Female bust

WB.192     1450–1500 • bust brooch

Curator's Description

Female bust in gold, enamelled; the hair above appearing as metal, wearing a large turban, red with stars white; neck damaged and imperfect. Mounted on a modern pin.

This object was collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

1.8 cm wide, 12.4 cm high, 1.2 cm deep, and it weighs 4g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1986:-

Origin: Attributed to a Burgundian or Flemish workshop, second half of 15th century.

Commentary: This tiny bust, for the reasons set out below, appears to be a most exceptional link between the two early groups of 'sculptural' enamelled gold jewellery (‘émail en ronde bosse’) that are currently dated approximately a century apart.

On the one hand, there is the group of exceptionally grand French and Burgundian court commissions, chiefly made c. 1400 but apparently continuing into the second quarter of the fifteenth century (see Müller and Steingräber 1954, pp. 29-79). This first group is represented in the Waddesdon Bequest by the duc de Berry's Reliquary of the Holy Thorn, c. 1405-10 (WB.67).

On the other hand, there is the distinctive and clearly later group (mainly c. 1500-20) that cannot be documented to any particular centre of production, though two works have well-attested histories. Firstly, there is the large Klosterneuburg Adoration of the Magi panel, which was recorded in the 1550 Inventory of Klosterneuburg (near Vienna) and has remained there to this day; and secondly, there is the Victoria and Albert Museum's smaller Adoration of the Magi roundel, which had formed part of a large silver-gilt reliquary made before 1526 for that great patron of goldsmiths, the Prince-Bishop Albrecht von Brandenburg (1490-1545), Elector and Archbishop of Mainz, a Cardinal (since 1518) and creator of the great Abbey Church Treasury at Halle, known as the Hallesche Heiltum (see P. M. Halm and R. Berliner, ‘Das Halle’sche Heiltum’, Berlin, 1931, no. 130, pl. 72; see also Erich Steingräber, Süddeutsche Goldemailplastik der Frührenaissance, in the ‘Festschrift für Theodor Müller’, Munich, 1965, pp. 233 ff., figs 1-4; Jörg Rasmussen, Untersuchungen zum Halleschen Heiltum des Kardinals Albrecht von Brandenburg, in the ‘Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst’, XXVII, N.F., 1976, pp. 102-10, figs 40-2). The Victoria and Albert Museum roundel in its original elaborate setting within a reliquary (now lost) is depicted not only in the Hallesche Heiltum illuminated codex of 1526 (preserved in the Schlossbibliothek at Aschaffenburg) but also in the original drawing which incorporates Albrecht's coat of arms above the arch of the reliquary (formerly in the Lahmann Collection, Dresden). The Victoria and Albert Museum roundel is the only fragment of this splendid object to have been traced; the other two reliefs and the architectural silver-gilt frame appear to be lost - like so many of the objects in Albrecht's great Treasury at Halle, which had been dispersed soon after his death in 1545.

This documentation, together with the stylistic evidence of the pieces within this second group, has led to a general agreement about the probable date of manufacture - the first two decades of the sixteenth century. However, there is no decisive evidence about their place of origin. In the past objects belonging to this group have been variously attributed to Spanish, North Italian, German or Burgundian workshops, but since Erich Steingräber's publication in 1965 (see above), the second edition of Evans (1970) included a significant revision; instead of “Spanish, about 1540” (in the 1953 first edition), there is the statement that “the group is attributable to a South German workshop of c. 1530” (p. 95), though the two examples chosen for illustration (fig. 65a and col. pi. va) are captioned “German, c. 1540”. Both these suggested dates of origin are not only inconsistent but probably too late.

More recently, Jörg Rasmussen in 1976 (see above) has amplified the arguments favouring an attribution to a Germanic workshop and, more precisely, to a goldsmith influenced by the artists of the ‘Donau-schule’ with particular reference to the work of Georg Lemberger. The most recent publication of this group occurs in ‘Renaissance Jewellery’ by Yvonne Hackenbroch, 1979 (pp. 118-20, figs 294-300, col. pl. XI), where the seven captions to the pieces illustrated do not vary but consistently repeat this new attribution, “Donau region, c. 1520”, although the author concedes that it is “difficult to fix their place of origin”, adding that “arguments of style and technique form the only signposts”; even the brief discussion of this problem (p. 120), whilst advancing cogent reasons for rejecting the earlier attributions of this group to Nuremberg or Augsburg (on the negative evidence of one of the techniques employed), produces little more than a very general observation about the crowded compositions and a claim that similar compositions, “although on a larger scale, can be found in certain paintings and sculptures from the Donau region, between Regensberg . . . and Vienna”. In the absence of evidence of a more compelling nature, this interpretation must remain open to review every time the surviving material is reconsidered and the internal evidence is re-appraised. This tiny bust in the Waddesdon Bequest, which has not hitherto been the subject of a detailed study appears on the one hand to possess characteristics that link it with the first group ‘circa 1400’ and, on the other hand, to have other features that link it with the second group ‘circa 1510-20’; its relevance to the problem of identifying a ‘transitional’ group has never before been considered.

