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Sedes Sapientiae

[image ALT: A wooden statue of the Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus, rather hieratically seated on her arm. She is seated in a high-backed throne and her feet, wearing pointed slippers, rest on an oval footstool. It is the Madonna known as the Sedes Sapientiae in the church of S. Maria in Camuccia, in Todi, Umbria (central Italy).]

This wooden statue in Todi's church of S. Maria in Camuccia is dated by experts to the end of the 12c.

[image ALT: The upper part of a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus, rather hieratically seated on her arm. He holds an orb in his left hand, and appears to reach for something (rather than to bless) with his right. The Virgin is veiled and wears a silver crown. It is the Madonna known as the Sedes Sapientiae in the church of S. Maria in Camuccia, in Todi, Umbria (central Italy).]

The statue is traditionally called "Sedes Sapientiae", the Seat of Wisdom. Jesus is here represented not as a bambino, an innocent baby; but seated, enthroned — notice in his left hand the orb, the symbol of dominion, still used in the regalia of several modern monarchs — on his mother's lap, with an air of wisdom and adult awareness. The caption beneath the statue makes it explicit and places it in a well-known set of similar statuary:

[image ALT: A crabbed inscription in medieval script: text, translation and commentary are provided on this webpage.]

In gremio matris fulget sapientia patris
In the lap of His Mother shines the wisdom of His Father.

The exact same inscription, a Leonine hexameter verse, is known elsewhere, notably on the Sivignano Madonna (late 12c) now in the Museo Nazionale dell' Abruzzo in L'Aquila, and on the so‑called Madonna di Prete Martino (Father Martin's Madonna, dated 1199), a work originally from Sansepolcro — a town only a few dozen miles further up the Tiber Valley than Todi — and now in the Bodemuseum in Berlin. The line is much more often seen, though, with a frankly somewhat more suitable verb, sedet or residet: a Majestas at Beaucaire, a fresco in Domodossola, and among many other places an Adoration of the Magi in Arezzo — another place not very far from Todi.

A website out there attributes the verse to Fulbert of Chartres, but undermines its believability, unfortunately, by going on to state that it refers to the Immaculate Conception, which it does not: as Pope Benedict XVI explained, with a long church tradition behind him,

"The 'mind of Christ', which through grace we have received, purifies us of false wisdom. And this 'mind of Christ' welcomes us through the Church and into the Church, taking us to the river of her living tradition. The iconography that depicts Jesus-Wisdom in the womb of Mother Mary, symbol of the Church, expresses this very well: In gremio Matris sedet Sapientia Patris; in Mary's womb sits the Wisdom of the Father, that is, Christ."

Address to Students and Teachers of the Ecclesiastical Universities of Rome,
October 20, 2008.

[image ALT: A small Maltese cross]

The statue had been in the lower Romanesque church of S. Maria in Camuccia "from time immemorial", but has been moved at least twice in the 20c.

The first time was to be restored — in 1958, in 1963 or in the 1980s depending on who you read, and three separate restorations may just possibly be involved — when a thick coat of polychromy and varnish was removed, along with both heads: the Virgin's was 16c, the Baby's was that of an insipidly attractive 17c cherub. The composite result, with its accumulated grime, had misled most into believing the statue to be a very run-of-the‑mill 16c work; but once the repairs and overpainting were removed, even allowing some traces of the original paint to be found, it turned out to be the classic work we see here, some calling it Umbrian, others French from the Auvergne. In the judgment of some art experts, even, it's actually the proto­type of the more famous Sansepolcro statue; and a third, similar statue, differing mostly in that it is Mary, not Jesus, who holds an orb-like apple, is said to be in Collazzone: yet a third place not at all far from Todi.

I have no information on the heads we now see here, but nowhere can I find that the original head was somehow located and reattached; and as you can see, they are of a different color and texture, suggesting that the principles of modern restoration have been applied and that they are 20c recreations; and the painted backdrop including the inscription we looked at above may also be modern. On the other hand, I have seen a photo of a pair of very attractive if damaged Romanesque lion corbels that are nowhere to be found in the statue as it is now displayed in the church; they may be in Todi's Biblioteca Comunale along with the detached frescoes from the lower church.

The second time the Mother and Child were moved was when they were stolen from the church on December 4, 1988: they were very quickly recovered from an antique dealer. Art theft is a ubiquitous and perennial danger thruout Italy, and explains why churches are often so firmly closed.

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Site updated: 9 Jul 16