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Title

: Two Memorials

Author

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Date

1920

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
There have been presented to enrich the collections of the Institute two pieces of sculpture representing quite variant branches of the art, as respects subject, and still more divergent schools and types of workmanship. They come to us through the generosity of Mrs. Ethel Morrison Van Derlip as memorials of her parents, the late Clinton Morrison and Julia Kellogg Morrison, his wife, both of whom were early and earnest supporters of every movement for the advancement of the art interests of Minneapolis, and both of whom appreciated and delighted in whatever was beautiful and refined. The gift of the Dorilus Morrison Park by Mr. Morrison as a site for the Institute building initiated the project for the erection of an art museum in Minneapolis and will be a lasting memorial of his public spirit, yet the humbler reminder of his personality and interest which his daughter has placed in the building will bring even more concretely to the mind of the visitor a remembrance of his contribution to the common good and the common enjoyment.The gift which has been made in memory of Mr. Morrison is a very lovely example of Italian sculpture of the sixteenth century in the form of a marble fountain, reproduced on page 35. It illustrates the refinement and decorative motives of the best period of Renaissance art. It is of white marble, slightly discolored by age and exposure, standing seven feet and three inches high above the base which was originally embedded in the basin. The diameter of the larger of the two bowls of the fountain is four feet five inches. The pedestal is triangular in form and is composed of three volutes or scrolls, curving out at the bottom and forming a substantial support for the upper portions. The fountain must have presented a charming detail in some garden with its jet of water scintillating in the sun and its bowls dripping iridescent jewels against a background of dark ilex trees beneath the blue of an Italian sky. It now stands in the center of the rotunda to greet the visitor as he enters the museum.The second gift is equally attractive and even more unusual, a statue of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the size of life, carved in wood in the early part of the fifteenth century, probably in the province of the Upper Rhine. Three views of it are shown on the title page of the Bulletin.This favorite among the martyrs of the early Church (and, except the Magdalene, the most popular of all the saints) is depicted as a young person of delicate and sensitive aspect, a gentlewoman, as in truth Saint Catherine was. The legend records that she was the daughter of a half-brother of Constantine the Great who had married an Egyptian princess. Upon the death of her father, Catherine succeeded to his rule, but it was not to her liking. She was the most learned woman of her day and confounded all the scholars in discussion. No prince approached the noble qualities which she desired in a husband, and she refused to marry any other. At the instance of the Virgin, a holy hermit visited her and told her of the Lord of Heaven who should be her bridegroom, and, in a vision of the night, she beheld Him and longed to become worthy to espouse Him. The hermit thereupon instructed her in the Christian faith which she gladly adopted and, in the night following her baptism, she beheld again her Lord, who smiled upon her and placed a ring upon her finger. This mystical marriage of Saint Catherine became thenceforth one of the most popular sources of inspiration for poets and artists.About the time of her conversion, a powerful tyrant, Maxentius, came to Alexandria where Catherine had her court, became greatly enamored of her beauty and sought to marry her, but she rejected him scornfully. Enraged at his failure to win her after many solicitations, he seized her and ordered her to be put to death. Her body was cast between revolving wheels armed with sharp knives and hooks of iron, but, before harm befell her, fire came down miraculously from heaven and broke them in pieces. The tyrant then commanded her to be beheaded and, after the cruel sentence had been carried out, angels came and bore her body away to the top of Mount Sinai where it was buried, and, in the eighth century, a monastery was erected over her remains, which are revered to this day.In art, although the spiked wheel is, perhaps, the most common symbol employed to indicate the saint, Saint Catherine is also variously represented holding a book to denote her learning; or with a palm in her hand, the emblem of martyrdom; or carrying a sword, as signifying the manner of her death; or wearing a crown, as of right as a sovereign princess; or as trampling on the tyrant Maxentius, the token which, in Gothic sculpture and in stained glass of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was most often used; and indeed, its use was principally confined to that period. Both the crown and the tyrant appear in our sculpture.Wood sculpture, as an art, in Germany, displayed its most attractive form from the end of the fourteenth to the middle of the sixteenth century. This was a period of prolific production of figure-work. German art of the time was almost wholly religious and, as it was an era of wide-spread religious feeling, and of zeal in the service of the Church, shrines, altars, choir-stalls and ecclesiastical ornaments were in large demand. Not all of the sculptors of this period were of high artistic merit, as would naturally be true in view of the great output of the work, and, indeed, most of them may be said to have little intrinsic attraction; hence it is gratifying to realize that of the examples of this date few are known to us possessing the refinement and restraint of our statue, and exhibiting as it does a mastery attained only by the best sculptors of the age.The Germanic territory of the fifteenth century contained numerous provinces which were not closely knit; there were, too, so-called free-cities, quite independent, in a way, of each other and of the surrounding provinces, and each district had its separate group of artists, with their several schools and styles. The most famous of these schools were the Upper Rhenish, embracing Cologne; the Franconian, including those of Saxony and Thuringia, and the Suabian; and the school of Cologne was the earliest in point of time. The various schools and sections were subjected to diverse influences and developed differently. It must be remembered that this was a time of upheaval in artistic ideas and methods, due largely to the rapidly changing religious thought of the day and stimulated by the advance of the Renaissance movement surging up from Italy. Lines of communication were few and indirect; but the main commercial route from the opulent port of Venice to the capitals of Holland and Flanders lay through Germany, and the works and influence of the Italians were carried along with their