York Museums Trust chief executive REYAHN KING introduces the St Mary’s Abbey 'Figure of Christ'

On a Monday morning last May, a hidden camera would have seen curators and managers at the Castle Museum and Yorkshire Museum running into each other’s offices in a state of excitement.

Lucy Creighton, Curator of Archaeology, had just informed colleagues about an important object coming up for auction in three days time in Germany. The object was a Figure of Christ made in Limoges in the 13th century. The connection that thrilled us was that it originally belonged to the monks of St Mary’s Abbey in York Museum Gardens.

With three days before the auction, we needed a plan to ensure it could return to York. Within 48 hours, experts, collectors, dealers, fellow colleagues at other museums, and donors together helped us ensure that we did indeed have a plan. Without all these people responding positively, we would not now have this wonderful little object in the city’s collections.

More recent additions to York Museums Trust’s archaeology collection have been found either through careful excavation by archaeologists or through the diligent searching of metal detectorists. Not so the St Mary’s Abbey Figure of Christ which has a mysterious history. The key clue lies in an old label stuck to its back: “Found in the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey at York in 1826”.

Presumably hidden for protection, this medieval figurine survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries and stayed hidden until it was found in the 19th century.

The exact circumstances of its discovery in the ruins are undocumented, but it was a time of keen antiquarian and archaeological interest in York that led to the foundation of the Yorkshire Museum, built over Abbey remains from 1828 to 1830 by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. The figure then disappeared again before emerging in the collections of a German art collector in the 1920s. It remained in Germany until parts of that collection were put up for auction last year.

Standing at about 16cm tall, this delicate figure of Christ was made to be mounted on an enamelled cross which would have decorated a religious object such as a manuscript cover.

Although made of bronze it has been gilded to resemble precious gold and has been decorated with bright blue enamels and semi-precious stones including turquoise. It was made with the champlevé technique of enamelling perfected by workshops in Limoges famous for producing gilded figures mounted against intricately decorated enamelled backgrounds.

The St Mary’s Abbey figure is a characteristic example. Limoges products brought brightly coloured splendour to most churches and such was their importance within the religious fabric of medieval Europe that Pope Innocent III (d.1216) decreed that all churches should hold at least one Limoges-enamelled item.

The richness of the figurine and its international source demonstrate the power and connections of St Mary’s Abbey as the wealthiest medieval abbey in northern England. This spectacular church would have been elaborately decorated and it can be presumed that this Corpus Christi embellished just one of many fine objects acquired to furnish the newly built, magnificent space.

Very few pieces of lavish medieval art survived Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries which saw religious houses stripped of their treasures. St Mary’s Abbey was closed and its monastic complex subsequently pillaged and destroyed in 1539, making this survival even more remarkable. The loss of the figure’s hands and feet, caused by being wrenched off the enamelled cross to which it would originally have been fastened, probably happened at this time.

Last year, the Figure of Christ returned to its home of 800 years ago. When the Yorkshire Museum reopens, this work of art with an extraordinary history can be viewed with St Mary’s Abbey ruins providing a fitting backdrop.

The figure of Christ was bought with generous support from Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund.