In October 2012 UMMA curator Carole McNamara sent an email to the medievalists in the Department of History of Art saying that the museum had been offered the gift of a sculpture of the head of the Virgin Mary, 14-15 inches high, of painted wood. The donor, who preferred to remain anonymous, had inherited the somewhat battered piece, and she knew nothing whatever about it (date, place of origin, provenance), other than that it might have been purchased in Vienna or elsewhere in central Europe in the early 20th century. It had stood perched atop a wardrobe in her home for some time.
Professor Achim Timmermann looked at photographs that had been attached to the original email while sitting in an internet café in London, and he replied: “If this is not a fake, I'd say southwest central Europe, possibly Bohemia or Salzburg, c. 1400-20, good stuff. I'd like to look at the original, if you have it in Ann Arbor. Could be an important piece.” In November the bust arrived at UMMA. In early December Timmermann and his student Alice Sullivan examined it and confirmed that it was anything but a fake. More and better photographs were made, and Timmermann got to work. His instincts about the sculpture’s significance were well justified. It proved to be a hitherto unknown example of a celebrated group of late Gothic statues, the so-called “Schöne Madonnen” (Beautiful Madonnas) – works of painted stone or wood showing the standing Virgin holding the Christ Child, that were created in the ambient of the court of Prague in the contemporary “Soft Style” (weicher Stil). The most famous example of the type is the Krumau Madonna, which was found in a private home in the southern Bohemian city of Krumau (Czech: Český Krumlov) in 1910, and is now in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
The Ann Arbor Madonna is but a fragment of a full statue: it would originally have measured 1.1-1.2 m. Presumably a dealer lopped off the lower section, finding it in a ruinous state. Still, as Timmermann has demonstrated, it remains a superlative example of its type. His publication on the piece is shortly to appear in the Czech art journal Umění along with a pendant article by the Czech scholar Ivo Hlobil, who has devoted his scholarly life to the study of such works. Hlobil was astonished that so fine a piece had turned up in the US and pleased, of course, that a specialist was ready to hand who could recognize its significance.
The work is on display among the medieval and early modern holdings at UMMA.