The bust was last published in 1954, when Müller and Steingräber referred to it (p. 64) and included it in their ‘Katalog’ (at the end of their joint article, p. 78, no. 33, where an acknowledgement to Dr Sigrid Flamand Christensen “for help” is made). In their brief ‘Katalog’ entry Dalton's attribution (1927) of this bust, “German, early 16th century”, is quoted (but not Read 1902 where the attribution was identically phrased); it was rejected in favour of “Französisch-Burgundisch, Anfang des 15 Jahrhunderts”. Müller and Steingräber have related the Waddesdon Bequest bust to another fragment in Munich - the incomplete half-length female figure, preserved in the Schatzkammer der Reichen Kapelle in the Munich Residenz (see the catalogue by Fritz Haeberlein, 1939, p. 78, no. 138); but, unfortunately, when this fragment became attached (c.1600) to the foot of a late sixteenth-century standing crucifix (first recorded as such in the 1626 Inventory), none of its earlier history was recorded, nor is there any information about the object to which it originally belonged. It also has a similarly formed face and the same very unusual arrangement or division of the hair into three masses of curls, although there is no head-dress behind the three spreading bunches of curls that frame the face. A further point of similarity is the appearance above the forehead, on either side of the central bunch of curls, of a short strip of bright enamel (in this case, ornamented with dots). This feature corresponds exactly with the two red strips in the curls on the Waddesdon Bequest bust and, presumably, in both instances they represent part of a head-band that helps to hold the elaborate coiffure in place. Müller and Steingräber 1954 (p. 78, no. 31, fig. 55) described the Munich half-length female figure as “Französisch-Burgundisch, Anfang des 15 Jahrhunderts”, and drew attention to the close similarity that exists between it and the undated but unaltered brooch of enamelled gold in the Cathedral Treasury at Osnabrück (no. 32 in their ‘Katalog’, p. 78, fig. 56); the latter is shell-shaped with a fashionably attired lady (‘émail en ronde bosse’) in the centre. It remains, therefore, a possibility that the Munich fragment had also been originally part of a similar brooch.

Certainly, the fashion for such jewels during the fifteenth century is well demonstrated by the many documented examples, none of which can be precisely dated within the fifteenth century: for example, the gold enamelled and gem-set brooch with a lady hawking (in the centre) found in Lublin, Poland (now in the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin - see ‘Kataloge’, Bund I, 1963, no. 34, where it is illustrated and attributed to a Burgundian or French workshop, early fifteenth century); the unique collection of sixteen pieces dedicated in the Cathedral of Essen (illustrated in Müller and Steingräber 1954, p. 76, no. 28, fig. 54, and in Evans 1970, pls 22-3), two of which have a seated lady in court attire in the centre of the brooch; the group of three small gem-set brooches found in the river Meuse in the nineteenth century (now in the British Museum), one of which shows a woman holding a faceted sapphire; and, perhaps most evocative of all, the Lovers Brooch (in the Geistliche Schatzkammer, Vienna) which most probably came to the Hapsburgs from the estate of Mary of Burgundy (d.1482), daughter and heiress of Charles the Bold of Burgundy (d. 1477), and wife of the Archduke Maximilian of Austria (Emperor 1493-1519). The Lovers Brooch, recorded in the possession of the Hapsburg Emperor Ferdinand I (reigned 1556-64), is an almost perfectly preserved gem-set brooch, which probably dates from the years just prior to Mary's marriage in 1477 when she was twenty; it depicts the enamelled full-length standing figures of a lady and a gentleman in an enclosed garden (see Evans 1970, p. 63, col. frontispiece, pl. 1; Müller and Steingräber 1954, p. 65, no. 37, fig. 57). The heads of the two lovers are so completely free of the background that they are modelled entirely in the round and, therefore, it is possible that the Waddesdon head was originally part of a similar or, perhaps, slightly larger piece of jewellery; certainly the enamelling technique on the lady's elaborate head-dress to create an impression of a textile fabric is similar to that used on the white enamel of the turban on the Waddesdon bust.

