Q: What is a Vierge Ouvrante or Shrine Madonna?

A: The Vierge Ouvrante or shrine madonna is a sculpture of Our Lady which can be opened like a shrine, and shows basically one of three iconographical motifs.  A Vierge Ouvrante may contain (1) scenes of the Incarnation and Passion of Christ; (2) scenes of Mary's life (exclusively in Spain and Portugal); (3) representations of the Trinity (Father sitting, holding the crucifix with the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering over both of them).  Thus, the symbolism is to make visible the mysteries of our salvation.  Mary in her role as Theotokos makes the second person of the Trinity and his salvific work visible, not to supersede or replace it, but to bring it to our attention.  The oldest extant shrine madonna is dated around 1200.  It is called the Madonna of Boubon.   France, Spain and Germany were the countries with the most fertile production of shrine madonnas.  This madonna type originated in women's monasteries, and was inspired by medieval mysticism and cistercian spirituality.  It is believed that in Spain the Cantigas de Maria of Alphonso el Sabio had influenced the creation of Shrine Madonnas.  Other sources of influence were Rhineland mysticism (spousal mysticism), Birgitta of Sweden's visions, Dorothee of Montau, and not least the Teutonic Knights and their Marian devotion.  Trent did not explicitly condemn the creation and veneration of shrine madonnas. Its decree on sacred images of December 3, 1563 remains generic and entrusts bishops with the right to accept and reject specific images.  More specifically, in 1745, Pope Benedict XIV warned against representations of the Vierge Ouvrante, and refers to it in his Brief to Gerson and Molanus.  In particular, John Gerson (1363-1429) warned against the interpretation that the whole trinity had taken a human body in Mary's womb.  It is a fact that this type disappeared during the post-Reformation period with the exception of some nineteenth century copies of the Boubon shrine madonna.  Lists of extant Vierges Ouvrantes can be found in Gudrun Radler, Die Schreinmadonna, 1990, pp. 51-123.

See also our answer to the following your question: Please discuss the origins and meaning of the phrase "Chamber of the Trinity" in reference to Mary. Were images made to represent this idea?

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