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Category Archives: Object of the Month.2022

Object of the Month: July 2022

King David Playing the Harp

Oil on canvas, c. 1630s

Simon Vouet

French, 1590-1649

 

The creator of this moving portrait of King David is Simon Vouet, one of the most influential French Baroque masters. He was the son of painter Laurent Vouet. Although little is known of the elder Vouet’s work, Simon’s oeuvre is well documented, for his prodigious talent emerged at an early age. At 14 he was sent to England to work as a portraitist. Then in his early twenties he moved to Constantinople where he spent two years before traveling to Venice and finally settling in Rome. Vouet’s career flourished in Italy. During this time, he received numerous prestigious commissions, and in 1624 he became president of Rome’s renowned Accademia di San Luca.

In 1626 he married Italian artist Virginia Vezzi who was regarded as one of Italy’s best miniaturists. The painting to the right (perhaps a self-portrait) is attributed to her. A year after their marriage, the couple returned to France at the request of Louis XIII who promptly appointed Simon official court painter. Vouet became a dominating force in Paris. He was so prolific that it is difficult to create a clear timeline of all the altarpieces, mythological, and devotional works he produced. As one biographer noted, Vouet was a natural academic who studied and absorbed everything in his environment, from the rich color palette of Veronese to the dramatic lighting effects of Caravaggio.

King David, the subject of this portrait, was one of Israel’s most gifted (and complex) kings. He is unique among Old Testament figures by virtue of the fact that he is “fully known.” His remarkable biography is well documented in I and II Samuel, but it is his innermost thoughts revealed through his more than 70 lyric poems (or psalms) that render him most lifelike. Here we come to know “the man after God’s own heart” who despite this intimate relationship with God sins egregiously. Vouet’s masterful technique powerfully captures the complexity of David’s personality.

Although initially captivated by the dramatic naturalism of the Italian Caravaggisti, by the time Vouet returned to Paris, he had integrated classical elements into his painting style. For example, in this portrait the dramatic compositional line and naturalistic portrayal of the aging King is offset by the figure’s classical pose and the diffused (rather than stark) lighting. This stylistic integration of the dramatic and restrained is well-suited to the dualism of the portrait’s iconography.

Color symbolism was prevalent in 16th-century religious art, and often a single color would have more than one meaning. Here, Vouet uses vibrant red and yellow gold fabrics not only to accentuate David’s kingly wealth but also to insinuate the frailty of his nature. In religious iconography, red can symbolize both love and hate, yellow gold sacredness or treachery. All of these qualities are interwoven into David’s complicated history and readily acknowledged by him in his Psalms. In addition, Vouet masterfully captures the emotional depth of “Israel’s singer of songs”(II Samuel 23:1). Notice the intricate detail in the weathered face and hands; notice, too, the tear in the psalmist’s eye as he gazes heavenward and prays. It’s as if we hear him plead: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears: for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were” (Psalm 39:12). It is not surprising that the harp, David’s attribute, has come to symbolize not just the Psalms but all songs and music created to honor God.

Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education

 

Published 2022

 

Object of the Month: June 2022

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Oil on canvas

Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari

Roman, 1654–1727

Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari was born in Italy in 1654. Scholars still dispute Chiari’s origins with some believing he was born in Lucca and others Rome. With encouragement from his mother, Chiari learned the foundations of painting around the age of 10 from Carlo Antonio Galliani. He moved on at the age of 12 to study under the well-known Carlo Maratta, who drew inspiration from the classical style of Raphael and the Renaissance. Chiari’s earliest documented work, Venus with a Hermit, was dated 1675. Sadly, the work is lost.

Chiari was active in the late-Baroque period. His body of work displays the characteristics of both the High Baroque style as well as the Rococo which is reflected in his color choices. His paintings exhibit the influences of Annibale Carracci, Guido Reni, Cortona, and Andrea Sacchi. While he clearly drew inspiration from his predecessors, he took those ideas and transformed them into his own. His early commissions consisted of frescoes for various churches and chapels in Italy, and he also helped prepare cartoons for mosaics that would later be installed in St. Peter’s Basilica. Perhaps his most important client was Pope Clement XI who commissioned Chiari to paint St. Clement, the pope’s patron saint, most likely for the Basilica San Clementi. This led to an ongoing patronage by the Albani family (of whom the pope was a member). He also served as the director of the Academy of St. Luke from 1723-1725.