The Waddesdon Bequest bust relates closely not only to the Munich fragment but also to an elegant gold enamelled seated lady (‘émail en ronde bosse’), which has survived, without any setting, in the ancient and historic collections of the Danish Royal Family at Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen. When it was included in Müller and Steingräber’s 1954 publication (p. 65, fig. 59, and in their ‘Katalog’, p. 79, no. 38), it was attributed “Französisch-Burgundisch, um 1460” - a significantly later date than that given to the other “fashionable lady” jewels in their ‘Katalog’. Certainly, the distinctive treatment of the expressive face with the heavy eyelids and straight nose seems to become a familiar characteristic of this transitional group but rarely with such refinement. The slender neck and the sloping shoulders are graceful - probably even more graceful than the Waddesdon Bequest bust had been before it was damaged. The décolletage is skilfully rendered, even on this minute scale, and fortunately many of the gold ornamental motifs decorating the enamelled dress have survived. Perhaps the most significant of all these gold motifs are the crimped ‘ribbons’ of gold.

The crimped ‘ribbon’ or thin strip of gold is used extensively on this figure, both to create a pattern on the billowing skirt of the dress and to emphasise the figure's feminine charms by having two diagonally placed ‘ribbons’ converge from the shoulders and disappear between the figure's breasts. Broader crimped ‘ribbons’ are used to ornament both the coloured hem of the dress and the coloured band that curves from the shoulder's edge on one side, beneath the bust, to the shoulder on the other side. Significantly, the remains of crimped ‘ribbons’ of gold on the surface of the enamel can be found on the Waddesdon Bequest bust particularly on the left-hand side of the lower part (on the blue enamel) and on the top of the head-dress towards the extreme edge of the red enamel area. This use of thin, narrow strips of gold crimped into a corrugated form is a highly distinctive technical feature and yet it is almost exclusively to be found on these jewels (email en ronde bosse) which constitute the second group dating from the first two decades of the sixteenth century.

Every one in that group of eight extant pieces is ornamented in this way to a greater or lesser extent and, in many cases, even the flat surfaces of the reverses of these jewels are ornamented with these crimped strips applied in a symmetrical fashion to form the geometrical patterns. Miss Hackenbroch, pointing out that “such wavy bands have never been observed in goldsmiths' work from Nuremberg or Augsburg, where this group was once thought to have originated”, fails to cite a single example with a known origin that has been decorated in this way.

The lavish use of this technique to decorate the little elegant Seated Lady (Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen) suggests that there is some continuity or a close link between the late examples of the ‘Franco-Burgundian’ first group and the jewels of the second group. To a limited extent this same technique of ornamentation is to be observed on the costume of the Munich fragmentary Lady and the Lady in the Osnabrück Cathedral jewel, both of which have been catalogued in Müller and Steingräber’s 1954 list as “Französisch-Burgundisch, Anfang des 15 Jahrhunderts”; perhaps a later date (c. 1450-75) should now be considered. Similarly, the Waddesdon bust, with its remains of crimped ‘ribbon’ decoration, is yet another piece of evidence linking these four late examples in the first group with the jewels in the second group.

Furthermore, a ‘Burgundian’ (or, after the middle of the fifteenth century perhaps a better term is ‘Flemish’) origin for that second group (c. 1500-20) can best be argued not only because the technique of crimped ‘ribbons’ seems to be common to both but because one of the most distinctive characteristics of this later group can be paralleled in Flemish wood-carving - and nowhere else.

Three of the surviving pieces of this second group are Adoration of the Magi scenes set within roundels, one from the Albrecht von Brandenburg Hallesche Heiltum (in the Victoria and Albert Museum), one in the Cabinet des Médailles (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris) and one from the Eugen Gutmann collection (in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Although the scenes are rendered in an individual manner in each case, just as in the Klosterneuburg panel, a ‘stage’ with architectural stonework or brickwork is created to form a major element in the design. Through the doorways (to left and right) in the brickwork figures are represented half-emerging - to add to the sense of realism. In each case the architecture of both left and right sides is linked by a ceiling with ribbed vaulting, however improbable in architectural terms.

This particular treatment of the scenes within a roundel format is exactly paralleled in the well-known and equally small Flemish wood-carvings of rosary beads, several of which can be reliably dated to within the first three decades of the sixteenth century. Two examples in the Waddesdon Bequest (WB.235 and WB.236), for example, illustrate a comparable use of similar ‘stage’ architecture and, even though the scene is out-of-doors and represents the journey to Calvary after leaving the gates of the walled city of Jerusalem, it is, nevertheless, covered by a ribbed vaulted ceiling. The scene includes St Veronica, who is represented in an elegant and fashionable turban-style head-dress.