merchandise, while the wander-year of the German students of art was spent by many of them in the rich and attractive metropolis of the Adriatic, where they could not help but fall under the spell of its rare atmosphere. It has been said, no doubt truly, that Germany resisted this Italian invasion longer than any other European country which it touched, and followed the Gothic tradition for some time after others had accepted the principles of the new birth of the classical ideas.The Rhenish provinces, however, had been, by reason of juxtaposition, early affected by the artists of the Low Countries and by the naturalistic tendency which characterized their work, so that a strong impulse toward realism was there evident in the wood carvings long before the period of our masterpiece, and gradually spread thence to the more distant parts of the country. Much was derived also from the medieval monuments of Chartres and Rheims, and from the examples of the artists of the Netherlands and of France, which were eagerly sought and transported to all parts of Germany, where they are still found in the churches and museums. Nevertheless, while adopting western ideas, it is interesting to observe that (and not unnaturally) the German type of face and figure quite generally crept into the sculpture of the artists east of the Rhine. Their women are shown with rounder faces and of a more distinctly peasant class, and the fashions of arrangement of hair and garments approximate the local styles, and their men are depicted with meager, ascetic faces, long bony fingers and masses of thick, curly hair distinguishing the Germans of that time. The full and stiff draperies of the primitive Flemish school appear at first, but were eventually carried to those extreme multiplications of folds and pleats, quite unreal and impossible in actual textiles, which resulted in productions at once grotesque and unpleasing.Another interesting fact in connection with the sculpture of the period is, that the master-carvers were frequently accomplished workmen in other branches of art. Some were engravers and etchers and some were painters, which latter fact is of importance in connection with the coloration of wood carvings. It is believed by some students that Dürer was a sculptor in wood, and it is certain that the famous Veit Stoss of Nuremburg was an etcher of note. The sources from which the wood-carver drew his inspiration were varied. Many, if not most, of his subjects were derived from originals in other mediums, particularly from engravings and etchings of contemporary or earlier masters, such as Schongauer and Dürer, whose designs were often directly copied, especially in altarpieces and other reliefs. A study of the stiff and angular folds of garments that appear in the engraver's works of this period will reveal their obvious adaptability for sculptural reproduction. The painters also of Flanders and Germany provided abundant and favorite themes for reproduction, particularly to the artists of the Cologne School, and whole scenes from these paintings, as well as single figures, were constantly copied with the utmost fidelity of detail. And this is not to the discredit of the sculptors, for the authors of the Flemish primitives held out to them most beautiful and appealing models, peculiarly appropriate for the purposes for which wood carvings were desired, namely, the adornment of churches and shrines. Doubtless many donors specified not only the subject they wished to be represented, but even designated the precise model to be followed and reproduced.Our statue of Saint Catherine, it will be noted, lacks altogether the grosser characteristics which, as time progressed, marked the work of the German sculptors. Here is a face gentle and sweet, and radiant with humility and purity, quite in contradistinction to the round and plebian features which, as we have seen, later distinguished the production of the school. Her form is graceful and the draperies of her tunic and mantle fall naturally and without the extravagant volume and grotesque folds of the subsequent years of the period. The skill of the artist is peculiarly shown in the certainty of the human form suggested beneath the garments, especially happily exhibited in the left arm and the graceful gathering and fall of the cloak, from which the hand emerges so beautifully.The Middle Ages delighted in the most extensive use of color. Not only carvings in wood, but the stone figures used in architectural decorations, exterior as well as interior, and on tombs, were elaborately painted. It was, in part, an expression of spiritual emotion that demanded a softening of the severity of the naked material that induced this coloration, and, perhaps, a more potent cause was that the polychrome employed in their environment and especially the broken light that streamed in through the painted glass windows, required a carrying out of the same principle through the whole scheme of decoration. At any rate, the sculptured figures in the churches and shrines were made to appear in garments covered with patterns in rich colors, markedly red and sky-blue, and the nude portions were painted with a most delicate fidelity to nature. And so it was with our saint.She wears a golden crown; her flowing tresses, originally painted, suggest that, following the convention of the time, they were gilded. Her face and hands are of a peculiarly lovely, translucent tone, marvelously approximating the tints of living flesh and blood. Her robe is white, over which falls a red mantle lined with blue. Traces of gold indicate that it was once adorned with some rich design.The statue is carved from a single piece of wood. On the continent, as in England in the preceding century, the sculptor of a full-sized wooden effigy had many difficulties to contend with. He must find a log or block of well-seasoned oak, sound at the heart, and considerably larger than the greatest width or thickness of the contemplated figure. This was necessary because important parts of the finished work must be carved out of the interior of the block. In order to prevent splitting and possibly also to lessen its weight, the statue was almost invariably hollowed out at the back, but whether before or after its completion, is not certain, although it would seem reasonable to assume that it would be done early in the process of the work, both to disclose the existence of any defect in the wood and to hasten its thorough drying and insure against checking after the work was finished. As a consequence, Saint Catherine, though to all appearances, a solid figure, is, in fact, merely a shell, but of substantial thickness. The carved base is modern. The statue itself is five feet and four inches in height.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Wooden Statue, St. Catherine, German, XV century
  2. Marble Fountain, Italian, XVI century
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Source: John R. Van Derlip, "Two Memorials," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 9, no. 5 (May, 1920): 33-38.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009