The Flight into Egypt and The Nativity
Juan Sanchez, the Younger (formerly, Master of the Large Figures)
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Spanish, 17th century
French, 14th century
figure 1: Reliquary Head of a Monk
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While the Museum & Gallery is best known for its large collection of European Old Master paintings, the museum also contains around 2,000 objects, ranging from medieval tapestries to Renaissance furniture to ancient Egyptian artifacts. Among these diverse and unique items, two reliquaries provide an interesting look at sacred art in object form.
Reliquaries are containers that were designed to hold relics, the remains of a saint or an object closely associated with the honored individual. In their day, these relics varied from supposed fragments of the cross to the finger bones of saints. Beginning with the reign of Charlemagne, every medieval church owned some kind of a relic, and it was common practice for people to venerate relics deemed particularly significant. Literature from the medieval era, such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, whose characters are on a journey (a pilgrimage) to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, reveals the integral role relics once filled in religious life.
figure 2: Reliquary
The first of M&G’s reliquaries is Spanish, dating from the seventeenth century (figure 2). It is made of giltwood and has a small openings in the side of it, possibly designed to allow the worshipper to glimpse the relic within. What that relic was, is unknown, and compared to M&G’s Reliquary Head of a Monk, (figure 1) this reliquary is simple in design and style.
On the subject of reliquaries, Barbara Drake Boehm, the senior curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, writes that “these complex containers in the form of parts of the body, usually mimicking the relics they enshrined, are one of the most remarkable art forms created in the Middle Ages for the precious remains of saints.” It is quite likely then, that M&G’s beautiful French reliquary designed to look like a face, once held the fragments of a skull—whose skull, remains a mystery. Other reliquaries, more ornate but reminiscent in style, can be seen at the Aachen Cathedral in Germany.
As part of Roman Catholicism, the cult of relics had an interesting connection to the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the church door of Wittenberg, Germany. Frederick the Wise of Saxony, ruler of that region, had a collection of over 17,000 relics on display at the Church of Wittenberg. M&G’s painting, Wittenberg, October 31, 1517, depicts a pilgrim, pictured towards the bottom far right with a shell on the outside of his cloak, coming into Wittenberg to venerate the relics at the church.
While M&G’s reliquaries no longer house the elements for which they were once designed, they provide a unique window into historical religious practices, serving as a lasting testament of the spiritual devotion of those who once venerated them.
Katie Neal, former M&G staff member and docent
Published in 2017
Tempera on panel
Florentine, active 1392–1412
Lorenzo di Niccolò worked in Florence around the turn of the fifteenth century—one of the most significant centuries in history known as the Renaissance. Painting during this period continued in the tradition of Giotto (begun a century earlier), and Lorenzo’s own style was not much different from that tradition along with other contemporary artists. While paintings of the Trinity were common imagery within altarpieces of the time, Niccolò’s depiction is unique—painted in a way never done before. All known earlier representations of the Trinity in this configuration (known as “The Mercy Seat”) are depicted with God the Father sitting behind the crucified Christ; whereas, here, God the Father is shown standing.
Perhaps today this seems like an insignificant modification, but in the fourteenth century iconography was more codified; deviations articulated meaning, tradition, and Church dogma—all issues firmly upheld and monitored by Church officials. Interestingly, Trinity subjects with God the Father in a standing position were rare until the same concept appeared about 20 years later in one of the most famous paintings in history, Masaccio’s fresco of the Holy Trinity at Santa Maria Novella, Florence.
Another nuance of Niccolò’s imagery is that God the Father is also shown as a young man—the same likeness used for Christ. This approach heightens the physical and spiritual connection between the Father and Son, who are mysteriously distinct persons in a unified Trinity. However, the depiction of a youthful Heavenly Father was later forbidden by papal edict revealing that the iconography shown in this painting was short lived in art history.
An intriguing facet of this panel is that the entire back side of the panel is painted (with the exception of areas of wear and damage expected for an artwork over 600 years old). A full, decorative reverse side of a painting is somewhat common to early Italian panel paintings and suggests that people were intended to view the reverse. Sometimes entire narratives or portraits are found on the back of paintings; others have painted inscriptions or symbols for organizations such as confraternities. However, the pattern and application here supply a completely abstract, decorative function. In fact, the effect was intended to mimic the type of decorative marble inlaid patterns commonly incorporated into many existing Florentine churches, including the Duomo, Santa Maria Novella, and Santa Croce.
Preliminary research has revealed an almost identical pattern for what we see on this panel on a wall fresco border painted by Agnolo Gaddi in 1380 at Santa Croce. This pattern could be a clue to its inclusion in that same church to match the existing faux stonework existing on the walls. The pattern is distinct and would have the same markings as some or all of the other panels associated with the altarpiece from which this panel came. Such unique features can aid in attribution and dating, if related panels have firm documentation.
John M. Nolan, Curator
Published in 2014