Hen and chicks at Monza

Type: Sculptures
Date: Fourth to seventh centuries
Location or Findspot (Modern-Day Country): Italy
Medium: Gilt-silver, Wood, Gems
Dimensions: hen H 27 × 40 cm, chicks H ca. 7 cm
Description: The cathedral dedicated to St. John the Baptist at Monza houses a golden statue of a hen and seven chicks pecking at grain scattered atop a circular disk. Local tradition holds that this sculpture was found in the sarcophagus of the Lombard Christian queen Theodelinda (ca. 570–628). Whether or not this account is true, the work was recorded in an inventory of 1275, and it was depicted in the fourteenth-century tympanum on the cathedral's west facade. The hen and chicks (at the upper right) are shown next to images of other works still in the cathedral treasury. The tympanum relief was likely carved around 1320 to commemorate the return of the treasury objects after they had been looted fifty years earlier.

The hen is made from a sheet of gilded silver, worked in repoussé over a wooden core and then chased and punched on the surface to suggest feathers. The legs and crest were made separately and welded to the body, which is further enlivened by red gems used for the eyes (one of them is a reused intaglio). The eyes of the chicks are small sapphires.

Jesus referred to himself as a mother hen gathering his faithful chicks (Matt. 23:37, Luke 13:34), and the hen is analogous to the Church in numerous early medieval texts. Hens and chicks were depicted in Jewish and Christian arts, although no other medieval examples in metal survive. This makes dating the sculpture challenging, but most scholars assign the work to the late antique period (fourth–seventh century).

Theodelinda was a Roman-rite Christian who married (successively) two Arian Christian spouses. Her correspondence with Pope Gregory I ("the Great") survives, as do many of his gifts to her. These included a Gospel book with a gemmed cover, still preserved in the Monza treasury: it is inscribed, in Latin, "Among the gifts of God, Theodelinda, most glorious queen, offers this to St. John the Baptist, in the basilica that she founded near her palace in Monza." Like the precious Gospel book covers, the hen and chicks may have been a papal gift intended to promote Roman Christianity.
Relevant Textbook Chapter(s): 2, 3
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

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Monza Cathedral, west facade tympanum Monza Cathedral, west facade tympanum, detail of upper-right corner with hen and chicks sculpture