The landscape and composition of M&G’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt show similarities to both Chiari’s Christ and the Samaritan Woman and Adoration of the Magi. In this scene, Mary and Christ are seated on a plant-carpeted rock beneath the shade of a palm tree. Mary (wearing her signature colors of red and blue) wraps a comforting and supporting arm around Christ while holding a book in her opposite hand. Christ reaches out to obtain some of the fruit foraged and offered by Joseph. Several putti arrange the palm branches to provide the maximum amount of shade to cool the weary travelers. Another putto dangles from the left of the tree passing dates to be put in the basket held by the two below him, and a young angel kneels in front of the Holy Family offering a jar of water from the small brook at Mary’s feet. To the right of Joseph in the background, two angels appear deep in conversation as they tend to the donkey.

Chiari nods to his possible birth city through the Romanesque architecture in the distant town. Chiari’s work beautifully illustrates a scene of refreshment and reminds the viewers that even the Holy Family too needs time to rest and refuel.

M&G’s painting has an interesting provenance as it was once owned by the Earls of Dunraven from Adare County in Limerick, Ireland and possibly displayed in the family’s Clearwell Castle in Gloucestershire, England. It was probably in the collection at Adare Manor, principal home of the earls until the manor’s sale by the 7th Earl of Dunraven in 1982 to a family from Florida. Today, it is a luxury hotel. M&G’s painting was purchased in a 1982 Christie’s auction by renowned art dealer, Julius Weitzner. Dr. Bob Jones, Jr., a close friend of Weitzner, was able to acquire the painting for the Museum & Gallery where today it serves as a beautiful representation of Roman Baroque painting.

Rebekah Cobb, M&G Registrar

 

Published 2022

Object of the Month: May 2022

St. Matthew with the Angel

Oil on canvas

Salomon Koninck

Dutch, 1609-1656

Salomon Koninck was a Dutch Baroque painter and engraver. Throughout his career, he was heavily influenced by the innovative Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn and adopted the great artist’s theatrical lighting and composition. It is only fitting then that Koninck’s St. Matthew with the Angel has been displayed in M&G’s Rembrandt Hall, featuring works by Rembrandt and many of his students. While not a household name like Rembrandt, Koninck and his work provide a wonderful reminder of the spectacular.

St. Matthew with the Angel is not an unusual subject for Koninck as many of his paintings focused on philosophers and scholars. One example is The Hermit, which bears similar resemblance to his Matthew. Both include an elderly man poring over a book, but the distinction between the two is the presence of the youthful angel at Matthew’s side. Throughout art history, Matthew has been paired with many objects, including a halberd or sword, but his most common attributes are a book and an angel. In M&G’s painting, the angel leans next to him as if offering words of inspiration for his empty manuscript. By placing the two so close together, Koninck creates an intimate conversation that draws the viewer into the scene and the mystery of the apostle’s text.

While the other gospel writers certainly had divine support when they penned their descriptive records of Christ’s life, Matthew is the only one consistently shown in art with a winged man or angel. This pairing has been a tradition since the early depictions of Matthew, and many art historians credit the second-century bishop St. Irenaeus as one of the first to ascribe the imagery. In his Against Heresies, Irenaeus argued that all four gospels were necessary to understand a complete picture of Jesus Christ. He referenced Revelation 4:6-7, which talks of “four living creatures” surrounding the throne of God. These winged beings appeared to be like a lion, ox, eagle, and the fourth had a face of a man. Irenaeus assigned each evangelist one of the four creatures, and he chose the latter to represent the gospel of Matthew because the disciple and former tax collector focused on Jesus’ human lineage. While some of the gospel writers’ attributes changed from Irenaeus’ original designation, Matthew maintained the angel or winged man.

Another figure in church history, Rabanus Maurus, helped solidify the visual pairing of Matthew with an angel. In the ninth century, Maurus wrote a commentary on the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, which discusses the four faces of the creatures described in Ezekiel 1:10. Like Irenaeus, he claimed Matthew’s symbol is the man because of the inclusion of Jesus Christ’s earthly genealogy. However, Maurus further distinguished each gospel writer’s iconography, explaining that each symbol represents a mystery surrounding the life of Christ. And for Matthew, the symbol of man recalls the miraculous Incarnation. With such extensive research and support, it is no wonder that Matthew was paired with an angel. For nearly two thousand years, artists in the Western world have carried on this traditional iconography for the apostle.

