Bust of Christ
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Polychrome and giltwood
The obsessive attention to realistic detail and heightened emotion that characterized many 17th-century paintings is also evident in this dramatic polychrome sculpture. The adjective polychrome (meaning “many colored”) refers to the color on the wood which enhances the figure’s lifelikeness. Although this technique can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans, it became particularly popular during the Renaissance. Spanish sculptors who preferred wood to stone became especially adept at using the technique, often adding “gilding and brilliantly imaginative lusters.”
Jerome, the subject of this work, was born in the fourth century in the small town of Stridon (located in the Balkans today). Initially schooled by his father, he later traveled to Rome where he became proficient in Latin and Greek and excelled in oratory. His later biographical writings lament that this early success encouraged in him an overweening pride and ambition. He continued his education in Trier, a German city on the banks of the Moselle river. It was here that his Christian conscience was reawakened, and as one source notes, “his heart was entirely converted to God.” However, by his own admission his competitive nature and “rambling imagination” continued to trouble him throughout life. He lived in the desert of Chalcis for several years but eventually returned to Rome in 382 to become special secretary to Pope Damasus I. It was Damasus who assigned him the task of creating a revised Latin version of the Bible. The Vulgate, as it is known, was completed in 405. Jerome eventually retired to a monastery in Bethlehem where he died in 420.
As is typical of the era the creator of this work uses numerous attributes to identify the figure and to illustrate his story. For example, the books stacked on the rock and supporting the aged Jerome represent his writings (most notably the Vulgate but also his other letters and theological treatises). The skull resting atop two of the books signifies the transience of life or natural death; notice however, that Jerome is turning away from “death” to gaze heavenward–the source of new, eternal life. The brilliant red cloak “embroidered” with fleur de lis seems rather out of place in the wilderness setting. However, in this context it represents Jerome’s office as a cardinal. Although, the position of cardinal did not exist in the early centuries of the church, ecclesiastics of Rome, like Jerome, held the duties that later fell to cardinals.
One other imaginative story connected to Jerome and recorded in The Golden Legend occurs during his retirement in Bethlehem. According to this story, as the monks were going about their daily routine, a wounded lion suddenly appeared. All fled but Jerome. Examining the beast, he discovered and removed a thorn that was deeply embedded in its paw. In gratitude the lion became Jerome’s constant companion and protector of the monastery. This beautifully carved attribute “rounds out” the base of the sculpture.
Donnalynn Hess, M&G Director of Education
Published in 2020
Polychromed and gilt wood
Although the title Watchers and Soldiers from a Crucifixion Group seems insipid at first read, these two small polychromed and giltwood sculptures provide fascinating insights into an architectural style and installation of extreme magnitude. During the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish monarchs who commissioned Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the Americas, the Isabelline style of architecture was developed. Born in France and trained in Flanders, Juan Guas settled in Toledo to establish his business. He is considered one of Spain’s finest architects and one of the key originators of the Isabelline style, which combines a Flemish-Gothic influence with Mudéjar (Spanish-Muslim) ornamentation. His design influence is represented in the monumental edifices at the San Juan de los Reyes and El Paular monasteries.
M&G’s two figural groups date to the second half of the 15th century and according to William Holmes Forsyth, the late curator emeritus of medieval art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “They are from a retable or retablo of Spanish origin, but southern Netherlandish in inspiration.” Beatrice Gilman Proske, the former research curator of sculpture at the Hispanic Society of New York who authored the catalog for the famed outdoor sculptures of Brookgreen Gardens, noted that they are Flemish. It is not then a stretch of scholarship to assume that these two sculptures measuring 32” high by approximately 15” wide, would have commanded a prominent place flanking the carved crucifixion of Christ, a common focal point in many retables from the Low Countries of the time. The Carved Retable of the Passion of Christ, part of the collection at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, presents a prime example.
At the base of each carving’s scene amidst the jagged rock are bones resembling those from the lower torso and limbs of the human body. These skeletal remains add a sobering reminder that Roman crucifixion included the breaking of the leg bones in order to hasten the impending death. Moreover, the crucifixion of Jesus, as noted by all three synoptic Gospels, occurred on Golgotha or “the place of the skull.”
Positioned on these rocky formations, the Soldiers are each individualized by gaze and weaponry and robed in medieval armor and Moorish headdress, hinting at the Mudéjar influence. The sculptor clearly draws our attention to the only soldier gesturing and glancing upward, perhaps depicting the centurion cited in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John. Church history, tradition, and pseudepigrapha all ascribe the name of Longinus to this legionnaire, but Scripture allows him to remain anonymous, recording for all time only his striking statements, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54) and “Certainly this was a righteous man.” (Luke 23:47)
Unlike the soldiers, the Watchers from a Crucifixion Group can be decoded from Bible references, religious iconography, and an abundance of artistic renderings of those who attended Christ’s crucifixion. The repertoire is rich as set forth in examples such as El Greco’s Crucifixion, and Jan Van Eyck’s.
