Dated around the year 980, it is both the oldest known sculpture of the Madonna and the oldest free-standing sculpture north of the Alps, and one of the few major works of art to survive from Ottonian times. To this day it remains an object of veneration and symbol of identity for the population of the Ruhr Area.
The sculpture has been known by its current name Golden Madonna only since the times of 19th century romanticism. A liturgical manuscript dating from around 1370 simply describes it as "dat gulden build onser vrouwen" (literally “the golden image of Our Lady”). The 1626 treasure inventory of Essen Abbey lists Noch ein gross Marienbelt, sitzend uff einen sthuell mit lauteren golt uberzogen ("[A]nother image of Mary, sitting on a chair and covered with pure gold").
The statue measures 74 centimetres (29 inches) in height; the pedestal is 27 centimetres (10.6 inches) in width. The core of the sculpture was carved from a single piece of wood, most likely from a poplar tree, though earlier art historians have assumed it to be pear, plum or lime. The sculpture’s surface is entirely covered with gold leaves less than 0.25 millimetres (0.01 in) thick, which are held in place by minute golden bolts. The size of the individual gold leaves varies to suit the surface texture. The faces of both mother and child are pounded out of one single leaf each. The coloured eyes of the figures are made of cloisonné enamel. While the eyes of the mother are inset into carved fittings, those of the child are merely pasted on the wooden core. The child’s hand is made of cast silver and was added only in the 14th century; the original right hand is lost. There are traces of original tenth century adornments on the orb in the Virgin's right hand, on the right back leg of the stool, as well as on the child's book and halo. The agrafe showing an eagle and seemingly pinning Mary’s cloak is an early thirteenth century addition; the fibula beneath has Gothic features and is dated to the fourteenth century.
During and after World War II the statue suffered from hasty evacuation transports; many gold leaves came loose and the wood was again infested with wood boring insects. A second restoration was undertaken by the Essen goldsmith Classen, who gassed the sculpture with pesticides and filled the bore holes with “liquid wood”, a plastic then commonly used in wood restorations.
The most recent restoration was undertaken on site in 2004. A workshop was installed in the cathedral’s treasure chamber to examine the condition of the sculpture. X-rays and endoscopy were used to detect remaining cavities, and both wood from the core and the sooty film that had accreted on the gold leaves over the centuries were chemically analyzed. The experts recommended that the statue be kept in a steady climate and not exposed to agitation. Cologne wood restorers Ria Röthinger and Michaela von Welck consolidated the wood of the stool, silversmith Peter Bolg polished the metal leaves of the coating and the child’s right silver arm which had tarnished black over the years. The restoration was overseen by a commission of art historians and restorers led by Dr. Brigitta Falk, curator of the Essen treasury. The Madonna was returned to its habitual place in the cathedral in December 2004. A detailed restoration report is due to appear in an anthology in 2007 along with further research papers on the statue and Essen Abbey.
Whether and exactly when the statue was commissioned, acquired or donated is unknown, and documents referring to the Madonna are surprisingly scarce for the first couple of centuries of its existence. It seems certain that it was part of the cathedral treasure by 993, when Emperor Otto III paid the abbey a visit and donated a crown, the so-called “child’s crown”, which is also part of the treasure to this day. Since this first mention the Madonna has always been in the cathedral save in wartime. Apparently the bitter conflict between the diocese of Cologne and the Lords of Isenberg over control of Essen Abbey that resulted in the murder of Archbishop Engelbert at the hands of Friedrich von Isenberg in 1225 did not touch upon the possession of the sculpture, nor did the centuries-long quarrel over whether the city of Essen was legally a free imperial city or rather a dependency of the abbey ever affect that matter.
The seal of the city of Essen of 1244 shows the Madonna between Saints Cosmas and Damian. The first documented mention of the Madonna is from the 1370 Liber Ordinarius, which details a fully developed liturgy and processions centred around the statue. The fact that the canon received the Madonna from the hands of the treasuress for processions on Purification leads historians to assume that the sculpture was shown exclusively during processions and was stored out of public sight for the rest of the year. Suggested repositories include the fortress-like westwork of the cathedral and the armarium dictum sychter, an annex to the south nave.
The second evacuation was effected in 1794 before the advance of the French revolutionary army. It was hidden in the orphanage of the nearby town of Steele. Essen Abbey ceased to exist in 1803 following the secularization of ecclesiastical principalities under the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss. Ownership of the Madonna passed to the Roman Catholic parish of St. Johannes, which used the former abbey church as its parish church. Throughout the 19th century the sculpture mostly remained locked away in the treasury and was hardly ever examined by art historians.