As shown, Koninck’s St. Matthew with the Angel is not unusual in its symbolism and its subject matter, nor groundbreaking in in its use of artistic technique. However, Koninck does emphasize a closeness in the relationship between the earthly and the spiritual. Through divine direction and inspiration, the gospels were written by feeble men. It is through that spiritual intervention that we are able to read the gospels and remind ourselves of the wonders of God. Art is simply one reminder that when God uses frail, earthly things, He creates something spectacular.

KC Christmas Beach, M&G volunteer and former graduate assistant

 

Published 2022

 

Object of the Month: April 2022

Oval Dish: The Baptism of Christ

Earthenware with lead glaze

Bernard Palissy (follower of)

French, 16th or 17th century

Click on the links throughout the article to further your learning.

The Artist

Bernard Palissy (1510-1590) has been called “the Leonardo Da Vinci of France.” Both artists came from poor, country roots and became famous for their artistic and scientific achievements. Palissy wrote about the causes of natural phenomena like springs, earthquakes, and the crystallization of salt. He proposed agricultural methods and designs for gardens and cities. Many of his conclusions were correct, and his writings were studied for scientific insights hundreds of years after his death.

Like Da Vinci, Palissy is most famous for his artistic accomplishments, particularly for what he called rustiques figulines (today called rustic ware or Palissy ware). Snakes, frogs, crayfish, fish, insects, ferns, flowers, leaves, shells, rocks, and other natural items were cast in plaster or similar materials and then used as molds for the clay figures that would be artfully affixed to basins, platters, pitchers, and vases.

Da Vinci experimented with various media as he created masterpieces, and not all his explorations were successful. To achieve certain effects, Palissy tested clay from different sources in a single piece. Since clays respond differently when fired, there were many failures. Various glazes also require different temperatures to bond properly to clay. During one of his experiments Palissy needed more fuel to reach the proper temperature. He used his wooden furniture and the flooring of his house to feed his kiln.

Da Vinci was christened a Catholic, and his religious paintings reflect traditional catholic iconography, although often with a humanistic twist that reflected his worldview. Palissy was also christened a Catholic, but sometime in the 1550s became a Huguenot. This Protestant group adhered to Calvinistic doctrine (John Calvin and Palissy were contemporary Frenchmen, but it is doubtful they ever met). Palissy helped found the first Huguenot church in the city of Saintes and occasionally served as its lay preacher. The Catholic government sought to remove the Protestant heresy through trials, imprisonment, torture, and wars. Being a well-known Protestant, Palissy was repeatedly arrested, tried, and imprisoned for his beliefs.

Just as Da Vinci had powerful, wealthy patrons, so did Palissy. One of the most powerful men in France, Anne de Montmorency amassed an impressive art collection, including a Michelangelo. Several Palissy rustic ware pieces were in his collection, and he used his influence to have Palissy appointed Inventor of Rustic Ware to the King, which aided in his being released from imprisonment. De Montmorency commissioned Palissy to build a grotto—a garden building with an interior designed to appear like a “natural” cave—for his chateau. Grottoes usually included mythological or symbolic figures, often with a fountain centerpiece. They developed into a key expression of wealth, artistic taste, and political views.

In 1562, Palissy was charged with destroying “sacred church images” during a Protestant riot. He denied the charge in court but was imprisoned and his studio ransacked. Cunningly, Palissy wrote to his patron but did not deny the charges nor plead for release. Instead, he described the grotto and how de Montmorency was being defamed by those who destroyed its expensive pieces kept in his studio, which had been “admired by thousands.” Palissy published the letter after which he was soon released.

When de Montmorency died, the unfinished grotto project was abandoned. Meanwhile Catherine de’ Medici (daughter of Lorenzo, wife of the French King Henry II, and later regent for her 10-year old son) was building the Tuileries Palace as her Paris residence. Since Palissy was no longer employed by de Montmorency, she commissioned him to build a grotto for the Tuileries Palace. Palissy brought pieces and molds originally designed for de Montmorency’s grotto to a space set aside for his workshop in the Tuileries gardens.

Little is known of Palissy’s plans for the queen’s grotto; however, the design would be on a grand scale, with the most fashionable artistic illusions. When a visitor looked into the basin of the fountain, for example, he would see the backs of ceramic fish. Ceramic frogs and other creatures spitting water into the basin would create ripples, causing the fish to appear as if they were swimming.