The reverse of each of the rosary beads is strikingly similar to the reverse of the three enamelled Adoration of the Magi roundels. The geometric patterns created by the goldsmith and wood-carver are clearly derived from Late Gothic architectural tracery and ribbed vaulting. Indeed, it is interesting to note that the quatrefoil motif that occurs between the ‘ribs’ on the reverse of the Klosterneuburg panel is to be found in the pierced curvilinear tracery on the reverse of the rosary bead (WB.235). The goldsmith would probably have found the application of these crimped ‘ribbons’ on to the heated green translucent enamel extremely difficult, especially if the pattern was complex, and yet on the reverse of the George and Dragon roundel (in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle) a sophisticated curvilinear pattern has been attempted - with a measure of success.

These gold enamelled roundels seem, therefore, to have their counterpart in the wooden Flemish rosary beads of the first three decades of the sixteenth century and, in their elaboration of various techniques, such as the application of crimped ‘ribbons’ and raised, almost hemispherical, dots of gold, they seem to be a fully developed late manifestation of that earlier type, now inadequately represented by these examples preserved in Rosenborg, Munich, Osnabrück and in the Waddesdon Bequest. Confirmation of the existence of this distinctive ‘transitional’ group in the second half of the fifteenth century can be found in the one extant example that is securely datable. It dates from between 1458 and 1488: the gold enamelled (émail en ronde basse) free-standing figure of an angel on the cover of the rock-crystal reliquary of the Holy Thorn in Rheims Cathedral Treasury (see ‘Les Trésors des Eglises de France’, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 1965 (2nd edn with corrections), no. 137, col. pl. opp. p. 72). This extremely beautiful object bears the mark of the Paris goldsmith, Guillaume Lemaistre, who became a master in January 1458, and it is known to have entered the Treasury of the Dukes of Brittany before 1488 or 1489. After the death of the Duke of Brittany, François II, this piece was clearly and accurately inventoried (quoted in extenso by Eva Kovačs, Le Reliquaire de l'ordre du Saint-Esprit: la "dot" d'Anne de Bretagne, ‘La Revue du Louvre’, October 1981, p. 246, no. 4, fig. 1). By the end of the fifteenth century it had become part of the Ancien Trésor de la Couronne de France. Fully described in the 1561 Inventory of the French Crown Jewels, it was later a royal gift to the Abbaye de St Pierre-des-Dames at Rheims. The standing angel exhibits many of the distinctive characteristics of this ‘transitional’ group, both in the style of the head and in the use of applied gold over the white enamel of the robe of the angel.

The Waddesdon bust is also remarkable for its applied gold motifs, like the tiny flowers on the red-enamelled area of the turban-style head-dress. These gold motifs are cut to the various shapes from thin gold sheet or foil and sometimes bear an impressed design in low relief. They are applied to the enamel while it is hot and so become firmly attached to the surface of the enamel as it cools, though occasionally the gold has become detached in the process and only the blank impression remains in the enamel. This can be seen on the right-hand side of the red area of the head-dress, while in the centre the largest of the five-petalled flowers is ornamented with a stamped chequer-pattern in relief. The smaller flowers on either side seem to be plain smooth gold, with a central circular depression.

This technique of decorating the enamelled area with applied gold was used on a closely datable heart-shaped brooch in the coin and jewellery hoard found at Fishpool, Nottinghamshire, in 1966; this hoard was probably deposited in the early months of 1464 at the time of the Battle of Hexham (see John Cherry, The Medieval Jewellery from the Fishpool, Nottinghamshire, Hoard, ‘Archaeologia’, CIV, 1973, p. 307 ff., where the description on p. 314, however, omits to mention that the gold motifs “on top of the enamel” have been stamped with an impressed pattern in relief). The pattern created on the applied gold has, of course, left its impression on the white enamel beneath, and in several places the gold has subsequently lifted off, but the lozenge-shaped pattern can still be seen in the enamel. This evidence suggests that on the heart-shaped brooch, which may be of Flemish origin, the gold was applied to the heated enamel and, as it cooled, was pressed down on to the hardening enamel with a tool that created the lozenge-shaped pattern of nine points. However, in some areas the gold did not adhere to the enamel and was lifted off by the tool, which has left its imprint on the enamel.

