Researching a Medieval miniature cradle
In this edition, Conservator of Sculpture and Installation Art, Stephanie de Roemer discusses her recent research on this beautiful Medieval miniature cradle, acquired by Sir William Burrell in 1937.
This is a unique and rare survivor. It was made by a family of Renaissance sculptors called Borman, near 15th century Brussels, then in the Southern Netherlands but now Belgium. The family were highly regarded for their outstanding work in fabricating altar pieces in particular.
The tradition of altar pieces is connected to the theatrical performance of the various ‘events’ in the liturgical calendar, with altars being opened and closed according to the timeline of the narrative they represented.
This cradle was made in 1480-1500, meticulously carved in oak, with a painted and gilded finish. It measures only 253mm x 190mm x 115mm and weighs 390g. Originally, it would have been suspended in a similarly decorated structure, with three bells attached at the bottom, which would have rung as the cradle moved. There would also have been a tiny doll-like figure of the Christ child inside.
As part of an altar setting, the cradle would have been the centre of a communal activity of expressing care for the infant, with the action of rocking the cradle, accompanied by song and ringing of the small bells.
Through my work on the cradle I have made a connection with the Borman family workshop. It is very rare to be able to attribute individual works from medieval times to a specific maker, workshop or artist and I think this connection to me is the most exciting discovery!
It’s also interesting to consider that this little cradle originates from a time when Christmas as we now know it, didn’t exist. Then the occasion was about marking the shorter days and the darkness and cold of winter, as well as a celebration of the Christ child being born, as a symbol of a new light coming into the World and renewed hope.
Most special to me is the aspect of ‘care’ that is at the centre of the meaning of this cradle. The song “Joseph lieber, Joseph mein” that would often have accompanied the rocking of the cradle, is a request by the mother of a child to her husband or partner to help her care for this precious new life. It reminds us that ‘it takes an entire village to raise a child’, and we all have a responsibility to one another. This I feel is very poignant and still relevant today, regardless of one’s religious beliefs.
Stephanie de Roemer
Conservator of Sculpture and Installation Art
Watch a film about this object
Below, watch a short film in which Stephanie explains how the cradle would have been used all those years ago.
At the end of the film, there’s a short excerpt of the traditional song “Joseph lieber, Joseph mein”, played by Stephanie on her flute. Our team are a talented bunch!
Header image and image gallery shows the miniature cradle, 1480-1500, painted and gilded oak, made by the Borman family of sculptors in Brussels.
Pictured also with Stephanie, to give an idea of its size.