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Rare 15th-century bust discovered in England

A carved 15th-century sculpture displayed on top of a cupboard at Anglesey Abbey in central England has been discovered to be a unique reliquary bust, previously thought to have been lost to the art world.

The bust of the martyr St Agnes has been identified as being by Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden or his workshop, arguably the most important 15th-century sculptor in northern Europe. But only 20 of his works are believed to have survived and the newly-discovered sculpture is the only work by Gerhaert in a UK public collection.

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The discovery was made as part of a National Trust four-year sculpture cataloguing project to fully record and research all 6,000 sculptures and statues in its collection. It is the first time the Trust has had the resource to study all of its sculptures in this way.

Known for his unusually lively and naturalistic sculptures, Gerhaert’s life-sized bust of St Agnes is carved from walnut and was made around 1465. It would originally have been painted and displayed in a church, probably as part of an altarpiece.

The bust shows St Agnes holding a lamb and was a reliquary which would once have contained a piece of bone or another relic from the saint. The relic has long been lost and the cavity in which it would have rested has, at some point, been sealed.

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The St Agnes was part of a set of four sculptures with St Barbara; St Catherine of Alexandria; and St Margaret of Antioch, commissioned for the Benedictine Abbey church of Saints Peter and Paul in Wissembourg, Alsace, north-eastern France. They survived in the church until the late 19th century, with plaster casts of all four busts made around 1870 which are now at the Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame, Strasbourg. Three of the busts were later sold in Paris and subsequently ended up in museums.

Nothing is currently known about the whereabouts of St Agnes from then until it came into the collection at Anglesey Abbey when it was purchased sometime between 1932 and 1940 by the house’s owner Lord Fairhaven, a keen collector of sculpture and statues. However, the bust was wrongly described in his 1940 inventory as ‘The Virgin and the Lamb’ and has been on display on top of a cupboard in the Windsor Bedroom for many years.

The discovery of its true identity was made by Dr Jeremy Warren, the National Trust’s Sculpture Research Curator. He commented, “It was clear to me that the sculpture was of superb quality, with enough clues to lead us to look at the work of sculptors who were working in the later 15th century. My research took me to the surviving plaster cast of this bust, which tied up all the loose ends neatly. It has taken over 80 years for St Agnes to be given back her identity.”

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Man Meditating (Buste d’homme accoudé), an apparent self-portrait of Nikolaus Gerhaert van Leyden, c. 1467

The sculpture cataloguing project is visiting 200 National Trust places looking at the sculptures and statues to record them more accurately and carrying out more detailed research. The team is working in partnership with Art UK which is also producing an online catalogue of all the nation’s sculptures.

Alice Rylance-Watson, the National Trust’s Collections Cataloguer said,
“This discovery demonstrates the enormous importance and value of cataloguing. The project has involved visiting properties and examining each sculpture in person to produce detailed and accurate descriptions, followed by research in archives across the country to determine who made the pieces, and how they came into the Trust’s collections. We are making this information publicly accessible for everyone through our Collections website and with Art UK.”

Jeremy Warren added, “We suspect there are a lot of discoveries, great and small, to be made in the Trust’s sculpture collections, and it is an aim of this project to winkle out as many as possible that will enhance the appreciation of this rather unsung part of our properties. Whether you are a scholar or sculpture enthusiast or simply enjoy looking at great craftsmanship and objects from the past, there is lots to enjoy both at Anglesey Abbey and elsewhere in the Trust’s sculpture collection.”

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Following the identification of St Agnes, the bust is now being re-displayed in the Dining Room at Anglesey Abbey. To learn more about this heritage site, please visit the National Trust website.

Top Image: Conservation Assistant Annie Tomkins comes face to face with the reliquary bust of St Agnes, recently discovered to be by master sculptor Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden. Photo by National Trust / Rah Petherbridge

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