Giovanni Strazza, “The Veiled Virgin,” ca. 1850s (Photo: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

For millennia, sculptors have worked in marble, a medium favored for its softness and pellucidity. These features make the metamorphic rock particularly suited for pieces requiring complicated detail, including anatomical subtleties and flowing drapery. One sculpture that perfectly shows both of these instances is The Veiled Virgin which is a 19th-century work sculptured by Italian sculptor Giovanni Strazza.

The Veiled Virgin

People know only a few about the creation of The Veiled Virgin. Historians believe Strazza, who was from Milan, crafted his sculpture while working in Rome during 1850s.

The Veiled Virgin

The Veiled Virgin shows the Virgin Mary with a veil covered over the contours of her features which are crafted the same as reality. Her eyes are closed and her head is tilted down thus, the figure seems to be either peacefully praying or expressing her sympathy or grief—both of which are historically features of Virgin Mary portrayals.

Giovanni Strazza's Veiled Virgin

This is made out of Carrara marble, a material which is from Tuscany. It is historically used for years by ancient Roman builders and Italian Renaissance artists.

This high-quality marble gave the perfect canvas for carving veils—a sculptural technique that was famous among Strazza and his fellows. In general, they were interested in sculpting busts and sculptures of women with faces covered as seen in these. Pietro Rossi and Raffaelo Monti further illustrate the famous trend.

Left: Pietro Rossi, “Veiled Lady” 1882 (Photo: The Gibbes Museum of Art Public Domain)
Right: Raffaelo Monti. “Veiled Lady,” c. 1860 (Photo: Minneapolis Institute of Art Public Domain)

The Veil in Sculpture

Why were veils famous among 19th-century Italian sculptors? One reason for it in this subject matter is because it gave them a chance to show off their artistic talent very well.

Giving life to a delicate sculpture from a solid material like stone is really a great ability inside the artist. A flowing piece of fabric clinging to a body requires a great level of talent. Thus, since old days, sculptors have dressed their figures in drapery as a way to showcase their sculptural prowess. Sculptures from Greece’s Hellenistic period and the Italian Renaissance serve as the most popular examples of this incident —and, clearly, as inspiration for Strazza and his contemporaries.

“From an archaeological point of view, [the Veiled Virgin‘s veil] stems from the tradition of ‘wet drapery’ that already existed in Greco-Hellenistic sculpture,” Claire Barbillon, the director of the École du Louvre, says. “Sculptors have always taken on this challenge.”

Detail of “The Winged Victory of Samothrace” (190 BCE) (Photo: Stock Photos from muratart/Shutterstock)

In addition to a Neo-classical explanation of drapery, artists during this time also explored the veil motif in response to the Risorgimento, or the Italian unification. As the Italian people developed a renewed interest in arts and culture, the portrait of a veiled lady became an allegory for the whole country. The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Website explains that it is a unique symbol of the country too:  “Britannia symbolized England, Hibernia symbolized Ireland, and Lady Liberty symbolized the United States.”

Why did Strazza try to combine a nationalistic symbol with Catholicism? While his own religious beliefs are unknown, many of the interpreters say that it is related to devotion. And also, maybe he was simply inspired by the religious sculptures crafted by Renaissance and Baroque masters before his era.

Michelangelo, “Pietà,” 1498-1499 (Stock Photos from starryvoyage/Shutterstock)

Canada, The Hometown For the Veiled Virgin For Over 150 Years

While we think that this sculpture remained in Italy throughout, Canada was its home for over 150 years. In 1856, it was transported to St. John’s in Newfoundland, where it was received by Bishop John Thomas Mullock and placed in the Episcopal Palace next to St. John’s Basilica.

St. John's
View with St. John’s Basilica

In his diary, the Bishop appreciated his new acquisition: “Received safely from Rome, a beautiful statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in marble, by Strazza,” he wrote. “The face is veiled, and the figure and features are all seen. It is a perfect gem of art.”

Its relocation was also interestingly documented by a local newspaper, The Newfoundlander. “To say that this representation surpasses in perfection of art, any piece of sculpture we have ever seen, conveys but weakly our impression of its exquisite beauty,” the article says. “The possibility of such a triumph of the chisel had not before entered into our conception. Ordinary language must ever fail to do justice to a subject like this – to the rare artistic skill, and to the emotions it produces in the beholder.”

In 1862, it was transported to the nearby Presentation Convent, where it is kept safely until today.

Source of the information:

We’d like to personally thank Dr. J.E. FitzGerald for permission to cite freely from the information in his article written for the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website.