Shrine Madonna or Vierge Ouverte, Germany c. 1400. Source: Musee de Cluny/Wikipedia

Worlds Within. Opening the Medieval Shrine Madonna

Medieval Shrine Madonnas were intimate sculptures, delicately carved and painted to let the devoted audience contemplate Mary as Mother of not only the Son but in fact the many worlds of Heaven and Earth

Worlds Within. The Medieval Shrine Madonna -CoverWorlds Within. Opening the Medieval Shrine Madonna
By Elina Gertsman
University of Pennsylvania Press 2015
ISBN: 978-0-271-06401-7

In Worlds Within, Elina Gertsman investigates the Shrine Madonnas, or Vierges ouvrantes—sculptures that conceal within their bodies complex carved and/or painted iconographies.

The Shrine Madonna emerged allover Europe at the end of the 1200s and reached a peak of popularity during the following three centuries. As witnessed by the many different names –  Vierge ouvrante (French), Virgen abridera (Spanish) Virgem abrideira (Portuguese) and Virxe abrideira (Galician), Shreinmadonnen (German), Skrinmadonna (Swedish) and Shrine Madonnas (English) – different traditions stressed their capacity to alternatively open up, reveal and hold different “worlds”: the joys of Mary, the Annunciation, the Heavenly Host, scenes from the Life of Christ, the congregation or simply the Passion of Christ. Many sculptures will hold a combination of these elements.

Gertsman argues in this comprehensive analysis that the appearance of these objects—predicated as they were on the dynamic of concealment, revelation, and fragmentation—points to the changing roles of vision and sensation in the complex, performative ways in which audiences were expected to engage with devotional images, both in public and in private.

Worlds Within considers these fascinating sculptures in terms of the rhetoric of secrecy, the discourse of containment, and the tropes of unveiling. Gertsman demonstrates how the statues were associated with the processes of seeing and memory-making and how they functioned as instruments of revelatory knowledge and spiritual reformation in the context of late medieval European culture.

The book is accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue, generously illustrated.


Elina Gertsman is Professor of Art History at Case Western Reserve University. She is currently working on two projects: Prof. Gertsman is working on several new projects including the monograph on emptiness in late medieval art, tentatively titled Nothing is the Matter (contracted by Penn State Press); a centennial focus exhibition – Myth and Mystique: Cleveland’s Gothic Table Fountain – at the Cleveland Museum of Art co-curated with Stephen Fliegel, and slated to open in October of 2016; and the book co-authored with Barbara Rosenwein, The Middle Ages in 50 Objects (contracted by Cambridge University Press).


  • Introduction: A Cause of Error
  • Secrets: Revealing Bodies, Fragmented Vision
  • Ruptures: Holy Anatomy, Affective Obstetrics
  • Play: Animate Substance, Uncanny Performance
  • Imprints: Hybrid Memories, Interior Journeys
  • Postscript: The Excavated Body
  • Appendix: Shrine Madonnas ca. 1270–ca. 1500, in Approximate Chronological Order
  • Notes, Bibliography, Index




Shrine Madonna or Vierge Ouverte, Germany c. 1400. Source: Musee de Cluny/Pinterest







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