How a Zombie Mom Became an Art History Star
|Johann August Nahl, Tomb of Maria Magdalena Langhans, 1751. Church of Hindelbank, Bern canton, Switzerland|
Maria Madgalena Langhans, the 28-year-old wife of a Swiss pastor, died in childbirth on Easter Sunday 1751. Her husband commissioned German sculptor Johann August Nahl (1710-1781) to create a suitable tomb. Nahl's sandstone composition showed mother and child breaking out of the crypt (the sculpture itself) at resurrection. The blend of meta and schmaltz impressed Goethe, Schopenhauer, and James Fenimore Cooper. Nahl's tomb became a touchstone of the incipient Romantic movement. Mary Shelley would have been aware of it when she wrote Frankenstein in the rainy Swiss summer of 1816. Shelley foregrounded the creepiness of literal reanimation. That high concept still fuels Hollywood franchises and Halloween kitsch.
Maria Madgalena Langhans' tomb also plays a role the history of taste. Nahl is hardly remembered outside of Germany and Switzerland, but for a time his Langhans tomb was an essential stop on any European grand tour, as worthy of contemplation as masterworks of Michelangelo and Bernini. Those who saw Nahl's monument in the village church of Hindelbank, near Bern, wanted souvenirs. Prints were legion, as were small sculptural reproductions in terracotta and porcelain.
|Niderviller Porcelain version of Tomb of Maria Magdalena Langhans, about 1780. LACMA|
In 2002 LACMA bought a porcelain replica made by the Niderviller (France) Manufactory. This year the Getty acquired a somewhat later, larger (18.3 in) version by the Swiss Nyon Porcelain Manufactory as part of a group purchase of porcelain objects from France, Germany, and Switzerland. The Nyon model is attributed to Johann Valentin Sonnenschein.
|Nyon Manufactory, Tomb of Maria Magdalena Langhans, about 1785. J. Paul Getty Museum|
One of the most elaborate homages is a full-size copycat tomb in Britain, made for a Victorian pastor whose wife and child died of smallpox. "The quality of the monument is good," says the U.K.'s Church Monuments Society, "but the whole has most bizarre effect, resembling the worst type of zombie film."
|James Forsyth, Monument to Madelina Lance (detail), 1861. Church of The Blessed Virgin Mary, Buckland St. Mary, U.K.|