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A Delicate St. Sebastian from Brabant

S.Sebastian-example

This intriguing wooden sculpture, still with its original polychromy, depicts saint Sebastian and it has certainly been made in the region of Brabant, a northern-European cultural area with renowned for an important tradition in wooden sculpture from the Middle Ages onwards.

The Saint is tied to a tree trunk with ropes, the left arm fastened over his head and the right one lowered and bended backwards; a green and red cloth surrounds the hips, the knees are slightly bending, and the feet are placed in opposite directions against each other over a rounded base. The peaceful face – with gentle almond-shaped eyes, arched eyebrows and a tiny mouth – turns downwards and is framed by hair, neatly divided by a central parting and falling to the sides of his face in short curls.
Many elements lead to attribute this sculpture to the circle of the “Master of Koudewater” (Meester van Coudewater), an artist active in Northern Brabant during the second half of 15th century and of whom no more than about ten sculptures are known.

St.Sebastian_Pose Comparison

Left: Master of Koudewater, Saint Michael, Uden, Krona Museum | Right: Master of Koudewater, Saint Agnes, Private Collection.

Although the pose of this Saint Sebastian is more open and dynamic if compared to other works attributed to the sculptor, there is a remarkable resemblance of the hair of both our sculpture and other two works by the Master of Koudewater: a saint Michael housed in the Krona Museum in Uden and a saint Agnes in a private collection.
There are also further comparable features: the small rounded base is similar to the one in the Uden sculpture, as well as the shape of the mouth, the arched eyebrows and the straight nose; other similarities can be underlined in the rendering of the hands; all three sculptures are carved in walnut wood, a timber that the Master of Koudewater preferred over oak, which is much more commonly used in this area; finally, these three works have approximately the same height: saint Sebastian, cm 81; saint Michael, cm 96; saint Agnes, cm 73.

S.Sebastian_details

The sculpture undoubtedly depicts saint Sebastian, an officer in Emperor Diocletian’s army (284 – 313), who, after being shot with arrows, survived thanks to the care of the pious Irene, but then, showing up before Diocletian, he was executed. His bones are buried in the roman catacombs of St Peter and St Paul – where we find one of the earliest examples of his representation. As described in the Legenda Aurea, during the plague of the year 680, the Saint’s relics were transferred to Pavia, miraculously bringing the pestilence to an end. From then on, Saint Sebastian was worshipped as one of the saints of healing, together with saint Roch and saint Christopher.
While in the Middle Ages the Saint was portrayed as a soldier in armour, from the second half of the 14th century onwards there was a radical change in iconography: saint Sebastian became a beautiful young man, with an ethereal and virginal appearance. Indeed, the god Apollo himself, invoked in cases of plague, in the representations of the classical period offers his splendid naked body to vulnerability, just as the martyr’s body is offered, defenceless, to martyrdom. The torture, however, immediately acquires a metaphorical meaning: the wounds on the body are the only visible trace of the sufferings of the spirit. Of course, the opportunity to depict the body of a half-naked man was offered to Renaissance artists only by the figures of Christ and Saint Sebastian; the Saint, in particular, who often assumed a twisted pose, became the bearer of the most intense results of anatomical rendering.

Sebastian_whole-view

Returning now to our sculpture, the curious detail of the feet, crossed like in a dance move, appears around 1470 mainly in the German area and responds to the taste for twisted bodies typical of northern Europe; here, however, the softened anatomy highlighting the volumes of the muscles undoubtedly leads us towards the Northern Brabant area, characterised by a taste for rounded features and softened edges. The origin of this pose can be traced back to a couple of works by two of the greatest graphic artists of the late 15th century: an engraving by Martin Schongauer (c. 1435 – 1491) and a silverpoint drawing by Hans Holbein (c. 1460-1524), which has been reinterpreted in the beautiful reliquary now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The crossed and counterposed pose of the legs is undoubtedly an iconographic device alluding to instability, fragility and failure.

St.Sebastian_Pose Comparison

Left: M. Schongauer, St. Sebastian (engraving), New York, Metropolitan Museum. | Centre: Silver Reliquiary of St. Sebastian, c. 1497, London, Victoria and Albert Museum. | Right: H. Holbein, St. Sebastian (silverpoint drawing, 1497-1500), London, British Museum.

Vulnerability and openness to martyrdom are also evoked by another particular formal feature: the raised arm revealing the chest, often its left side, the seat of the heart. This pose implies the impossibility of protecting the vital organs and it’s a gesture deeply rooted in the imagery of Western culture, running through the entire history of art, from ancient Greece to the present day (Gury 2005). Among the best known depictions of saint Sebastian with his left arm raised, one can mention the marvellous picture by Hans Memling (ca. 1475? Brussels, Musée des Beaux-Arts). At closer inspection, one can also notice that in Memling’s painting and in most of the depictions of the Saint made during the second half of the 15th century, the right arm of St. Sebastian, i.e. the lowered one, is normally tied to the trunk at wrist level. On the other hand, in Holbein’s drawing, as in our sculpture, the right arm is tied to the trunk at elbow level, demonstrating a further link between the German master’s invention and the sculpture examined here.

