For six centuries, these two women have stood poised, joined in an attitude of tenderness annd shared inward serenity. Their faces are still and veiled in private contemplation, yet they seem keenly attuned both to each other and to some force they both feel.
For years, this small fourteenth century statuette group has been for me a symbol of trust and mutual joy between women, especially focused on the natural mystery of new life. Each viewing of the piece has offered some new thought or image, or just the gift of peace.
Attributed to Master Heinrich of Constance, the slender wooden figures are still richly polychromed and still bear the convex cabochons of rock crystal set in their center. Their robes fall open around these crystals, and are then gathered back closely around their lower bodies, thus both accentuating and protecting the clear oval shapes.
It seems only incidental that the figures represent the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth before the birth of their sons. They are Everwoman, and the pure depths of the crystals could have held their own secret thoughts, the mirrored gentleness of the care and respect for each other, could even have symbolized their quiet acceptance of the powerful life forces they felt stirring within them.
Certainly, the two women commune by touch and thought, rather than direct verbal or even eye contact; they focus on something beyond themselves. For that reason, it was faintly jarring to discover, in some scrap of art history, that the crystals might have served as windows through which a painted image was to be seen. Probably then, images of Mary's future son, Jesus, and Elizabeth's, St. John the Baptist. The scholarly supposition, tentatively couched as it was, shome how distrubed the delicate sense of mystery hovering about these two forms. It reduced them, momentarily, to the status all to commonly assigned to them through the millenia -artficially exalted in words, but merely a window through whom others are seen.
Futher, the idea of faces placed there added the vague sense of the ludicrous; the reliquary exhibiting a fragment of the "true cross," or a purported splinter from a saint's shinbone. Portraits of madonna and child are one thing. (Think of the tunning power and tenderness of Da Vinci's "Holy Family.") This was entirely another, something akin to the ancient vulgarity of Christ's facial image sweatily imprinted on Veronica's veil.
In short, it seemed a sacrilage against the innate and natural holiness of the idea the carved piece suggests. Weren't we warned that some things should not -and cannot -be named or depicted? The fact that some prevailing pious mode would have caused this sculptor to try seems a travesty against (and contradiction of) the artistic sensitivity and skill reflected here. I would like to believe this is evidence that the sculptor, Master Heinrich or someone else, never really placed or even intended to place a specific portraint there -and that it was a significant point that the artist did not. That the pure crystal was enough of a symbol in itself for the unnameable, spiraling beauty of the force at work here.
The women's faces, though, remain serenely undistrubed by this small, silent skirmish between conflicting perceptions six centuries after their creation. The women still stand, slim and erect, each whole in herself, yet independent of "self." Each focused on the terrible beauty ignited within them, aware of their own frailty in the face of it; yet joined, each with the other, in a simple gesture of mutual warmth and support.
In an essay on a Rembrandt portrait, Neil Millar once wrote, "With any still countenance, the messages are all written in code; and no human being has the key. The text is so intricate, ambiguous, and subtle that none of us could safely interpret it even if it were not veiled in echoes of divinity." These two strong and graceful figures have kept their veil and the mystery of what they sense; it remains for us to puzzle over their coded messages.