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Mary - "Queen of Heaven"

Madonna sculpture from the Middle Ages with an unusual headdress.

When cataloguing all the museum’s painted medieval sculptures some years ago, I came across a sculpture that challenged both my imagination and knowledge. I refer to a Madonna figure from Lisleherad Church in Telemark that came into the possession of the museum in 1878. The old church had been demolished in 1873, and a new church built. A local farmer had taken care of the Madonna, and later the parish priest ensured that it was sent to the University of Oslo’s collection of national antiquities in Christiania (C8737).

Madonna sculpture from Lisleherad, Telemark (C.8737). Photo: Åse Kari Hammer/ Kulturhistorisk museum.

The sculpture is 71 cm high, and stands on a small base. The Madonna is in reasonably good condition, apart from the top part of the crown. The original gold and red pigments are fairly well preserved; the remainder of the damaged crown has been silvered. Based on the type, pose and folded drapery, the Madonna can be dated to the early 1500s. We do not know with any certainty whether she was carved in Norway or imported. However, we can clearly see that once she was the object of particular attention!

The gilding and colours emerge

1n 1878, the Madonna looked very different – she had been painted over and had a large, solid object on her head. This has some carved decoration but looks completely different from the elegant crowns that otherwise decorate late medieval Madonna sculptures.  

In 1930, the overpainting was removed so that the gilding and the original colours emerged. Description prior to the removal of the overpainting:

“…the dress was black, the mantle green with light red for …. the crown, which is new (from the 18th century?), is rosemalt in green, gold, red, white.”

Madonna sculpture prior to cleaning. Madonna sculpture before the overpainting was removed, from an old glass plate negative (approx. 1930).

“Queen of Heaven”

The crown as a symbol of dignity was adopted in artistic representations of Mary and was a typical Marian symbol. In the late Middle Ages we also find paintings showing Mary being crowned by Christ and God the Father: she was “Queen of Heaven”.

Crowns also appear in secular contexts, for example when a bride is presented in all her finery wearing a crown. We are familiar with this from Norwegian folk culture in which the “bridal crown” is a common motif as part of the bridal costume. Some researchers believe that this tradition has a long history.

In documentation of Norwegian folk costumes, we also find another headdress for brides, the so-called bridal circlet (fillet) or bridal lad. The lad headdress appears in different variations, often as a large cylinder encircling the head, open at the back and decorated with ribbons and textiles, sometimes also with gold and silverwork. With a little imagination the Lisleherad object could be regarded as a bridal lad, replacing the crown on the Madonna figure.

Bridal lad/bridal hat from Tinn in Telemark. Norwegian Museum of Cultural History (NF.1991-0337A). Photo: Haakon Michael Harriss/Norwegian Museum of Cultural History (downloaded from

Traces of a Catholic mindset?

If we accept this as being a bridal lad, new questions arise. What kind of ideas lie behind this? Why has someone deliberately cut away the upper part of the original crown in order to make room for this new object? Does the reconstruction mean anything?

Are these trace of the Roman Catholic mindset of the Middle Ages in Protestant Norway, revealing underlying thoughts of Mary and her queenly crown? Many Madonna sculptures, both with and without a crown, are preserved in churches. Congregations seem to have retained a special emotional tie to Mary even after the Reformation, although her place in the liturgy had changed: “The coronation of Mary” is no longer a common artistic motif. No one mentions bridal symbolism such as “Queen of Heaven” or “Bride of Christ” any longer.

Or is it more likely that the figure had simply been somewhat damaged and in need of restoration. This simple explanation is reinforced by an examination of her right hand, which appears to have been broken off. At some point in time it has been refastened by means of a wooden plug, a dowel pin, in exactly the same as way as the lad is fastened to the head. The restoration, or reconstruction of old objects in churches was not unusual in the 1700s.

The Madonna figure from Lisleherad, with the overpainting removed and with the lad headdress, tells us a little about the course of history and about people’s relationship to medieval church art, and enhances our knowledge of that era.




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The new Crown

The crown has now been examined anew. It is 6 cm high, 13 cm wide and 10 cm deep. It is a puzzling object, seemingly composed of several layers one above the other. Everything is painted in strong red, green, yellow and white colors. On the bulging center there is painted a red five-petaled rose which strongly resembles rosemaling. The style here, with simple four- or fempetaled rosettes and green stems, easily dated to the late 1700s or early 1800s. This is also probably the dating of this object, which has taken the place of Mary's Crown.

The photo portrays the front and also the underside with traces of the wooden dowels (dymlinger) for fastening to the sculpture. Photo: Eivind Bratlie/ Museum of Cultural History.

By Erla Bergendahl Hohler, professor emeritus, and Eivind Bratlie, conservator
Published Oct. 9, 2017 1:04 PM - Last modified Feb. 9, 2021 1:19 PM