At the end of Da Vinci’s life, he summoned a priest to hear his last confession and was buried in ground consecrated by the Catholic church. As Palissy was approaching 80, he was again condemned for heresy. He spent his last months in the Bastille, where he was poorly treated. Although a friend had secured his release, Palissy knew nothing of it before he died. There is no known grave, although several Palissy monuments have been erected in France.

M&G’s Oval Dish

M&G’s ceramic dish of The Baptism of Christ is a 10 ¼ inches by 8 ¼ inches oval. The face and its lip are bas-relief with colored glazes. The design on the blue and white lip represents palm trees, and the dish is mounted on a concave pedestal. The reverse of the dish and the base are mottled blue and maroon glazes.

In the center of the scene, Jesus appears to stand on the water of the Jordan River while John the Baptist (clothed in brown) pours water onto Christ’s head. There is no mention in Scripture of an angelic presence (as pictured in the sky and two on left); although Matthew 3 does reveal that when Jesus was baptized the Spirit of God descended from heaven in the form of a dove and a voice proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Attending Jesus’ baptism were Pharisees and Sadducees, who had questioned John about his baptizing. These are omitted by the sculptor; however, the kneeling character on the left may be either John the beloved disciple or Mary the mother of Christ.

Later, as John the Baptist describes the event to Jewish rulers, he tells of the dove and the voice which assured him that he had indeed baptized the Messiah. Then seeing Jesus, John proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:19-39). Within the dish’s picture, this pronouncement is symbolized by the lamb reclining at John’s feet.

Other Dishes

Early ceramists often copied their images from prints or other works of art, which can help to establish a date for a piece. A source to parallel the image on the Baptism of Christ dish is unknown. The image may be a compilation from several sources. Besides the Baptism of Christ, Palissy and his followers created various allegoric or historic scenes. Two other biblical scenes were frequently repeated: Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac and the Beheading of John the Baptist.

Dishes similar to M&G’s are in the Louvre, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery in Washington DC, the Cleveland Museum of Art, French National Gallery of Ceramics and other collections. In the past many of these were attributed to Bernard Palissy, but their documented provenance rarely extends prior to the 19th century. Today most are attributed to “a follower of Palissy” or an anonymous 16th or 17th- century ceramist.

It is simple to make a mold of such a piece and produce copies of it. This would have been common practice for popular objects, certainly for Palissy’s lifetime, but also for centuries following. Craftsmen created “stock” objects of art, many devotional pieces, to sell at fairs and in shops—repeating copies from one mold. Over time, copies are made, details become lost, “touch ups” are needed, and glazes (as well as the skill of the glazer) differ.

Palissy did not mark or sign his works. Following his death, contemporary ceramicists, including family members and his studio, continued produced his rustic ware, which was considered inferior. Palissy had not revealed his methods of achieving his ceramic’s characteristic lifelikeness, and his name and work drifted into obscurity until the early 1800s, when a Palissy following emerged, and demand for rustic ware increased. Ceramists of the period discovered how to produce rustic ware that matched Palissy’s quality. Although many signed their work, some passed off pieces as Palissy originals.

The area of Palissy’s Tuileries workshop was excavated in the 1800s and again in the 1900s. Molds and fragments of grotto pieces were found, including the popular spitting frog. Recent scientific analysis of the clay and glazes of these excavated pieces has been compared to works attributed to Palissy. The authenticity of some rustic ware has been reevaluated because they contain materials not available to Palissy.

During excavation in the Tuileries, a fragment of a plaque was found. It bears a similar image of the Baptism of Christ found on M&G’s Oval Dish and on similar dishes in the Louvre, The Victoria and Albert Museum, and other collections. These dishes are probably copies and more likely copies of copies.

M&G’s Oval Dish entered the collection in the mid-1900s.  It is difficult to know its creator, but the design certainly reflects the style and techniques of the great innovator Bernard Palissy.

William Pinkston, retired educator and M&G volunteer

 

Bibliography

Leonard N. Amico, Bernard Palissy – In Search of Earthly Paradise

Christian Study Library

Patricia F. Ferguson, Pots, Prints and Politics: Ceramics with an Agenda, from the 14th to the 20th Century

Marshall P. Katz and Robert Lehr, Palissy Ware – Nineteenth-Century French Ceramists from Avisseau to Renoleau

Marielle Pic, “Un céramiste de légende : Palissy à Sèvres”

Hanna Rose Shell, “Casting Life, Recasting Experience: Bernard Palissy’s Occupation between Maker and Nature”

 

 Published 2022

Object of the Month: March 2022

Esther Accusing Haman

Oil on canvas, signed and dated on lower left: J. Victoors, fc, 1651

Jan Victors

Dutch, 1619–after 1676

Click on the links throughout the article to further your learning.

