extremely thin sheets and is often used for gilding. Gold leaf is available in a wide variety of karats and shades...

 of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus
Jesus of Nazareth , commonly referred to as Jesus Christ or simply as Jesus or Christ, is the central figure of Christianity...

. It is part of the treasury of Essen Cathedral
Essen Cathedral
Essen Minster or Cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Essen, the "Diocese of the Ruhr", founded in 1958...

, formerly the church of Essen Abbey
Essen Abbey
Essen Abbey was a collegiate foundation for women of the high nobility in Essen. It was founded in about 845 by the Saxon Altfrid , later Bishop of Hildesheim and saint, near a royal estate called Astnidhi, which later gave its name to the religious house and to the town...

, in North Rhine-Westphalia
North Rhine-Westphalia
North Rhine-Westphalia is the most populous state of Germany, with four of the country's ten largest cities. The state was formed in 1946 as a merger of the northern Rhineland and Westphalia, both formerly part of Prussia. Its capital is Düsseldorf. The state is currently run by a coalition of the...

, Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

, and kept on display at the cathedral.

Dated around the year 980, it is both the oldest known sculpture of the Madonna
Madonna (art)
Images of the Madonna and the Madonna and Child or Virgin and Child are pictorial or sculptured representations of Mary, Mother of Jesus, either alone, or more frequently, with the infant Jesus. These images are central icons of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity where Mary remains...

 and the oldest free-standing sculpture north of the Alps, and one of the few major works of art to survive from Ottonian
The Ottonian dynasty was a dynasty of Germanic Kings , named after its first emperor but also known as the Saxon dynasty after the family's origin. The family itself is also sometimes known as the Liudolfings, after its earliest known member Liudolf and one of its primary leading-names...

 times. To this day it remains an object of veneration and symbol of identity for the population of the Ruhr Area
Ruhr Area
The Ruhr, by German-speaking geographers and historians more accurately called Ruhr district or Ruhr region , is an urban area in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. With 4435 km² and a population of some 5.2 million , it is the largest urban agglomeration in Germany...

. It is the only full-length survival from what appears to have been a common form of statue among the wealthiest churches and abbeys of 10th and 11th century Northern Europe; some of these were life-size, especially figures of the Crucifixion
Crucifixion is an ancient method of painful execution in which the condemned person is tied or nailed to a large wooden cross and left to hang until dead...


Date of origin

The statue is dated around the year 980 and was thus created during the tenure of Mathilda II (971–1011), a granddaughter of Emperor Otto I
Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor
Otto I the Great , son of Henry I the Fowler and Matilda of Ringelheim, was Duke of Saxony, King of Germany, King of Italy, and "the first of the Germans to be called the emperor of Italy" according to Arnulf of Milan...

, as abbess of Essen Abbey
Essen Abbey
Essen Abbey was a collegiate foundation for women of the high nobility in Essen. It was founded in about 845 by the Saxon Altfrid , later Bishop of Hildesheim and saint, near a royal estate called Astnidhi, which later gave its name to the religious house and to the town...

. Under her reign and those of her successors Sophia of Gandersheim (1012–1039) and Theophanu (1039–1058), the abbey acquired what is today considered the most precious of the works of art of the Essen treasury. The creator of the sculpture is unknown, but it is generally presumed to have been crafted in either Cologne
Cologne is Germany's fourth-largest city , and is the largest city both in the Germany Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia and within the Rhine-Ruhr Metropolitan Area, one of the major European metropolitan areas with more than ten million inhabitants.Cologne is located on both sides of the...

 or Hildesheim
Hildesheim is a city in Lower Saxony, Germany. It is located in the district of Hildesheim, about 30 km southeast of Hanover on the banks of the Innerste river, which is a small tributary of the Leine river...

. Hildesheim is home to a Madonna slightly younger than the one in Essen, while Cologne seems more likely as the home of the artist since the folds in the Madonna’s gown resemble those of the "Otto-Matilda-cross" dated 982 which is also part of the Essen treasury but was doubtless created by a Cologne goldsmith as it shares many features with the Gero crucifix
Gero Crucifix
The Gero Cross or Gero Crucifix , of around 965–970, is the oldest large sculpture of the crucified Christ north of the Alps, and has always been displayed in Cologne Cathedral in Germany. It was commissioned by Gero, Archbishop of Cologne, who died in 976, thus providing a terminus ante quem for...

 of Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral is a Roman Catholic church in Cologne, Germany. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Cologne and the administration of the Archdiocese of Cologne. It is renowned monument of German Catholicism and Gothic architecture and is a World Heritage Site...



