This beautiful stone head was part of a sculpture that would have stood in a church. It represents a woman, probably from the royal family or nobility, as suggested by her large crown.
The sculptor of this work chose to work with limestone, a very soft stone that was widely used in France in the 14th century. This head is in a very good state of preservation, with no damage to the face or traces of restoration, as evidenced by the red pigment in the corners of the mouth. This sculpture shows many traces of its original polychromy. The crown was also golden.
This crown is very interesting because it allows us to identify the figure. With a definite scale, it delicately adorns the wavy, loose hair that falls along this head. It is inlaid with pearls as well as cabochon-cut and faceted gemstones. At the center of the head is a large cabochon. This crown is reminiscent of the one worn by Jeanne II d’Auvergne, known as Jeanne de Boulogne, on the mantelpiece of the Duc de Berry’s palace in Poitiers. Several moldings of this work were made: the first is in the Louvre Museum and the second in the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris.
Jeanne II d’Auvergne (1378-1424) was Countess of Auvergne and Boulogne by paternal succession. Daughter of Jean II Count of Auvergne, known as le Mauvais Ménager, she had her inheritance extorted by the Duke of Berry. When the matter reached the ears of King Charles V, Jean de Berry’s brother, he tried to find a solution so that the young girl could return to her domains in Auvergne and Burgundy. Jeanne was forced to marry the duke, becoming duchess of Berry and Auvergne. On January 23, 1393, she took part in the Bal des Ardents, a ceremony famous throughout history for the fire set by King Charles VI’s brother, Louis d’Orléans, which turned the guests into human torches. Four members of the nobility perish in the fire. Following her husband’s death in 1416, she remarried Georges de la Trémoille and became Countess of Guînes. At the end of her life, Jeanne de Boulogne was ruined, as Jean sans Peur, Duke of Burgundy, had seized her husband’s lands. She was then stripped of all her lands in Languedoc, as Jeanne was accused of minting counterfeit money. She died in 1424 and was buried in Bourges cathedral beside her first husband, Jean de Berry.
At the time of Jeanne de Boulogne and the reigns of Charles V and Charles VI, the art of tomb making took on considerable importance, so much so that the greatest sculptors of the period were called “tomb makers”. Not only dedicated to receiving the bodies of the illustrious departed, these tombs were also intended to commemorate the personalities they housed. The sculptures shared the same characteristics as our sculpture: the faces are calm, with a slight smile.
Female funerary sculptures were more charming than those for men, such as the 1370 Portrait de Jeanne de Bourbon, from the Hospice des Quinze-Vingt, now in the Louvre.
Most of the time, these commemorative sculptures were intended for recumbents, and therefore for lying down. However, the hair and folds of clothing were depicted as if the figures were to be seen standing upright. It’s possible that our sculpture was intended for a recumbent: the back of its head shows traces of tools, proof of the sculptor’s work on this part,
however, no locks of hair were included. This element suggests that she may have been lying down, and is therefore part of a recumbent corpse.
It’s also possible that this is a sculpture at the entrance to an important building. Indeed, portraits of benefactors were carved into the portals of churches and chapels. In all cases, these statues of kings, princes or counts are imbued with a certain naturalism and possess similar features such as prominent cheekbones and a serious character.
This tendency towards naturalism is less striking in the mid-14th century, with artists such as Jean Pépin de Huy and the tombstones of Philip the Fair and his sons. This production is interesting to compare with our sculpture, as artists of the period preferred a slightly more idealized model: unlike other representations of countesses in the 14th century, Jeanne de Boulogne is shown here not with an elongated nose, but with a small nose and a small mouth. What’s more, the characters aren’t portrayed with a lively character; instead, they’re rather austere with a neutral expression, worthy of their title.
The sculptor of our work therefore wanted to represent Jeanne de Boulogne in her noble role as Countess. She wears her crown with dignity, a reminder of the importance of her title and the extent of her possessions. With its idealized features, this work is part of French sculpture of the mid-14th century.