One of life’s more pleasurable experiences is eating a good meal. Although, food shared with a friend or a group has the additional benefit of fellowship besides nourishment. There are a few food-related paintings in the M&G collection; however, this Dutch work includes a meal, and it is considered a favorite of many patrons. Added to the collection in 1968, it arrived from Europe unframed and in a shared crate with M&G’s Adoration of the Magi by Jan Boeckhorst.

Jan Victors was born in Amsterdam. His birthdate was deduced from a marriage license in 1642, which he signed at 22 years old. He was predeceased by his wife in 1661 with whom he fathered seven children. In his family there are two other painters, a brother and a son. He was raised in a strict Calvinist environment and painted only biblical scenes that did not include representations of God or Christ—most often themes from the Old Testament. In 1673, he left painting and a comfortable life in Amsterdam to minister to sailors of the East India company. He continued in this missionary endeavor until 1676 when he apparently succumbed to a fever while in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.

Victors studied under Rembrandt and was part of his studio from 1632 to 1635. M&G’s work represents the pinnacle of his artistic skill. The precision and opulence of the table settings and garments reflect the wealth of the upper classes or royalty. Note the variety in the scene’s rich textiles: the heavy and lush curtains, the ermine-trimmed robe and brocade garment on King Ahasuerus, Queen Esther’s pearls and jewels as well as her silk dress embroidered with gold, and Haman’s silk-lined velvet garb featuring the 17th-century’s highly fashionable paned sleeves. The silver tableware is linked to well-known silversmiths of the day, the Van Vianens. The pineapple-shaped goblet resembles a design that was created by none other than Albrecht Durer.

Victors painted this same subject at least two other times prior to M&G’s work. Both are in Germany, one in Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne (1645-1639) and the other in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister  in Kassel (c.1640).

Like many of his Dutch contemporaries, he painted biblical subjects representing Israel’s history. The Dutch identified with the captivity and persecution of the Jewish people having fought for their own independence from Roman Catholic Spain in the Eighty Years’ War.

Esther is a wonderful example of the providence of God, revealing His care for His chosen people—a quality of God’s character that believers can still trust today. The story for this painting is found in chapter 7 of the book of Esther, and the Jews’ victory over the evil Haman is still observed annually in March as the Feast of Purim.      

John Good, Security Manager

Published 2022

 

 

 

 

Object of the Month: February 2022

Jacob Mourning over Joseph’s Coat

Oil on canvas, c. 1625

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Il Guercino

Bolognese, 1591–1666

The nickname “Guercino” (the squinter) was given to the artist due to an eye defect which in no way deterred his ability or ambition to paint as evidenced by his lifelong production of hundreds of paintings, thousands of drawings, and numerous frescoes. He worked for Pope Gregory XV in Rome where his style began the transition from baroque to classical. The vigorous brushwork, saturated colors, and bold, naturalistic modeling of the figure of Jacob are hallmarks of this transitional period.

The composition of this work is unusual for Guercino. First, the work portrays, not a saint, but the biblical character, the mourning father Jacob. Second, only a single figure is rendered and not a scene of the biblical event, whereas most works illustrating this tragedy show Joseph’s brothers in addition to the patriarch. Because of these compositional choices, Guercino presents a moment in time for the observer to ponder the emotions of Jacob. As such, the work could be seen as an allusion to God the Father’s loss of His Son or as any parent’s loss of a child. Either way, the work is more devotional than historical.

But it is impossible to separate the figure from the story. The work’s primary impact is the pathos it generates in the viewer. Not only has Jacob lost his favorite son, but he becomes the victim of deceit, his lifelong characteristic. After deceiving his father, Jacob is deceived, in turn, by his father-in-law, who first marries him to Leah and later to Rachel whom he loves. Jacob favors Joseph, his eleventh son and elder of Rachel’s two sons, making him a coat of many colors. Their increased jealousy causes the brothers to sell Joseph into slavery and use the blood-stained coat to deceive their father into believing the teen was killed by wild beasts. A devastated Jacob looks to heaven. Is it to ask for God’s comfort or to ask God why He has brought evil into his life? Regardless, Jacob goes to the right source, though he receives no answer. Uncomforted, he declares, “I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning” (Gen 37:35).