Mary is depicted sitting on a stool, with a slightly oversized Christ child figure sitting on her lap. She wears a tight, long-sleeved tunic
A tunic is any of several types of clothing for the body, of various lengths reaching from the shoulders to somewhere between the hips and the ankles...

 and a cloak (palla
Palla (garment)
Palla is a traditional ancient Roman mantle worn by women, fastened by brooches.  It was similar to the pallium that a man would wear. The shape was rectangular instead of semi-circular as with the traditional toga.The Palla was similar to a shawl that a woman of today would wear.The palla would...

) drawn over her shoulders. On her head she wears a veil, the ends of which are covered by the cloak. In her right hand she holds aloft a globe with her thumb and two fingers, while her left hand supports the infant in her lap. The Christ figure himself wears a pontifical gown and presses a book against his breast with his left hand.

The statue measures 74 centimetres (29 inches) in height; the pedestal is 27 centimetres (10.6 inches) in width. The core of the sculpture was carved from a single piece of wood, most likely from a poplar tree, though earlier art historians have assumed it to be pear, plum or lime. The sculpture’s surface is entirely covered with sheets of gold leaf less than 0.25 millimetres (0.01 in) thick, which are held in place by minute golden bolts. The size of the individual gold leaves varies to suit the surface texture. The faces of both mother and child are pounded out of one single leaf each. The coloured eyes of the figures are made of cloisonné
Cloisonné is an ancient technique for decorating metalwork objects, in recent centuries using vitreous enamel, and in older periods also inlays of cut gemstones, glass, and other materials. The resulting objects can also be called cloisonné...

 enamel. While the eyes of the mother are inset into carved fittings, those of the child are merely pasted on the wooden core. The child’s hand is made of cast silver and was added only in the 14th century; the original right hand is lost. There are traces of original tenth century adornments on the orb in the Virgin's right hand, on the right back leg of the stool, as well as on the child's book and halo
Halo (religious iconography)
A halo is a ring of light that surrounds a person in art. They have been used in the iconography of many religions to indicate holy or sacred figures, and have at various periods also been used in images of rulers or heroes...

. The agrafe showing an eagle and seemingly pinning Mary’s cloak is an early thirteenth century addition; the fibula beneath has Gothic features and is dated to the fourteenth century.

Preservation efforts

The Madonna was first restored in 1905. By then the statue's core was riddled with woodworm
A woodworm is not a specific species. It is the larval stage of certain woodboring beetles including:*Ambrosia beetles *Bark borer beetle / Waney edge borer *Common furniture beetle...

 tunnels and threatened to collapse. The restorers carefully wrapped the statue in a plaster cast
Plaster cast
A plaster cast is a copy made in plaster of another 3-dimensional form. The original from which the cast is taken may be a sculpture, building, a face, a fossil or other remains such as fresh or fossilised footprints – particularly in palaeontology .Sometimes a...

, insufflated
In religious and magical practice, insufflation and exsufflation are ritual acts of blowing, breathing, hissing, or puffing that signify variously expulsion or renunciation of evil or of the devil , or infilling or blessing with good .In historical Christian practice, such blowing appears most...

 the cavities to remove bore dust, impregnated them with insecticides and finally filled them with a mixture of glue, chalk and water, turning the figure around repeatedly in the process so as to reach every nook and angle. The surface holes were then sealed with bolts of oak. The restoration cost a total of 3,200 Goldmark
German gold mark
The Goldmark was the currency used in the German Empire from 1873 to 1914.-History:Before unification, the different German states issued a variety of different currencies, though most were linked to the Vereinsthaler, a silver coin containing 16⅔ grams of pure silver...

s, part of which was paid by the Prussia
Prussia was a German kingdom and historic state originating out of the Duchy of Prussia and the Margraviate of Brandenburg. For centuries, the House of Hohenzollern ruled Prussia, successfully expanding its size by way of an unusually well-organized and effective army. Prussia shaped the history...

n state.

