The Institute has acquired a thirteenth-century Limoges plaque (figure 1) in gilded copper which must rank among the most important medieval art objects in the collection.1
Few works of the period on this scale provide so remarkable or compelling a synthesis of touching, religious sentiment and powerful plastic form. The Bulletin
plans soon to publish a longer article on this splendid relief by a well-known scholar in the field. The following notes will serve to acquaint the Membership with the plaque, and suggest its significance and quality.During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the town of Limoges in south-central France was a great and flourishing center of art manufacture. Although Limoges enamels and metalwork became famous throughout Europe for their exquisite and skilled workmanship, they represented a diluted standardization of the more ardent tradition of early Christian ivories and metalcraft which had been passed on from the Byzantine to the Carolingian and Ottonian artist-artisans of the ninth and tenth centuries. Very rarely did the Limoges workshops produce objects of great expressive power, and their repertory of images was limited and routinized. Our copper-gilt relief is an outstanding exception to the rule, both in its distinctly individual style and its subject matter. Like a Baptism (figure 2) now in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, it is thought to be part of a complex and important shrine illustrating the Life of Christ, or of John the Baptist.2
Small shrines, containing the relics of saints, were a prominent feature of medieval church treasuries, produced regularly at the altar on feast days. They were often elaborately worked in metal relief, enamel, ivory and precious stones, and became in the collegiate churches and cathedrals of France the focus of worship, indeed, one of the important attractions for travelers on the pilgrimage route who had come to venerate and do homage to the patron saint. The growing magnificence of the reliquaries and shrines in the eleventh and twelfth century accorded with the expansion of medieval ecclesiastical life, and its orientation to the community without rather than to its own internal monastic society. “Men’s eyes,” wrote the Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, “are set under a spell by reliquaries. . . . They see the shining image of a saint and in the imagination of the people his saintliness is proportioned to its brilliance.” The material extravagance of medieval shrines gained a symbolic and magical force, dramatizing the revelations and mystery of the liturgy and relics for the faithful. Later these ecclesiastical objects were intended for personal use, as house altar or reliquary, and designed to gratify the sophisticated courtly tastes of noble patrons. Because of the date and stylistic character of our relief, the late Georg Swarzenski considered it part of a shrine which might have belonged alternately to a church treasury, or served as a more “intimate work of devotional luxury.”3
In addition to The Entombment,
there are a number of other related Limoges reliefs extant illustrating the Passion: a Flagellation
and a Last Supper
in the Cluny Museum, and a Betrayal
in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore. Hanns Swarzenski, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, has noted still another plaque analogous in style, in the Musée André in Chaalis. The elder and younger Swarzenskis (father and son, and both distinguished medievalists) agree that our Entombment,
the Cluny Flagellation
and the Boston Baptism
are the most distinguished of this unusual group, that they probably came from the same masterful hand, or from the same atelier, and originally formed part of a major shrine or retable. Georg Swarzenski in his article proposed the title of the master “of the great applied reliefs,” but then tentatively discarded this formulation, suggesting that the group of reliefs were more likely the product of a strong, anonymous local tradition and could not be assigned specifically to a single master.Whatever its authorship or original function, which future scholarly research may better reveal, our sculpture is clearly an unusual and exquisite example of Gothic art. We are shown the dead Christ being laid in his tomb, with the Virgin Mary tenderly supporting his head; Joseph of Arimathea stands by his side holding what may be either an anointing vessel, or a chalice4
to catch the blood of Christ; Nicodemus’ formalized grief (overcome, he holds his head in sympathetic pain) is a very affecting conception; Mary Magdalene leans forward, her sorrow frozen in an exclamatory gesture of anguish, an anointing vessel in her right hand. One has only to think of the late Gothic pietas, with their baroque extravagance of gesture and violent emotionalism, to appreciate the unique restraint of our plaque and its delicacy of feeling in the handling of death (see detail, figure 3). The figures here are gilded copper, creating a magical richness of surface comparable to the gold grounds of Byzantine mosaic, with a similar atmosphere of transcendental mystery. Enhancing the effect are the incised decorative motifs and drops of brilliant blue enamel in the eyes of the figures.The Limoges craftsmen were conservative in their styles, on the whole. Remote from Paris, Amiens, Rheims and the great centers of cathedral sculpture, bred rather on retrospective local traditions of manuscript illumination, they looked backward to the Romanesque at a time when France was entering the most gracious moment of the Gothic flowering. The Joseph figure particularly suggests still the twelfth century idol-effigy relic in its toy-like quality and hypnotic, staring immobility, rather like the most famous of Romanesque relic statuary, St. Foy of Conques. Generally, the rigid figures of the Entombment
are closer to the mystical spirit of columnar statues on the West Portal of Chartres than they are to the more fluent, naturalistic sculptures of Notre Dame and Amiens. In terms of contemporary illuminations, they also reveal an archaic stiffness of limb and gesture, although there is evidence of a reawakened interest in contemporary dress, and a quality of refinement—a certain tapered elegance—that establish links with such illustrations as those in the Psalter of Saint-Louis.What we have is a fine master apparently working somewhat outside of his time and clinging to earlier conventions of metalcraft and illumination. Georg Swarzenski has suggested a strong relationship between this work and the Limoges enamels on the shrine of St. Viance in the church of St. Viance (a shrine which also has a cycle of statuettes in gilded copper and may thus provide a direct provincial prototype for our piece.)5
Yet our master is not so uncompromising a conservative that he cannot express, through subtle rhythmic articulation of surface, and with refined powers of observation, an essentially human drama. This touching, rudimentary awareness of the quality of individual experience is the link with Gothic mood. The result, then, is a work that grips us by its tension and blending of opposition; of flat, geometric pattern and a strong sense of cubic volumes; of the natural human image and the mystical icon. This superb plaque stands midway between the vital stylization of the Romanesque and the gracious humanization of the High Gothic. It is the production of a sculptor of genius; working with small forms, and within a convention of silhouette and surface ornament, he has achieved monumental scale, and a grave and serene beauty.Endnotes
Referenced Works of Art
- The Entombment, 1240-60, gilded copper from Limoges, 11 1/2 x 11 inches, formerly collections Sir Kenneth Clark, London, and Prince Wladyslaw Czartoryski, Castle Gutuchow, Germeau, Poland.
- “A Masterpiece of Limoges,” by Georg Swarzenski, Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Vol. XLIX, pp. 17-25, 1951.
- This interpretation, with its eucharistic implications, has been proposed in conversation by Professor Dimitri Tselos of the University of Minnesota art history department.
- See Swarzenski, op. cit, p. 20.
- The Entombment, gilded copper and enamel from Limoges, 1240-60, 11 1/2 x 11 inches, Dunwoody Fund, 1958.
- The Baptism of Christ, gilded copper and enamel from Limoges, 13th century, 14 1/2 inches high, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Francis Bartlett Fund.
- The Entombment, detail.