The same technique appears to have been employed by the goldsmith who made the Waddesdon bust because there are two places where the gold is missing and yet the coloured enamel bears the imprint. The large flower in the centre of the red-enamelled area of the head-dress, however, may have been impressed before being applied because there is no sign of the stamped design on the red enamel between the five petals. To achieve this effect after applying the plain gold flower, a tool of exactly the same five-petalled form would have had to be used with perfect precision in order to impress the chequer-pattern on to the gold and avoid going over the edge into the red enamel. Such an effort may seem wholly disproportionate to the result, but if it is assumed that the central five-petalled flower received its pattern in relief before being applied to the hot enamel, it is difficult to understand how it would retain its crisp appearance in relief while being picked up and being transferred on to warmed enamel. A certain amount of pressure had to be exerted in order to ‘bed’ the gold five-petalled flower down on to the enamel, and at that point the pattern would have been flattened. Consequently, it would seem that the tool used to press it down also gave it the chequer-pattern but, apparently, managed to avoid the red enamel in the immediate area of the five petals.

Finally, the Waddesdon bust, which had previously been described in Read 1902 and Dalton 1927 as wearing “a large turban”, has continued to elude identification, although this type of head-dress is to be found in Flemish and German paintings and sculptures of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries; for example, in the painting, c. 1435, of ‘The Nativity with the two midwives’ (in Baron Thyssen's collection, Lugano) the artist, Jacques Davet (active in Arras 1434 - d.1452), has depicted an almost identical form of ‘turban’; a fine example of this type of head-dress, seen in profile and worn by a midwife, is depicted in Ludwig Shöngauer's ‘Birth of Mary’, c. 1475 (in the Museum, Ulm); perhaps the ornate ‘turban’ worn by Tilman Riemenschneider's full-length lime-wood figure of St Barbara (in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich) is a particularly late manifestation of this fashion, for this sculpture is said to have been carved in Wurzburg, c. 1510 (for an illustration see ‘Kunst und Kunsthandwerk, Meisterwerke im Bayerischen Nationalmuseum’ Munich, 1955, p. 51, no. 55). The turban-style head-dress cannot, therefore, solve the identity of the Waddesdon bust, which may have come from a jewel representing a religious subject, perhaps a female saint of wealthy origin (like St Veronica or St Barbara), or it might be part of a purely secular figure. Whilst the evidence is quite inconclusive on this point, it does now seem that this bust is more probably the product of a late fifteenth-century Flemish goldsmith working in the well-established Burgundian tradition rather than the creation of a German workshop in the ‘Donau-schule’, about which little else is known.

The enduring strength of that late Burgundian tradition can best be gauged by the large and very splendid - though no longer perfectly preserved - gold and enamelled reliquary of Charles the Bold, which the Duke's goldsmith, Gerald Loyet, made c. 1467 and which the Duke presented to the Cathedral of Liège in 1471. It is still there, standing 53 cm high and depicting the figure of St George behind the kneeling Duke, both clad in their shining armour. Full of realistic details, the reliquary has, nevertheless, the same quality of exotic idealism that characterises the Goldenes Rössel of Altötting (c. 1403-4). Today the Duke's Reliquary is the sole surviving example on this grand scale of the Burgundian taste in the second half of the fifteenth century; the rest are a handful of tiny court jewels incorporating miniature enamelled figures (see ‘Flanders in the Fifteenth

Century’, exh. cat., Detroit, 1960, pp. 298-300). There is only one known exception that bridges the gap: it is the little free-standing group of the Annunciation, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum. In the treatment of the flesh colour and the modelling of the face there is great similarity to the Waddesdon bust; and as the Annunciation group can (for the reasons given in the Introduction, p. 14) be identified with the object stolen from the Imperial Hapsburg Treasury and can be attributed to a Burgundian goldsmith in the third quarter of the fifteenth century, it offers valuable confirmatory evidence in an area where so much has been lost.


  • Charles Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 192
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 192
  • Theodor Müller and Eric Steingräber, Die Französische Goldemailplastik um 1400, ‘Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst’, v, N.F. 1954, pp. 64, 78, no. 33, fig. 58
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. 1., The Jewels', British Museum, London, 1986, no.2, pl. VB, figs.21-23
  • Eva Kovaks, 'L'âge d'or de l'orfèvrerie parisienne : Au temps des princes de Valois', Faton, 2004, no.33 and illus.
  • References

    1. Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
    2. Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
    3. Tait 1986: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; I The Jewels, London, BMP, 1986

Go to the Collection Online page for this object?