Jacob Epstein (1880-1959)
Madonna and Child 1950
Collection of Modern Religious Art, Inv. 23728

General Description

Jacob Epstein, American by birth but British in soul and body, owes the religious inspiration of his art to his upbringing as an orthodox Jew. Although not religious in a conventional sense, religion taught him humanness, “giving human rather than abstract implications” to his work. Counted with Rodin, Maillol, and Moore among the great sculptors of the first half of the twentieth-century, his sculptures are monuments to humanness lost and retrieved, burgeoning and withering, expressed in brilliant detail (portraiture) or reduced to essential simplicity (monumental sculptures).

Epstein is the author of Social Consciousness, Liverpool Resurgent, and Christ in Majesty, but he has also made countless and impressive portraits from that of Rabindranath Tagore (1926) to that of Winston Churchill (1946). Among his Marian works, we count two of special prominence. The first is a representation of Madonna and Child (1926), the second a monumental sculpture – the lead Madonna and Child (1950-52) for the convent of the Holy Child Jesus at Cavendish Square in London.

Two Madonnas

Epstein worked for a year on the 1926-27 Madonna and Child. An Indian woman, Sunita, and her son, Enver, posed for him. He was attracted by the eternal Oriental type of beauty which “seemed just right for a work of this religious character.” The impression of Sunita looking at her own sculpted head was one of awe. Epstein remarks: “She recognized that there was something eternal and divine in it and outside herself.” (Autobiography, 123) The message of the sculpture is one of protection, and even possessiveness. Knowing her son to be too young to leave the cocoon of motherly love, she holds on with giant hands to the frail body of the boy. Is her gesture one of genuine care, or is it inspired mainly by self-pity? Her face is marked with life’s hardship and permeated with ageless wisdom.

The second example is the Cavendish Square Madonna. It decorates the bridge connecting the two Palladian buildings occupied by the former convent of the Holy Child Jesus. Our sculpture is a preparatory maquette for this monumental sculpture (1950-52). Epstein had first used the portrait of his wife, Kathleen Garman, to render the face of the Madonna. Upon request by the nuns for a more meditative interpretation of the Madonna’s head, the artist, for the monumental scultpure, substituted a head based on the portrait of his pianist friend, Marcella Barzetti.

The great difference between the 1926 Madonna and that of 1950 is easily perceived. If the former was anxiously enclosing the boy with hands, arms, and legs, the latter stands with arms at her side, palms open, and feet in a position of outstretched abandon. Indeed, her whole body is reduced to a shining surface of joyful abandon, a simplified version of the Platytera, a mere backdrop of support and protection. The body of the child emerges from her body progressively from bottom to top. The form of his body is most pronounced for chest, arms, and head. The arms are outstretched in the form of a cross. The Madonna’s gesture presents her Son to the world while accepting the fate he foreshadows. But the outstretched arms are not only reminiscent of the Passion; they are also an all-encompassing gesture of welcome and universal love.

In both of these Madonnas, the human factor is highlighted: the raw and sensual humanness in the early Madonna, and the refined and oblative humanity of the Cavendish sculpture. But the theological motif is not absent: the early representation is a modern version of Our Lady of Tenderness (Eleousa), whereas the more recent has all the characteristics of Our Lady of the Way (Hodegetria).

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog:  The Mother of God: Art Celebrates Mary, pp. 142-143.

See also: E. Silber, The Sculpture of Epstein (with a complete catalog). Lewisburg, 1986.

The Mary Page Gallery features numerous examples of contemporary Marian works. Look for previous exhibits and individual artists at:  www.udayton.edu/mary/gallery.html

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