During and after World War II the statue suffered from hasty evacuation transports; many gold leaves came loose and the wood was again infested with wood boring insects. A second restoration was undertaken by the Essen goldsmith Classen, who gassed the sculpture with pesticides and filled the bore holes with “liquid wood”, a plastic then commonly used in wood restorations.

The most recent restoration was undertaken on site in 2004. A workshop was installed in the cathedral’s treasure chamber to examine the condition of the sculpture. X-rays and endoscopy were used to detect remaining cavities, and both wood from the core and the sooty film that had accreted on the gold leaves over the centuries were chemically analyzed. The experts recommended that the statue be kept in a steady climate and not exposed to agitation. Cologne wood restorers Ria Röthinger and Michaela von Welck consolidated the wood of the stool, silversmith Peter Bolg polished the metal leaves of the coating and the child’s right silver arm which had tarnished black over the years. The restoration was overseen by a commission of art historians and restorers led by Dr. Brigitta Falk, curator of the Essen treasury. The Madonna was returned to its habitual place in the cathedral in December 2004. A detailed restoration report is due to appear in an anthology in 2007 along with further research papers on the statue and Essen Abbey.

Medieval mentions

Whether and exactly when the statue was commissioned, acquired or donated is unknown, and documents referring to the Madonna are scarce for the first couple of centuries of its existence. It seems certain that it was part of the cathedral treasure by 993, when Emperor Otto III
Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor
Otto III , a King of Germany, was the fourth ruler of the Saxon or Ottonian dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire. He was elected King in 983 on the death of his father Otto II and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 996.-Early reign:...

 paid the abbey a visit and donated a crown
Crown (headgear)
A crown is the traditional symbolic form of headgear worn by a monarch or by a deity, for whom the crown traditionally represents power, legitimacy, immortality, righteousness, victory, triumph, resurrection, honour and glory of life after death. In art, the crown may be shown being offered to...

, the so-called “child’s crown”, which is also part of the treasure to this day. Since this first mention the Madonna has always been in the cathedral save in wartime. Apparently the bitter conflict between the diocese of Cologne and the Lords of Isenberg over control of Essen Abbey that resulted in the murder of Archbishop Engelbert
Engelbert II of Berg
Count Engelbert II of Berg, also known as Saint Engelbert, Engelbert of Cologne, Engelbert I, Archbishop of Cologne or Engelbert I of Berg, Archbishop of Cologne was Archbishop of Cologne and a saint; he was the victim of a notorious murder by a member of his own family.-Early life:Engelbert was...

 at the hands of Friedrich von Isenberg in 1225 did not affect the sculpture, nor did the centuries-long quarrel over whether the city of Essen
- Origin of the name :In German-speaking countries, the name of the city Essen often causes confusion as to its origins, because it is commonly known as the German infinitive of the verb for the act of eating, and/or the German noun for food. Although scholars still dispute the interpretation of...

 was legally a free imperial city
Free Imperial City
In the Holy Roman Empire, a free imperial city was a city formally ruled by the emperor only — as opposed to the majority of cities in the Empire, which were governed by one of the many princes of the Empire, such as dukes or prince-bishops...

 or rather a dependency of the abbey.

The seal of the city of Essen of 1244 shows the Madonna between Saints Cosmas and Damian. The first documented mention of the Madonna is from the 1370 Liber Ordinarius, which details a fully developed liturgy and processions centred around the statue. The fact that the canon
Canon (priest)
A canon is a priest or minister who is a member of certain bodies of the Christian clergy subject to an ecclesiastical rule ....

 received the Madonna from the hands of the treasuress for processions on Purification leads historians to assume that the sculpture was shown exclusively during processions and was stored out of public sight for the rest of the year. Suggested repositories include the fortress-like westwork
A westwork is the monumental, west-facing entrance section of a Carolingian, Ottonian, or Romanesque church. The exterior consists of multiple stories between two towers. The interior includes an entrance vestibule, a chapel, and a series of galleries overlooking the nave...

 of the cathedral and the armarium dictum sychter, an annex to the south nave.