During World War II the Essen treasure was first evacuated to Warstein, then to Schloss Albrechtsburg in Saxony and finally moved to an air-raid shelter in Sieg, where it was discovered by American troops by the end of the war. Because the treasury in Essen had been destroyed by air raids, the Madonna could not return to its natural place until the 1950s. It was first brought to the Hessian State Museum in Marburg, then to Schloss Dyck near Rheydt. From April to June 1949 it was shown in an exhibition in Brussels, then through October in Amsterdam, and finally returned to Essen. Until the reconstruction of Essen Cathedral was completed the treasure was stored in the vault of Essens’ savings bank. The Madonna has not left the city since.
There are several possible interpretations for the orb Mary is holding in her right hand. It is tempting to construe it as the globus cruciger of the Holy Roman Empire. However, a globus cruciger is not attested as part of the Holy Roman regalia until the coronation of Conrad II in 1024, and besides in the habitual depiction of the globus cruciger the orb is always shown held by the full hand and all fingers, not just three.
It is therefore safer to interpret the orb as an "apple of salvation" —in much the same way as Eve held the apple of damnation plucked from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Mary now proffers the beholder an apple symbolizing the redemption she has brought to the world by incarnating Christ. She thus appears as a New Testament antitype to Eve.
Another interpretation of the orb is akin to the globus-cruciger theory. While such an object may not have been part of the coronation ceremony of the Holy Roman Empire until the next century, the idea of an orb symbolizing power over the Mundus, i.e. the world, was well known by the time the sculpture was crafted. Depictions of this symbol of power can be found in Carolingian and Ottonian illuminated manuscripts. According to this theory then, Mary is holding the whole world in her hands, and she is holding it on behalf of the one who is in fact its sovereign, i.e. the infant in her lap.
The image of a mother holding the power over the world for her son may have had far-reaching political implications at the time of the sculpture’s creation. Emperor Otto II, uncle to Mathilda, the then abbess of Essen, died in 983 in Rome, leaving as heir to the throne only his son Otto, a child of three years. Until her death in 991, Otto's mother Theophanu served as regent for her underage son and defended his title against the claims of Henry the Quarrelsome, formerly Duke of Bavaria and male next of kin to Otto. The Madonna could thus be construed as an expression of Theophanu’s insistence on being, by the Grace of God, the rightful sovereign of the Empire until her son would be of age. Consequently, it may be inferred that Theophanu in fact donated the sculpture to Essen Abbey. In the struggle for the throne, Mathilde most probably took the side of Otto and Theophanu. Mathilde's family line had a long history of rivalry to Henry's, and she was the personal heiress to her brother Otto (d. 982), who in 976 had been granted the Dukedom of Bavaria after Henry’s revolt. This would further suggest that the eventual Emperor Otto III may have donated the “Child’s crown” of the treasury on his visit to the abbey out of gratitude for its loyalty in the power struggle that took place when he was a mere child.
The most important procession took place on the day of the Purification of the Virgin 40 days after Christmas. In a steady ritual, the treasuress handed over the sculpture to the youngest canon of the parish on the eve of the procession, who then concealed it under his cloak and brought it to St. Gertrude’s church in the City of Essen, today known as the “Market church” (Marktkirche). On the following morning the statue was veiled and carried in a solemn procession back to the cathedral, where it was laid down on the steyn, the "stone" where offerings to the abbey were usually placed. There she was ceremonially unveiled and crowned with Otto’s child crown. The crowned Madonna was then carried back into the minster under the eyes of the congregation, just as Mary had been welcomed by the people of the Heavenly Jerusalem upon her arrival there according to the scripture. The Purification processions ceased in 1561 when the Protestant Reformation reached the city of Essen - — though not the abbey - and the parish of St. Gertrude was converted to the Lutheran faith. The medieval tradition of the coronation of Mary was revived in 1978 by Essen’s first bishop Cardinal Franz Hengsbach but had to be stopped in 2000 due to the restorer's concerns.
Another procession in which the Madonna was shown took place every year on the Monday preceding Ascension Day. On this day the nuns, canons and scholars of the abbey and its daughter house in nearby Rellinghausen held a formal meeting with the monks of Werden Abbey and took the Golden Madonna along. The two processions met about halfway between the two monasteries at a chapel dedicated to Saint Mark in what is today the neighbourhood of Essen-Bredeney. A memorial cross commemorates the place of these meetings today.
When the Diocese of Essen (the so-called Ruhrbistum) was established in 1959, Mary was elected as its patron saint, and thus came to be a symbol for the whole Ruhr area. The first bishop of Essen, Cardinal Franz Hengsbach, decided to make the statue accessible to the public. Since 1959 the Madonna has been on display in a climate-controlled high-security showcase in the northern side chapel of the cathedral.