Closing the Tabernacle: European Madonna Tabernacles c. 1150 – c. 1350
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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Original versionMedievalia. Revista de Estudios Medievales. 2020, 23 (1), 59-100. 10.5565/rev/medievalia.497
There are at least twenty-nine Madonna tabernacles from 1150–1350 with one or more wings preserved, most of them in Scandinavia and Spain. These tabernacles housed a sculpture of the Virgin and Child. In the open position, the central sculpture would be revealed, surrounded by scenes from the Incarnation story, depicted in relief, paint, or a combination of both. The aim of this paper is to explore these Madonna tabernacle in its closed position; What decoration and motifs are found on the exteriors? Can a closer examination of the exteriors of these works provide a greater understanding of their function and later development? And, finally, is there a difference between a closed Madonna tabernacle and a closed tabernacle that houses other saints? Most of the surviving tabernacles have wings with monochrome exteriors, often red, but also green and black or a combination of red and green. There are also examples of tabernacles with patterns or foliage. Only six tabernacles have traces of figural decoration on the exterior. Here we find St. Peter and St. Paul, sometimes together with St. John. One tabernacle has the Passion of Christ on the exterior wings. Tabernacles housing saints other than a Madonna figure have also had monochrome exteriors, often red, although several of them, at least in Scandinavia, have lost most of their original color. Only two examples have figural decorations on the exterior and they would probably have had depictions of St. Paul and St. Peter. This leads us to the conclusion that in a closed position there was little that distinguished a Madonna tabernacle from tabernacles housing other saints.