The sculpture has been known by its current name Golden Madonna only since the 19th century. A liturgical manuscript dating from around 1370 simply describes it as "dat gulden bild onser vrouwen" (literally “the golden image of Our Lady”). The 1626 treasure inventory of Essen Abbey lists Noch ein gross Marienbelt, sitzend uff einen sthuell mit lauteren golt uberzogen ("[A]nother image of Mary, sitting on a chair and covered with pure gold").

Evacuations in early modern times

The Thirty Years' War
Thirty Years' War
The Thirty Years' War was fought primarily in what is now Germany, and at various points involved most countries in Europe. It was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history....

 necessitated the first evacuation of the sculpture. In 1634 the then abbess of Essen, Maria Clara von Spaur, Pflaum und Valör, sought shelter in Cologne and took the cathedral treasure with her. It would remain there until the end of the war in 1648. In these years the Madonna and the now lost Marsus shrine of the Essen treasure were paraded in processions, outshining the treasures of Cologne’s cathedral, as the annals of Essen Abbey proudly claim.

The second evacuation was in 1794 before the advance of the French revolutionary army
French Revolution
The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...

. It was hidden in the orphanage of the nearby town of Steele
-Places:*Steele, Alabama*Steele, Missouri*Steele, North Dakota*Steele City, Nebraska*Steele County, Minnesota*Steele County, North Dakota*Steele, Germany, a town in Germany*Fort Steele, British Columbia, Canada...

. Essen Abbey ceased to exist in 1803 following the secularization
German Mediatisation
The German Mediatisation was the series of mediatisations and secularisations that occurred in Germany between 1795 and 1814, during the latter part of the era of the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Era....

 of ecclesiastical principalities under the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss. Ownership of the Madonna passed to the Roman Catholic parish of St. Johannes, which used the former abbey church as its parish church. Throughout the 19th century the sculpture mostly remained locked away in the treasury and was hardly ever examined by art historians.

20th century

The Madonna remained in Essen throughout World War I but was again evacuated in its aftermath. After the communist revolt in the Ruhr area in the spring of 1920, the authorities of St. Johannes parish, fearing another uprising, decided to hide the statue in a safe place that would be unknown even to its own priest so as to prevent discovery by treason or extortion. A goldsmith from Aachen
Aachen has historically been a spa town in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Aachen was a favoured residence of Charlemagne, and the place of coronation of the Kings of Germany. Geographically, Aachen is the westernmost town of Germany, located along its borders with Belgium and the Netherlands, ...

 was assigned to find a hiding place, and he finally negotiated with another German diocese that the Madonna and the rest of the Essen treasure was to be concealed in a place that only the goldsmith and a designated guardian would know about: even the bishop was only informed about the general plan, but not about the exact location of the sanctuary. A document detailing the whereabouts was deposited in a Dutch diocese in case the middleman got killed. The plan worked so well that to this day it is unknown where exactly the treasure was hidden at that time. The only certainty is that it was packed in shabby cardboard suitcases and taken to some place in the Diocese of Hildesheim. The voucher deposited in the Netherlands was destroyed after the treasure was finally brought back to Essen in 1925 when the political situation seemed stable. In the summer of 1925 the goldsmith from Aachen and his son retrieved the treasure from its sanctuary and brought it back to Essen, travelling in a fourth-class Reichsbahn carriage and carrying the treasure inconspicuously as hand luggage.

During World War II the Essen treasure was first evacuated to Warstein
Warstein is a town in the district of Soest, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. It is located at the north end of the Sauerland.- Geography :...

, then to Schloss Albrechtsburg
The Albrechtsburg is a Late Gothic castle that dominates the town centre of Meissen in the German state of Saxony.-History:By 929 King Henry I of Germany had finally subdued the Slavic Glomacze tribe and built a fortress within their settlement area, situated on a rock high above the Elbe river...

 in Saxony and finally moved to an air-raid shelter in Sieg
The Sieg is a river in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany named after the Sigambrer. It is a right tributary of the Rhine and 153 kilometres in length....

, where it was discovered by American troops by the end of the war. Because the treasury in Essen had been destroyed by air raids, the Madonna could not return to its natural place until the 1950s. It was first brought to the Hessian State Museum in Marburg
Marburg is a city in the state of Hesse, Germany, on the River Lahn. It is the main town of the Marburg-Biedenkopf district and its population, as of March 2010, was 79,911.- Founding and early history :...

