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Category Archives: M&G Collection Online

Object of the Month: March 2024

Crucifix

Tempera and gold on panel, c. 1380

Francesco di Vannuccio

Sienese, active c. 1356-1389

Among the many treasures in M&G’s collection hangs a unique and exemplary example of late fourteenth-century Italian art. In 1374, the Black Death struck the city of Siena and its surrounding countryside for the third time in twenty-six years. The return of the plague devastated the city, which was already struggling from political and economic instability. Tragically, most of the victims of this wave of the Black Death were children. In the wake of this period of grief, an unknown patron commissioned Sienese artist Francesco di Vannuccio to paint a crucifix or croce dipinta (painted cross) for his or her church. During the fourteenth century, large painted crucifixes were a fixture in Italian churches. They depicted Christ dead on the cross flanked by Mary and John the Evangelist and were often highly decorated in gold. Positioned above the altar, these crucifixes provided a focal point for worshippers.

Francesco’s patron included an unusual request: the image of Mary Magdalene facing out toward the worshipper with her hands raised in the ancient orans pose of prayer. Of the 214 surviving Italian fourteenth-century crucifixes, only fourteen have Mary Magdalene present. Of those, only one intact crucifix, M&G’s, features this extremely rare imagery of Mary Magdalene. With its unique depiction of a ministering female saint, Francesco’s crucifix was born out of the need for spiritual solace in the aftermath of the Black Death.

Little is known about Francesco di Vannuccio. Few of his paintings survive. He signed only one work, a double-sided panel now housed in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie. Despite this small surviving body of work, all of Francesco’s paintings demonstrate that he possessed a keen eye for intricate decoration. He was also closely attuned to the religious concerns of his day. Francesco’s depictions of physical and emotional suffering made him stand out among his fellow artists. In his crucifix, Christ’s arms are pulled taut by the weight of His body. His fingers curl and His feet twist around the piercing nails. Blood spurts in a wide arc from the wound in His chest and drips from His head, hands, and feet. While other crucifixes show the mother of Christ serenely grieving, Francesco painted her face deeply lined in anguish. Poignantly, she reaches for her Son, something not seen in any other fourteenth-century crucifixes. Francesco’s Mary is a mother mourning the loss of her Child, a sight many worshippers would have personally related to following the third outbreak of the Black Death.

Beneath Christ’s feet, Mary Magdalene prays. Despite being one of the most popular female saints during the fourteenth century, Mary Magdalene’s presence in crucifixes is rare. Most depict her small in scale contemplating the cross. She does not directly engage with the worshipper as Francesco’s does. During the fourteenth century, Mary Magdalene was revered both as the “blessed sinner” (tradition combined her with the repentant sinful woman in Luke 7) and as the “apostle to the apostles” because of her encounter with the resurrected Christ and her role of spreading the news to His other followers. Painting the blood flowing down to her head and her bright red robes, Francesco depicted Mary Magdalene as being baptized in Christ’s blood. With her hands raised in the orans position and facing the worshipper, Francesco also depicted her as the “apostle to the apostles.” The ancient orans pose represented the worshipper’s openness to God’s grace and was a gestural expression of faith in Christ’s death and resurrection. By the fourteenth century, this prayer position was reserved solely for the clergy. Thus, Francesco’s Mary Magdalene is an apostle actively ministering to the worshippers.

Painting Mary Magdalene in this active role, Francesco and his patron were likely inspired by Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). Catherine was a writer and preacher who advocated spiritual reform. She was beloved for her piety and her healing the sick during the third wave of the Black Death. In her ministry, Catherine looked to Mary Magdalene as an example of religious devotion and service. Writing to her female followers, she urged them to “follow the Magdalen, that lovely woman in love, who never let go of the tree of the most holy cross. No, with perseverance she was bathed in the blood of God’s Son…she so filled her memory and heart and understanding with it that she became incapable of loving anything but Christ Jesus.” Mary Magdalene’s love for Christ drove her to brave the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb and proclaim the news of the Resurrection to anyone who would listen.

For worshippers living in the grief-filled years of the late fourteenth century, the sight of Mary Magdalene offered comfort both in the cleansing power of Christ’s sacrifice and His Resurrection. Almost six and a half centuries later, the message of Francesco di Vannuccio’s gleaming cross continues to resonate today.

 

Dr. Allison Wynne Raper, Adjunct Instructor at York Technical College

 

For further reading:

Ole J. Benedictow. The Complete History of the Black Death. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2021.

Catherine of Siena. The Letters of Catherine of Siena. Translated by Suzanne Noffke, O.P. 4 Volumes. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000-2008.

Katherine Ludwig Janson. The Making of the Magdalene: Preaching and Popular Devotion in Late Medieval Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

 

Published 2024

 

 

Clay Tablet

Clay Tablet

Sumerian, c. 2100-2000 BC

Below the image, click play to listen.

 

Constantijn van Renesse (attr. to): Christ before Pilate

Few paintings exist by this Dutch master, and if this is his work, it is certainly one of his finest.

Object of the Month: February 2024

Meissen Vase

Porcelain, Mid-19th century

Ernst August Leuteritz

German, 1818 – 1893

Augustus II was elector of Saxony, King of Poland, and Grand Duke of Lithuania. In the early 1700s he established Saxony as one of the most economically advanced areas of Europe and built himself a magnificent residence in Dresden where he maintained a lavish court. He was obsessed with the highly fashionable porcelain pieces imported from China and had a large collection of “white gold” (an appropriate name, for some of the more desirable pieces of Chinese porcelain were virtually worth their weight in gold). His collection not only impressed guests, it depleted his treasury. He was in constant need of the metallic variety of gold.

About 1700 in Prussia, a bright young apothecary’s apprentice, Johann Böttger, was bragging that he had found the goldmachertinktur (translation: gold maker tincture), a concoction that could convert base metals into gold. In an attempt to put the lad in his place, the apothecary asked Böttger to demonstrate the transmutation. The procedure was done under close supervision, and it worked! It produced several ounces of highly refined gold. (Böttger never revealed how he performed the trick, nor was it ever repeated.) The Prussian king learned of the success at making gold and seeing a way to fill his treasury, had Böttger put in “protective custody.” Knowing what happened to alchemists who failed to produce gold for their royal masters, Böttger panicked, escaped, and fled.

Böttger made it to Saxony. There his Prussian pursuers would not have authority to apprehend him. However, Augustus II learned of Böttger’s transmutation and had him captured and placed in a dungeon-like, medieval fortress. He could purchase his freedom with gold. Eventually the quantity demanded would not only fill the treasury, but also add some significant white gold pieces to Augustus’ collection. At one point Augustus even alerted the mint to be ready to strike coins with the gold that would soon be arriving. It never came.

Ehrenfried von Tschirnhaus, an educated German mathematician and scientist, was trying to make porcelain by heating various white materials to high temperatures. His experiments either failed or made a type of glass.  Since Böttger did not seem to be progressing in producing a goldmachertinktur, Augustus hired Tschirnhaus to supervise Böttger’s work. Originally Böttger looked down on Tschirnhaus’ experiments but realizing that perhaps white gold might spare his life, Böttger took interest in Tschirnhaus’ work.

A white clay mined near Meissen, a small town 16 miles from Dresden, contained kaolin and when mixed with various other materials, produced porcelain. Experimentation refined the recipe and eventually a porcelain equal to that imported from China, was made.

Augusts named Tschirnhaus director of the porcelain factory he planned to establish in Meissen. The white clay mines were nearby, and Meissen was on a major river so the wood needed for the kilns could be easily delivered. In 1708, before the factory could be built, Tschimhaus died suddenly. A few months later Böttger was named head of the Saxon Royal Porcelain Manufactory, the first factory to produce hard-paste porcelain in Europe.

Sculptors were hired to mimic the shapes of oriental pieces, and chemists were brought in to develop colored and clear glazes. The Meissen manufactory, as it came to be known, became highly profitable. Böttger’s living conditions greatly improved, but he did not completely regain his freedom. He remained director of Augustus’ manufactory until his death in 1719.

In the following 300 years, the Meissen manufactory constantly produced porcelain pieces. Sometimes the company was well managed and produced high quality, fashionable, and much sought after works. At other times, Meissen struggled under a variety of challenges including contaminants in the clay, export tariffs, limited production, outdated designs, and political turmoil (such as Napoleon and, later Hitler). Once Sèvres in France and both Minton and Wedgewood in England perfected porcelain production, Meissen’s bottom line suffered.

As mass manufacturing methods of porcelain and decoration became perfected, Meissen faced a decision: use modern methods to produce quantities of inexpensive pieces or continue with handcrafted and hand painted pieces. The company decided to produce only high quality, handmade and hand-decorated pieces. Present day Meissen pieces can be as valuable as the very old ones.

Ernst August Leuteritz and M&G’s Schlangenhenkelvase

Ernst August Leuteritz was born in Fischergasse (city near Meissen) in 1818 and became an apprentice in the Meissen manufactory at 18 years of age. He immediately demonstrated exceptional abilities in modeling and embossing. The next year he was given a stipend for a year’s leave of absence to study under Rietschels at the Art Academy in Dresden. Being very timid, he found the experience extremely difficult and returned to Meissen after a short stay; however, he was convinced to complete his training. His artistic growth and refinement of skills led Meissen to extend his leave for further studies. After several years he returned to the manufactory and was promoted to the position of “Modeler.” In 1849 he became Meissen’s “Head of Design,” a position he held until his retirement in 1886. He died in 1893.

During his tenure with Meissen, Leuteritz designed hundreds of ornate figurines, centerpieces, candlesticks, serving dishes, vases and virtually every other type of porcelain piece imaginable. Today his works are found in many museums and personal collections and fetch high prices at auctions.

Leuteritz designed several vases adorned with serpents. In 1853 he designed the schlangenhenkelvase (translation: snake-handled vase) in M&G’s collection. It is an amphora shaped vase on an ornately-sculpted, round pedestal. On each side a pair of snakes emerge from acanthus leaves, forming a loop and resting their heads on the rim. The schlangenhenkelvase in M&G’s collection was very popular in the second half of the 19th century and came in different sizes. M&G’s vase is 19 inches high and 13 inches wide.

The body of M&G’s vase is a deep garnet with accents of gold and white. The gold on the leaves and snakes appears worn in areas. The vase, however, still maintains its original gold application.

The Meissen Hallmark

The secret formula for making porcelain was protected by Meissen, until it was leaked to Austria through corporate espionage. By 1717, a factory in Vienna began producing porcelain; and by 1760, there were thirty European porcelain manufactories. In order to identify Meissen pieces, blue underglaze markings were added.

By 1720, the crossed swords from the Elector of Saxony’s coat of arms were introduced and by official decree in 1731, was required to appear on all Meissen porcelain. Meissen’s crossed-swords logo is among the oldest and longest used trademarks, as well as being among the most often forged. Variations of the sword’s curvature, hilt placement as well as other embellishments help to date the pieces. Since the hallmark was hand painted, there is considerable variety even among authentic logos.

Under the base of M&G’s schlangenhenkelvase is the blue underglaze Meissen crossed-sword logo. Experts recognize it as genuine. The mark indicates that this vase was possibly made in the late 19th or first quarter of the 20th century. The underglaze “67” identifies the garnet painter, and the gold “2” indicates either the painter of the gold or that M&G’s vase may be one of a set.

Now the good news: you can have your own authentic schlangenhenkelvase without having to search the internet or attend an art auction where fake vases have been known to exist. Meissen still manufactures schlangenhenkelvase as part of their Masterworks Collection. They are not stock items; each one is produced to order and includes hand painted floral bouquets on the amphora. View the strikingly beautiful vase you could own by clicking on the Purchase a Vase link below. However, be prepared for a bit of a shock.

 

 

Wiliam Pinkston, Retired Educator and M&G volunteer

 

References

Video of the discovery of how to manufacture porcelain

Video of Meissen manufacture of porcelain, including a schlangenhenkelvase being painted

Meissen Museum

Purchase a Vase

The Book of Meissen (Schiffer Book for Collectors) by Robert D. Rontgen

Meissen Porcelain Identification and Value Guide by Jim and Susan Harran

 

Published 2024

Bronze Pitcher

Bronze Pitcher

Belgian, 14th or 15th century

Below the image, click play to listen.

 

Object of the Month: January 2024

The Body of Christ Prepared for Burial

Oil on canvas, signed and dated: .EQVS.IO.BAGLIONVS.RO.P.1616

Cavaliere Giovanni Baglione, called Il Sordo del Barozzo

Roman, c. 1566-1644

Giovanni Baglione was born, lived and died in Rome; although he received and completed art commissions elsewhere. He was an important artist in his day, even becoming President of the Roman Academy. He authored two books including The Lives of Painters, Sculptors, Architects and Engravers, active from 1572–1642, which has become a fundamental source for study of 17th-century Italian art of more than 200 artists, particularly in Rome.

Like many artists of the Baroque era, Baglione was influenced by the younger painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. He sought to borrow and integrate Caravaggio’s naturalism and technique of dramatic light and shadow, which was quite novel. The two were in competition for commissions in Rome by the popes, nobles, and influentials.

Although incredibly talented, Caravaggio was arrogant and an angry, violent man. He expressed his hatred of Baglione through mockery and insults including his writing and circulating slanderous satirical poems criticizing him. In 1603, Baglione sued Caravaggio and three other painters (Orazio Gentileschi, Onorio Longhi, and Filippo Trisegni) for libel. According to the court records from the trial, Caravaggio said Baglione was no friend of his, and that he was not a good painter. Then he outlined his views in court about what a good painter was—“a man who can paint well and imitate nature well.” Essentially, in Caravaggio’s opinion, Baglione could do neither. In his book on the Lives, Baglione also shared his own view of Caravaggio saying, “he would speak badly of painters of the past, no matter how distinguished they were, because he thought that he alone had surpassed all other artists in his profession.”

Baglione’s most esteemed painting is in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Peter Raising Tabitha from the Dead, for which he was made a Knight of the Order of Christ by Pope Paul V in 1606.

In spite of the bitterness between the two artists, Baglione produced a painting inspired by one of Caravaggio’s most renowned works—the Entombment in the Vatican Pinacoteca. If not the first, Baglione was one of the first artists to emulate Caravaggio’s revolutionary style, and he described his rival’s Entombment as Caravaggio’s best work. M&G’s The Body of Christ Prepared for Burial references some elements from Caravaggio’s work, such as the stone slab and highlighting and shadowing. M&G’s painting is not Baglione’s first version of the subject, which was finished in 1608—just five years after the libel lawsuit—as a commissioned altarpiece for the church of the Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples.

However, eight years later he refined the composition into M&G’s version, which he signed and dated the lower right corner of the stone slab as Cavaliere Giovanni Baglione, revealing his knightly status.

It’s ironic, but art historians believe that Baglione’s best pictures are his most “Caravaggesque.” M&G’s treatment is a more classical interpretation of Caravaggio’s version. We’re uncertain of who commissioned the canvas, but it may have been an altarpiece because of its size of more than 7’ tall, the centrality of Christ’s body, and the details with the elements of the passion (crown and nails on the lower left).

Among other specialists, Edgar Peters Bowron describes M&G’s painting as one of his “noblest compositions and demonstrates how good he was in his maturity.”

Today, Baglione is most famous for his authorship of two important books: a guidebook about Roman churches and the volume of artist biographies. He is also remembered for his interactions with Caravaggio. Yet, he was an extremely accomplished artist and favored by popes; he also proved that he was able to learn and profit from other more talented artists.

M&G’s painting is a rare example of Baglione’s work in America and one of his most significant paintings. Dr. Stephen Pepper has described it as “the most important painting by Baglione in an American collection.”

 

Erin R. Jones, M&G Executive Director

 

Published 2024

 

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Jacob Jordaens

Below the image, click play to listen.

 

Antiphonary

Antiphonary

Italian, 16th century

Below the image, click play to listen.

This object is currently on display in Mack Library, and it is featured in M&G’s 2023 Christmas Scavenger Hunt for K5-8th grade adventurers.

 

 

Object of the Month: December

Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist

Polychrome terracotta

Italian, 17th century

The vast collection at the Museum & Gallery contains many hidden treasures that are sometimes overlooked. In my years working for the museum, I don’t remember coming across this piece. Or if I had, I did not give it too much thought as it was one of many pictorial examples of a common theme—the Madonna and Child with the infant St. John the Baptist. While this sculpture may not be one of the biggest or most recognizable, it is a reminder of humility.

The terracotta sculpture was made towards the beginning of the Italian Baroque. The dramatic movement, and attention to anatomical detail is very typical of Baroque art. Mary is portrayed as a graceful, ideal beauty; and the two infants, Jesus and St. John the Baptist, look like active children. Their leaning bodies and outstretched arms lead the viewer through the piece. In fact, this similar pose can be found in another work in the museum’s collection from the Italian Renaissance, Granacci’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

It also relates back to another famous visual interpretation of these three individuals—Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. There are obvious similarities, such as Mary’s arm wrapped around an adoring St. John the Baptist and Jesus blessing his infant cousin. What may not be as noticeable at first glance is the setting. Of course, one is a painting, and one is a sculpture, but they both feature figures sitting on rocks. This iconography is referred to as the Madonna of Humility. In earlier art history and even during the Renaissance, Mary is sometimes shown as the Queen of Heaven, enthroned in gold beside Jesus. However, in contrast, da Vinci and this Italian sculptor position Mary seated on the ground, which is a possible reference to her resting during their flight to Egypt. By sitting on the ground or on rocks, Mary demonstrates her humility before her Savior.

The Bible records an example of Mary’s meekness before the Lord in Luke 1:46-55. It was after she had received the news that she would give birth to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Called her Magnificat, she begins by saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the humble estate of His servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name…”

While not large or ostentatious, this 19-inch terracotta sculpture is as humble as its subject matter. During the holiday season, we celebrate Christ’s birth that was only made possible through the humility of a young woman and the ultimate humbling for the Savior of the world to become flesh and dwell among us.

 

KC Christmas Beach, M&G summer educator

 

Published 2023

Object of the Month: November 2023

Cabinet on Stand

Walnut

English, late 17th century

 

This William and Mary Cabinet on Stand came into the Museum & Gallery’s collection in 1970, through the generosity of a prominent Asheville physician, musician, author, and collector of art and antiques, Dr. Charles S. Norburn.  Dr. Norburn served as a Navy surgeon in World War I, then in Navy hospitals in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.  He was even appointed by the U.S. Surgeon General to serve as personal surgeon to President Warren Harding on a trip to Alaska. After leaving the Navy, Norburn returned to North Carolina in 1923 and established the cutting-edge Norburn Hospital Clinic in 1928. The Norburn Hospital’s second building, with 32 acres of property, stood on what is now part of the Mission Health campus, leaving a lasting legacy of care in Western North Carolina. His donation to M&G has left a lasting cultural legacy in the western Carolinas, as well.

Much from the period of William and Mary (1689-1702), including the furniture characteristic of that era, reflects the religious atmosphere of the day. While it would oversimplify the case to say that religion was the sole explanation for the furniture fashion of the day, most sources do note the significant influence religion had upon it. Indeed, there would not have been a “William and Mary” period, had it not been for the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, which deposed James II from the English throne and made him notable for being the last Roman Catholic monarch of England.

James II had succeeded his elder brother, Charles II in 1685, when Charles died without a legitimate heir. Early in his reign, Charles II had urged his younger brother to rear his daughters as Protestants, despite the fact that James and his wife were Catholic. Thus, when Charles II died, the throne passed to James II and established his elder daughter, Mary (b. 1662), as heir apparent. Mary had married her cousin, William of Orange, in 1677, when she was just 15, and moved to the Protestant Netherlands with her husband.

From the start, James II’s overt Catholicism alienated the majority in England. That dissatisfaction was amplified in 1688 with two crises—the birth of a son to James, (raising fears of a Roman Catholic dynasty), and very public conflicts with the king over religious tolerance.

Seven highly placed Englishmen (an Anglican bishop and six prominent politicians) wrote to William of Orange, inviting him to come set right the country’s grievances. William sailed to England in November of 1688 with a force of 20,000 men, making his way to London with very little opposition. James II fled to France in December of that year, and Parliament—now cemented as the ruling body in England—pronounced William III and Mary II joint rulers in April 1689.

The “William and Mary style” developed within this religious and cultural milieu. With them, William and Mary brought Dutch craftsmen to England, popularizing a style that had first been seen under Charles II (1660-1685) throughout England and its colonies. The finely inlaid cabinet style of this era had originated in France, but some of the most influential craftsmen were Huguenots. These weavers, painters, joiners and carvers fled to England from France in order to escape the religious persecution that arose after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685). Their influence resulted in a more staid style than the flamboyance of Louis XIV’s court, while still exhibiting the highest craftsmanship and newest fabrication techniques.

The Museum & Gallery’s Cabinet on Stand evidences the traits distinctive to fine cabinetmaking in the William and Mary style. In place of the heavy, horizontal lines of domestic furniture, there was an emphasis on verticality, lifting cabinets on multiple, finely turned or barley-twisted legs. Indeed, the “high boy” and other specialized forms of domestic furniture owe their inception to William and Mary design.

Overall, there was a movement away from the excessive grandeur of the French court and the English Restoration period, but there was also intricacy and high design. Thin slices of highly figured woods (sometimes acacia, olive, or other exotic woods made possible by new East-West trade routes), ivory, and metal were affixed to flat surfaces like cabinet doors and sides, creating contrasting colors for geometric shapes, flowers, birds, and numerous other natural themes. Beneath these veneers, walnut superseded oak as the most frequently used wood species. Atop the veneers, surface treatments like lacquer and other fine polishes became vital to protect and highlight the designs.

In keeping with the above-mentioned traits of William and Mary cabinetmaking, M&G’s Cabinet on Stand features detailed walnut burl veneers and geometric maple inlay on three sides, over a yellow pine substrate.  An overhanging cornice rests at the very top, with two drawers and two flush, side-hinged doors beneath.  This top portion (the “cabinet” in the designation “cabinet-on-stand”) sits on a base containing two additional drawers and four sophisticated, tapering barley-twist front legs and three simpler turned rear legs. The barley-twist legs taper from being thinner at top and bottom to thick in the middle and demonstrate the cabinetmaker’s skill. A flat display platform sits at the very bottom, raised from the floor on turned bun feet.

Our cabinet is likely from the late 17th century or early 18th century (perhaps 1700-1725) and illustrates the departure from the continental style toward a more staid English and/or Protestant sensibility. It is a presentation cabinet that served for storage in some prominent place of a household, possibly holding linens in the 17th-century equivalent of a dining room. The top and base are flat for display and may have held Dutch majolica, other pottery, or even items from the Orient over the years, depending on the wealth of the owner.  This Cabinet on Stand is an important piece in the M&G collection for the history and artistry it brings to life.

 

Dr. Stephen B. Jones, volunteer

 

Sources:

David L’eglise, Village Antiques at Biltmore, Asheville, NC

Joseph Aronson, The Encyclopedia of Furniture

Judith Miller, Furniture

Judith Miller, Miller’s Antiques Encyclopedia

Encyclopaedia Britannica

MetMuseum.org

Tim Forrest, The Bulfinch Anatomy of Antique Furniture

Kay West, “Daughter publishes book by pioneering physician father decades after his death”