On a recent trip to the Peak District I had the pleasure of staying on the Chatsworth Estate. Its huge private collection includes a Rembrandt and a Renoir. For a long time, this sculpture, The Veiled Vestal Virgin, has beguiled me with its beauty. If you are a Jane Austen fan, you may recognise it from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice adaption.
The piece itself was sculpted by the Italian artist Raffaelle Monti in 1846 on a commission from the Duke of Devonshire, the family of whom still live in the house today.
The reason I love this so much is the detail on the face of the statue. Carved in pure marble, it seems as if her face is gently covered in a silk, translucent shawl. It is almost like an optical illusion; you expect to see the material slip slightly from her face or move with breath. I find it difficult to focus on anything else in the sculpture. The fire burning in the bowl she holds is almost crude in comparison. The eye is drawn to the face and held there.
Created at the end of the Regency period, this sculpture is typical of the Neoclassical art movement. Roman and Greek influenced art which sought perfection and beauty. Its inspiration is the Vestal Virgins of Ancient Rome. These young noblewomen, chosen between 6 and 10, were trained to keep the fires of Rome burning, a powerful religious symbol. These were the most important girls in the Roman Empire, holding influential religious posts. For over 1000 years these six priestesses protected a sacred symbol in the most powerful empire in the world.
I do feel, however, that the subject of this sculpture is not the religious symbol held in the girl‚Äôs hands. It is a representation of all that the Neoclassical movement has to offer: beauty and perfection. Beauty is the persevering image, held in the face of the veiled girl. I am and will continue to be, awed by its perfection.
Girl Museum Inc.