, then to Schloss Dyck near Rheydt
Rheydt is a borough of the German city Mönchengladbach, located in the west of North Rhine-Westphalia. Until 1918 and then again from 1933 through 1975 it was an independent city....

. From April to June 1949 it was shown in an exhibition in Brussels, then through October in Amsterdam, and finally returned to Essen. Until the reconstruction of Essen Cathedral was completed the treasure was stored in the vault of Essen's savings bank. The Madonna has not left the city since.


The Golden Madonna is both the oldest known sculpture of the Madonna and the oldest free-standing sculpture north of the Alps. It is also one of only two extant medieval gilded cult image
Cult image
In the practice of religion, a cult image is a human-made object that is venerated for the deity, spirit or daemon that it embodies or represents...

s. Gilded sculptures are frequently mentioned in medieval documents, but apart from an image of Saint Fides in the abbey of Conques en Rouergue in Southern France no such artifacts survive (the Madonna of Hildesheim was stripped of its original gold-leaf covering at some time). We know Charlemagne had a life-size crucifix with the figure of Christ in gold in his Palatine Chapel in Aachen
Palatine Chapel in Aachen
The Palatine Chapel is an Early Medieval chapel that is the remaining component of Charlemagne's Palace of Aachen. Although the palace no longer exists, the chapel has been incorporated into the Aachen Cathedral, Germany. It is the city's major landmark and the central monument of the Carolingian...

, the oldest such object to be described, and many similar figures in precious metal, all now vanished, are recorded in large Anglo-Saxon churches and elsewhere. Most often they are crucifixes, and sometimes accompanying figures of Mary and John the Evangelist
John the Evangelist
Saint John the Evangelist is the conventional name for the author of the Gospel of John...

 are mentioned, as for example those by Spearhafoc
Spearhafoc, a name meaning "sparrowhawk" in Old English , was an eleventh century Anglo-Saxon artist and Benedictine monk, whose artistic talent was apparently the cause of his rapid elevation to Abbot of Abingdon in 1047–48 and Bishop-Elect of London in 1051...

 in the 11th century.

The fact that the Essen statue is free-standing and its enamel eyes point to the influence of Byzantine art
Byzantine art
Byzantine art is the term commonly used to describe the artistic products of the Byzantine Empire from about the 5th century until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453....

 and its spreading to the Holy Roman Empire after the marriage of Emperor Otto II
Otto II, Holy Roman Emperor
Otto II , called the Red, was the third ruler of the Saxon or Ottonian dynasty, the son of Otto the Great and Adelaide of Italy.-Early years and co-ruler with Otto I:...

 with the Byzantine princess Theophanu
Theophanu , also spelled Theophania, Theophana or Theophano, was born in Constantinople, and was the wife of Otto II, Holy Roman Emperor.-Family:...

 in 972, although statues on this large scale were completely outside Byzantine traditions after the Byzantine iconoclasm. The overall form of the Madonna indicates that the sculptor was not experienced in carving free-standing sculptures, since profile, front and rear view do not match up to a harmonic whole.

Religious and political significance

Like many medieval works of art, the Madonna displays a very complex iconography
Iconography is the branch of art history which studies the identification, description, and the interpretation of the content of images. The word iconography literally means "image writing", and comes from the Greek "image" and "to write". A secondary meaning is the painting of icons in the...

. The statue shows the Virgin in a rather plain gown, while the oversized Christ child figure in her lap wears a precious pontifical gown. The size is meant to illustrate the importance of Christ as redeemer. In contrast Mary is depicted in a serving role, in accordance with Luke
Gospel of Luke
The Gospel According to Luke , commonly shortened to the Gospel of Luke or simply Luke, is the third and longest of the four canonical Gospels. This synoptic gospel is an account of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. It details his story from the events of his birth to his Ascension.The...

 1:38: And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. At the same time she embodies the Seat of Wisdom
Seat of Wisdom
In the Roman Catholic tradition, the epithet "the Seat of Wisdom" or "Throne of Wisdom" is identified with one of many devotional titles for the Mother of God...

 as the Throne of Solomon is described in 1 Kings
Books of Kings
The Book of Kings presents a narrative history of ancient Israel and Judah from the death of David to the release of his successor Jehoiachin from imprisonment in Babylon, a period of some 400 years...

 10:18: Moreover the king made a great throne of ivory, and overlaid it with the best gold. Sitting on her lap is the Christ child, whose ornate chasuble
The chasuble is the outermost liturgical vestment worn by clergy for the celebration of the Eucharist in Western-tradition Christian Churches that use full vestments, primarily in the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches, as well as in some parts of the United Methodist Church...

 betokens his significance as ruler of the heavens, the book his role as herald of the faith. Bearing in mind other medieval portrayals of Christ as teacher, it may be supposed that the child’s lost right arm was originally raised in a gesture of blessing. However, Christ’s face is turned towards his mother, while from any position Mary’s look seems directed towards the beholder. Thus Mary may arguably not only be interpreted as a passive devotee but also assumes the role of mediator between the people and the Redeemer.

There are several possible interpretations for the orb Mary is holding in her right hand. It is tempting to construe it as the globus cruciger
Globus cruciger
The globus cruciger is an orb topped with a cross , a Christian symbol of authority used throughout the Middle Ages and even today on coins, iconography and royal regalia...

of the Holy Roman Empire. However, a globus cruciger is not attested as part of the Holy Roman regalia until the coronation of Conrad II
Conrad II, Holy Roman Emperor
Conrad II was Holy Roman Emperor from 1027 until his death.The son of a mid-level nobleman in Franconia, Count Henry of Speyer and Adelaide of Alsace, he inherited the titles of count of Speyer and of Worms as an infant when Henry died at age twenty...

 in 1024, and besides in the habitual depiction of the globus cruciger the orb is always shown held by the full hand and all fingers, not just three.

It is therefore safer to interpret the orb as an "apple of salvation" —in much the same way as Eve
Eve is the first woman created by God in the Book of Genesis.Eve may also refer to:-People:*Eve , a common given name and surname*Eve , American recording artist and actress-Places:...

 held the apple of damnation plucked from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
In the Book of Genesis, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or the tree of knowledge was a tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden. . God directly forbade Adam to eat the fruit of this tree...

, Mary now proffers the beholder an apple symbolizing the redemption she has brought to the world by incarnating Christ. She thus appears as a New Testament antitype
Typology (theology)
Typology in Christian theology and Biblical exegesis is a doctrine or theory concerning the relationship between the Old and New Testaments...

 to Eve.

Another interpretation of the orb is akin to the globus-cruciger theory. While such an object may not have been part of the coronation ceremony of the Holy Roman Empire until the next century, the idea of an orb symbolizing power over the Mundus, i.e. the world, was well known by the time the sculpture was crafted. Depictions of this symbol of power can be found in Carolingian and Ottonian illuminated manuscript
Illuminated manuscript
An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders and miniature illustrations...

s. According to this theory then, Mary is holding the whole world in her hands, and she is holding it on behalf of the one who is in fact its sovereign, i.e. the infant in her lap.

The image of a mother holding the power over the world for her son may have had far-reaching political implications at the time of the sculpture’s creation. Emperor Otto II, uncle to Mathilda, the then abbess of Essen, died in 983 in Rome, leaving as heir to the throne only his son Otto, a child of three years. Until her death in 991, Otto's mother Theophanu served as regent for her underage son and defended his title against the claims of Henry the Quarrelsome
Henry II, Duke of Bavaria
Henry II , called the Wrangler or the Quarrelsome, in German Heinrich der Zänker, was the son of Henry I and Judith of Bavaria.- Biography :...

, formerly Duke of Bavaria and male next of kin to Otto. The Madonna could thus be construed as an expression of Theophanu’s insistence on being, by the Grace of God
By the Grace of God
By the Grace of God is an introductory part of the full styles of a monarch taken to be ruling by divine right, not a title in its own right....

, the rightful sovereign of the Empire until her son would be of age. Consequently, it may be inferred that Theophanu in fact donated the sculpture to Essen Abbey. In the struggle for the throne, Mathilde most probably took the side of Otto and Theophanu. Mathilde's family line had a long history of rivalry to Henry's, and she was the personal heiress to her brother Otto
Otto I, Duke of Bavaria
Otto I, Duke of Swabia and Bavaria was the son of Liodolf of Swabia and his wife Ida, and thus a grandson of the Emperor Otto I and his Anglo-Saxon wife Eadgyth...