The painting, however, does not match the biblical account. Rather than a vibrant cloak, Guercino’s white garment succeeds on both the literal and symbolic levels: the bloodstains which clinch the lie are clear evidence, and the color white (which indicates innocence) argues that Joseph has been unjustly treated by his brothers. However, God is at work. Ultimately, innocent Joseph is vindicated with the most powerful position in Egypt, second only to Pharoah, allowing him to save all of Jacob’s household during a prolonged famine.

This moving work, illustrating one of the most devasting losses a parent can experience, offers much to contemplate. But as with all proper devotional art, this work points the viewer to the God of all the earth who will do right. Bad things do happen to good people; this world is a vale of sorrows; and character flaws do bear fruit—but God guides the lives of His children, using even those “bad things” to work together for good.

Dr. Karen Rowe Jones, M&G board member

Published 2022

Object of the Month: January 2022

Narratives from the Early Life of Christ

Wool tapestry

Franco-Flemish, c. 1480

In Western church tradition, celebrating the twelve days of Christmas begins December 25 and culminates on January 6 with the Feast of Epiphany on Twelfth Night. According to The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine (Archbishop of Genoa in 1275), this day commemorates four special events in the life of Christ: the adoration of the Magi, and later the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist, the miracle at Cana of the water turned into wine, and the miracle of feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fish.

Scripture is unclear about the dates of these four events; however, chapter two of Matthew’s Gospel recounts that the wise men from the East came not thirteen days after Christ’s birth, but some two years. The Magi followed the star to Roman-occupied Jerusalem, where they visited King Herod hoping to learn of the promised Messiah’s birth. Unaware and troubled by the news, Herod assembled the chief priests and scribes to discover Christ’s birthplace, which was cited by the prophet Micah as Bethlehem in the land of Judah. Herod directed the noble travelers and requested they return to let him know where the young king was so that he too could worship.

The Magi found and worshipped the Christ child and offered Him three generous gifts, but they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and departed a different way. Joseph too was advised by an angel to flee to Egypt to protect Jesus from Herod’s murderous jealousy—his massacre of innocent male children two years and younger.

Possibly handcrafted by a guild weaver in Tournai, France in 1480, M&G’s tapestry is roughly 4.5 feet high by 11 feet long. It tells a visual narrative of three scenes following the Magi’s remarkable visit: Herod ordering the murder of the children, the massacre of the innocents, and the family’s flight to Egypt.

Tapestries have a long history dating back to Egyptian and Roman times. However, from the Middle Ages up to the French Revolution, weaving flourished in France and Flanders as an outgrowth of interest from both the church and wealthy nobility. Tapestries were once functional, beautiful, and personal—full of purpose and reflecting the beliefs, skill, economics, and status of the times.

In the 15th century, tapestries often focused on heroes, particularly the Nine Heroes of pagan history (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), Jewish history (Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus), and Christian history (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey de Bouillon). However, in this age of chivalry there was a parallel focus on nine heroines including the “greatest lady of them all,” Christ’s mother Mary. M&G’s Narratives from the Early Life of Christ is one of a series of six tapestries depicting the life of the virgin. In 1499 Leon Conseil, who was Chancellor of the Cathedral of Bayeux, cannon of Arry, and secretary of the bishops of Bayeux (Louis de Canossa and vicar general of Cardinal de Prie) gave the tapestry series and a pension for their care to the Cathedral of Bayeux—a church dedicated to Mary and one of France’s greatest and most notable cathedrals.

Phyllis Ackerman in Tapestry, the Mirror of Civilization explains the import and placement of such a gift, “The feudal devotion to a patron was equally practiced by the towns, for each had its patron saint to whom the Cathedral or finest church was usually dedicated, and just as a knight would trace his descent to his hero, so a city often attributed, if not its foundation, at least important moments in its early history to its saint. The lives of these saints were rendered into tapestry to decorate the church, usually on long, horizontal bands to hang around the choir.”

According to the 1901 Normandy Annals, M&G’s tapestry survived the French Revolution and still remained with the Cathedral (hanging in the library) until the city of Bayeux determined to deaccess it. It then passed through multiple collectors including John Pierpont Morgan, Georges Hoentschel, Clarence H. Mackay, and French & Co. before joining M&G’s collection in 1960.

 

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director

 

Published 2022