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Virgin Mary Clay Figurine

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Artifact Description

One of the few religious artifacts recovered from the “Tortugas” wreck site appears to be an incomplete and unglazed ceramic figure featuring the head and torso of the Virgin Mary possibly holding something in her arms, presumably the Christ child. If this artifact depicts the standing Virgin Mary, then the remaining object represents about one-third of the original figurine. Some of the highly eroded facial features can be observed, including the forehead, eye sockets and the outline and folds of draped garments covering the head and upper torso. The degraded condition of the artifact leaves much to speculation.

A grayish ridged band running along the top of the figure’s head and shoulder may represent a mold seam, and as such would be suggestive of a European origin. The figure resembles pipeclay (white ball clay) figurines made in the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries, whose iconography focused on the Virgin Mary, the Christ child and the female virgin saints. A Mary and Child found in the Overijssel Province of the Netherlands in a context dating to c. 1525-75 is one such early parallel. The "Tortugas" example, however, does not seem to typify Dutch manufacture. The reddish tint of the Tortugas example may represent stained pipeclay. Alternatively, the clay could be earthenware material. Accurate differentiation is impossible without chemical analysis.

The production of white pipeclay figurines is considered to have been a sideline for pipe-making centers that flourished in England, the Rhineland and the Netherlands in the 17th century. The discovery of these figurine types in urban domestic contexts suggests that they were objects of personal devotion, believed to be popular amongst women praying for help to manage conception, pregnancy and childbirth. Such figurines were acquired as souvenirs and gifts and were perhaps purchased during pilgrimages.

While the “Tortugas” figurine would have been suitable for personal devotion, its appropriateness aboard ship was bolstered by the Virgin Mary’s religious status as the protector of mariners, Stella Maris, the Star of the Sea’. Also known as the North Star, Stella Maris was the most important celestial body for sailors. Mariners typically sang Ave Maria at sundown to protect against the perils of the night and very possibly to welcome the arrival of Polaris, Mary’s North Star. Most Spanish sailors wore amulets of the Virgin Mary or their favorite saint around their necks to seek protection. For similar protective reasons Christopher Columbus’ flagship was named the Santa Maria.

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