 (d. 982), who in 976 had been granted the Dukedom of Bavaria after Henry’s revolt. This would further suggest that the eventual Emperor Otto III
Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor
Otto III , a King of Germany, was the fourth ruler of the Saxon or Ottonian dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire. He was elected King in 983 on the death of his father Otto II and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 996.-Early reign:...

 may have donated the “Child’s crown” of the treasury on his visit to the abbey out of gratitude for its loyalty in the power struggle that took place when he was a mere child.

Liturgical significance, past and present

The Golden Madonna has always held a special place in the liturgy
Liturgy is either the customary public worship done by a specific religious group, according to its particular traditions or a more precise term that distinguishes between those religious groups who believe their ritual requires the "people" to do the "work" of responding to the priest, and those...

 of Essen Abbey. From her creation she seems to have been normally kept in the Treasury, and only brought out for major feast-days and other special occasions. She was paraded in all major processions, and the altar dedicated to Mary in the cathedral was the place where deeds of donation to the religious community were received and deposited, thus putting them under the symbolic custody of the Virgin. It is however uncertain whether it was in fact the Golden Madonna who presided over these deeds, since the abbey inventories list two other Mary figures besides the golden one.

The most important procession took place on the day of the Purification of the Virgin 40 days after Christmas. In a steady ritual, the treasuress handed over the sculpture to the youngest canon of the parish on the eve of the procession, who then concealed it under his cloak and brought it to St. Gertrude’s church in the City of Essen, today known as the “Market church” (Marktkirche). On the following morning the statue was veiled and carried in a solemn procession back to the cathedral, where it was laid down on the steyn, the "stone" where offerings to the abbey were usually placed. There she was ceremonially unveiled and crowned with Otto’s child crown. The crowned Madonna was then carried back into the minster under the eyes of the congregation, just as Mary had been welcomed by the people of the Heavenly Jerusalem upon her arrival there according to the scripture. The Purification processions ceased in 1561 when the Protestant Reformation
Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation was a 16th-century split within Western Christianity initiated by Martin Luther, John Calvin and other early Protestants. The efforts of the self-described "reformers", who objected to the doctrines, rituals and ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, led...

 reached the city of Essen - — though not the abbey - and the parish of St. Gertrude was converted to the Lutheran faith. The medieval tradition of the coronation of Mary was revived in 1978 by Essen’s first bishop Cardinal Franz Hengsbach
Franz Hengsbach
Franz Hengsbach was a German Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church who served as Bishop of Essen from 1957 to 1991, and was elevated to the cardinalate in 1988.- Biography :...

 but had to be stopped in 2000 due to the restorer's concerns.

Another procession in which the Madonna was shown took place every year on the Monday preceding Ascension Day. On this day the nuns, canons and scholars of the abbey and its daughter house in nearby Rellinghausen held a formal meeting with the monks of Werden Abbey
Werden Abbey
Werden Abbey was a Benedictine monastery in Essen-Werden , situated on the Ruhr.- The foundation of the abbey :Near Essen Saint Ludger founded a monastery in 799 and became its first abbot. The little church which Saint Ludger built here in honor of Saint Stephen was completed in 804 and dedicated...

 and took the Golden Madonna along. The two processions met about halfway between the two monasteries at a chapel dedicated to Saint Mark in what is today the neighbourhood of Essen-Bredeney. A memorial cross commemorates the place of these meetings today.

When the Diocese of Essen (the so-called Ruhrbistum) was established in 1959, Mary was elected as its patron saint, and thus came to be a symbol for the whole Ruhr area. The first bishop of Essen, Cardinal Franz Hengsbach
Franz Hengsbach
Franz Hengsbach was a German Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church who served as Bishop of Essen from 1957 to 1991, and was elevated to the cardinalate in 1988.- Biography :...

, decided to make the statue accessible to the public. Since 1959 the Madonna has been on display in a climate-controlled high-security showcase in the northern side chapel of the cathedral.


This article is based on a translation of the corresponding German-language Wikipedia article retrieved on October 7, 2006.
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