In 1914, war broke out between France and Germany, with Alsace and Lorraine in the thick of the fighting. The industrialist Joseph Vogt, mayor of Niederbruck, Alsace, vowed to raise a statue to the Virgin if his village was spared. It was, and in 1919 he commissioned a work from the leading sculptor Émile-Antoine Bourdelle. After Joseph Vogt’s death in 1921, his son Léon took over the project until eventually a statue some six metres tall was installed on a hill overlooking the village.
Bourdelle came up with a new depiction of the Virgin for the work. Mary is shown holding her son up high, “[…] familiarly lifting him over her head. One of the virgin mother’s hands holds one of the infant’s hands, his arms lifted as if in offering […] the child, already pensive, forms the image of the cross with the entirety of his tiny body”, the artist explained. He modelled the work on his wife and daughter. Mary’s rigid figure, all strict lines and vigorous volumes, is softened by the gracious curve of her pose. The medieval connotations of her veil and gown, her robust grace, and the drape of the fabric led some contemporary commentators to suggest the work was backward-looking. Bourdelle responded, “I sculpt in patois”. The work was shown at the Autumn Salon in Paris in 1922. There it caught the eye of his fellow artist Maurice Denis, who wrote in the review La Vie, “This Virgin Mother is a masterpiece of modern art and of religious art down the ages”.
Ionel Jianou and Michel Dufet, Bourdelle, deuxième édition avec le catalogue des sculptures complété et numéroté, Paris, Arted Éditions d’art, 1975.
Gaston Varenne, Bourdelle par lui-même, sa pensée et son art, Paris, Fasquelle, 1937.