At center front Mary, the mother of Jesus, robed in blue (alluding to heaven, truth, and mourning) and white (for purity and innocence) is comforted by the obviously young apostle John draped in red (for love). On either side of him stand the two Marys, clearly identified in the crucifixion passage in John’s gospel as Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene (recognized by her long hair as a penitent saint). In the background, towering above the rest of the group, is most likely Joseph of Arimathea, who provided the burial tomb for Christ; he is presented as elderly and robed in the costly garments of the rich. The sculptor carved this individual with an intriguing gesture. With his right index finger raised to his temple, perhaps Joseph is recalling the Scriptures he memorized while serving as a Sanhedrin senator attesting to the deity of Jesus, the Christ.
Bonnie Merkle, Docent and M&G Databases Manager
Published in 2019
Polychrome and giltwood walnut
One of Scripture’s more commonly depicted stories in art is the Last Supper. This event is represented repeatedly in M&G’s own collection in at least three paintings (on both canvas and panel), a Greek icon, book engravings, Sitzendorf porcelain, and wood sculpture.
Created around 1625, M&G’s sculptural Last Supper is attributed to Hans Waldburger, an Austrian artist in both wood and stone. Little is recorded about him, but he learned his craft from his father, Hans Leonhard Waldburger, while growing up in Innsbruck, Austria. Hans was later guided by Alexander Colin and Hubert Gerhard, a northern follower of the influential Michelangelo-emulator, Giovanni Bologna (or Giambologna).
During Waldburger’s life and work, there was a cultural shift through the influence of both the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. Artistically, that transition was expressed through the Mannerist style briefly bridging the movement of the simple, idealized forms of the Renaissance to the busy, dynamic embellishment of the Baroque. This developing ornamentation was articulated in a highly decorative, theatrical style often combining painted imagery with sculptural elements giving the illusion of the story emerging from the flat surface—almost coming to life.
Early in Hans’ career he was commissioned by Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau to Salzburg, where he essentially spent the rest of his life. Much of his known work is represented in Austria including such fine examples as the High Altar at both the Basilica Mondsee and Salzburg Cathedral.
M&G acquired The Last Supper in 1963. It is roughly 400 years old and still retains much of its painted color (polychrome) and gold leaf (gilding) in places. Hans’ mannerist style is noticeable in the extended physical features of the apostles as they are seated around the table. The possible supper conversation may be the point in the story when Christ reveals that one of the twelve disciples would betray Him. Their response was, “Is it I?” as recorded in the gospels (Matthew 26:22; Mark 14:19). Though it is known in the culture of Palestine that the partakers would have reclined during the meal, here the group is seated around a table. The sculpture measures approximately 4 feet wide by 4 feet high, and it is almost 1 ½ feet thick! Remarkably, the figures’ distinctive details including curling beards, facial features, and gesturing hands are still intact.
Dealer Edward R. Lubin summarizes the beauty and impact of Waldburger’s Last Supper, “A monumental, virtually in-the-round sculptural group of such quality and scale in this period of German art is truly exceptional.”
John Good, Security Manager
Published in 2019
Polychrome and parcel-gilt
Florentine, c. late 15th century
Since paintings in an exhibit often take “center stage,” ecclesiastical pieces like these Angels with Candlestick can be overlooked by museum viewers. During the Renaissance, however, a polychrome sculptural grouping would often be the centerpiece of an altar’s decorative scheme while the painted narrative scenes or figures functioned as the “wings” of the altar. Although by the end of the sixteenth century, paintings became the central focus of Italian altarpieces, while sculpture continued to be used extensively in other countries like Spain.
The term polychrome (meaning “many colored”) refers to the application of colored materials to sculpture in order to present a more life-like quality. This technique dates back to the Greeks and Romans and was particularly popular during the Renaissance. Because these pigments fade over time such coloring is rarely discernable today. The good condition of these statues is due to the porous wood used which retains color well.
We know that the figures shown here were meant to be angels from the metal pins that remain on the back of each figure—a clear indication of the wings’ placement. Sadly, it is not uncommon for such appendages to be broken off or lost over centuries of movement from place to place. Fortunately, the carved wooden haloes have remained intact, as has the original base with its Latin inscriptions.
Since several of the words are Latin abbreviations, the precise translation of the inscriptions is unclear. However, a loose reading would be:
OVEM DEDIT VOBIS DNS ADVES CENTVIM
Dedicated to the Lord’s Advent
VENITE ET COMEDITE PANEM
Come and eat bread
Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education
Published in 2018
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