Artefact of the Month

A Wax Head Figure's Journey Through the Museum

December, 2018


It often happens in curatorial practice that in the process of storeroom cleaning, an object is found that can be established at first glance to have been kicking around the museum for a very long time.  Invariably, the identification of such an object takes more work than a mere reading of inventory number or a few minutes’ appraisal for the purposes of classification.  In most cases, the object will be physically degraded, deformed, and devoid of any distinguishing features that would help museum staff coax information out of it – to hone in on its original function and context.  What is typically clear about such objects is that, many long years at the museum aside, they have never really found a place to call their own.  The wax head figure chosen as this month’s artefact-of-the-month is an object of just this type.


In 1992, a wax head figure turned up in one of the museum’s storerooms.  Its clothing was ragged and dirty, its head run-down, its wax neck and face worn and in pieces.  Without any information to go on, but finding the figure intriguing nonetheless, the staff member in charge did a little research and decided that, given the presence of figures with similar wigs, clothing, and metallic lace decoration appearing in southern Italian nativity scenes, it must be a Neapolitan nativity piece depicting the Virgin Mary. In 2008, the curator inheriting the collection issued an inventory number for the piece, adding to its file that it had probably been collected from an aristocratic home, church, or cloister, given its resemblence to other, similarly finely worked pieces in the collection made from the same materials (wax, metallic lace, silk), all known to have been the work of cloister nuns. In 2015, during the preparatory work for the exhibition Nativity:  “Great Things Are Happening at the Manger”, the figure was examined by another pair of Museum of Ethnography staff members – a third curator and a member of the Restoration Department – and a breakthrough was finally made.

In fact, given what is known of analogous material, the piece represents a nativity figure from Bavaria, where manger scenes were typically composed of individual, wooden figures arranged in a landscape setting.  Though the same type of scene is common in Italy, France, the Czech Republic, and Moravia, the wax head associates the piece definitively with Bavaria, where – as elsewhere – it would have been used in an aristocratic or ecclesiastical setting.  During the restoration process, this geographical identification was confirmed and an approximate date established.  Removal of the figure’s clothing revealed that it possessed two right legs and hands that were either made for, or taken from two different nativity characters.  Thus, the place that produced it, having all the necessary parts and materials on hand, must have been a workshop specialising in nativity scenes.  The figure’s body had been made of inexpensive, leftover scrap wood, wire, and bits of cloth, all covered in a richly decorated, silk brocade dress.  Workshops that sold such products are known to have operated in Bavaria during the 17th and 18th centuries, though, given the decreasing popularity of wax heads toward the end of this period, the date in this particular case was narrowed down to around the middle part of the 18th century.  The identification of Bavaria as the place of production is supported by the discovery of a scrap of paper torn from a hand-written German prayer book that had been used to stiffen the figure’s skirt.

To determine the figure’s role in the nativity took some additional research.  Upon reviewing a large number of analogies, it became clear that, with its red clothing, it could not possibly have been a representation of Mary.  In fact, its attire – skirt, mantle, and pinafore (or dalmatic) over loose pantaloons –makes it difficult even to identify the figure as male or female.  This genderless quality, coupled with a positive comparison to Bavarian nativity angels (typically dressed in slender velvet robes and Roman sandals, arms spread wide, holding staves or banner poles) suggest that the figure in question is a nativity angel produced in an 18th-century Bavarian craftsman’s workshop.

Nativity figure
Restored by:  Eta Tumpek, with head reassembled by: Erika Forgó
Photo credit: Krisztina Sarnyai and Eta Tumpek

Hannah Daisy Foster



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