S.Sebastian_comparison

Left: H. Memling, The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, c. 1475, Bruxelles, Musée des Beaux-Arts (detail) | Right: H. Holbein, St. Sebastian, London, British Museum (detail).

In conclusion, it is interesting to note that in this rare Northern Brabant sculpture, saint Sebastian’s naked, sweet and beautiful body is in no way marred or humiliated by martyrdom and wounds, thus representing the solidity of faith and hope in suffering and in any kind of adversity (Darriulat 1998).

Sebastian_side

Master of Koudewater, workshop of
SAINT SEBASTIAN
Northern Brabant
Late 15th century
Polychromed walnut wood
Cm 81 h

Study by Nicolas Hendrickx, M.A. Courtauld Institute of Art

References: L. Réau, Iconographie de l’art chrétien, 3 chap. 2, Presses Universitaires de France, 1958; Saint Sébastien. Rituels et figures, exhibition catalogue (Paris, Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, 25 November- 16 April 1984), ed. by J. Cuisinier, Paris, 1983 ; J. Darriulat, Sebastien, le renaissant : sur le martyre de saint Sébastien dans la deuxième moitié du Quattrocento, Paris 1998 ; Van Liebergen, ed.by, Beelden in de Abdij. Middleeuwse kunt uit het noordelijk deel van het hertogdom Brabant, Nijmegen, 1999; W. Prins, ed. by, Deftige Devotie. Museum voor religieuze kunst Uden, Uden, 2003; F. Gury, De l’amazone blessée à Saint Sèbastien, in Iconografia 2005. Immagini e immaginari dall’antichità classica al mondo moderno, Rome 2006, pp. 335-351.

A very sophisticated Sealing Press

very-fine-sealing-press

Very high quality of ironworking is the distinctive feature of this elegant sealing press.

Over an oval plate with moulded rim is fixed a frame consisting of a curved arm, ending with a polylobed element with vertical passing screw crowned in the upper part with a moulded cap, and two small quadrangular driving bars. The screw is operated by a crank consisting of a moulded bar with quadrangular central hole and baluster knob finials. The seal matrix is moulded and engraved with a fine monogram. The proper seal, could be impressed on the hot sealing wax or directly on the paper, i.e. ‘dry stamp’.

sealing-press_detail
The history of seal is so fascinating that it sparked a remarkable and widespread interest over the centuries, and still today it motivates some of the most refined collectors. Since ancient times the seal has been used, as a sign of power, to legitimate documents, letters or envelopes, or to seal them and thus prevent tampering; in Italy this practice acquired particular importance as early as the Middle Ages, but it was from the Renaissance onwards that the use of seals on paper became a common procedure. The charm of the seal derives from the fact that it encloses, in a few centimeters, many centuries of history, legal evolution and social transformation.

The first sealing presses, which flanked the ancient manual pressure seals, were created in the mid-sixteenth century and became more widespread between seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, being used in the great royal, noble or ecclesiastical chancelleries, to manage and certify a significant, and often growing, amount of documents.
Presses like this one, with its elegant and slender design, could be used by high aristocratic officials to seal official documents and dispatches quickly, conveniently, but also quietly and elegantly, as well as with greater precision and regularity than using a manual seal: these refined instruments were typical of an enlightened age that marked the decisive rationalisation of the archives and the development of notarial procedures as we know them today.

sealing-press_view

The press illustrated here is outstanding for its noteworthy elegance, achieved thanks to the high quality of the iron used, and through a sophisticated work of turning and shaping that can be appreciated in the details, such as the very particular shape of the driving bars, the perforated and polylobed ring, the very fine pitch screw and the elegant finials on the handle: all technical, as well as aesthetic, details that ensure a regular descent of the die, guaranteeing the perfect legibility of the seal applied.

sealing-press_comparison

Two Sealing Presses, France, 18th century. Rouen Musée Le Secq de Tournelles

Among the rare known examples, formally and aesthetically comparable to this elegant press, there are two very similar instruments in the Le Secq des Tournelles Museum in Rouen and another one formerly in the Nessi collection.
a-very-fine-sealing-press
SEALING PRESS
Wrought, carved and engraved steel
Cm 19 x 21 x 16
Italy
Second half 18th century

Bibliography: A. and F. Cesati, Tools, Milano 2013, cat. 26, p. 79, 99;
References: H.-R. D’Allemagne, Decorative Antique Ironwork, New York 1960 (ed.or 1924), p. 309, fig. G., p. 309, ill. G.; V. Fagone, Il momento artigiano, Milano 1976, p. 98; Objets civils domestiques. Vocabulaire, Paris, Imprimerie Nationale 1984, p. 525; Il sigillo nella storia, exh. catalogue (Venice, Museo Correr, 1985); VV.AA., Antichi strumenti e utensili della collezione Nessi, Milano 2004, p. 343, pl. 160.

A Striking Head of Saint Paul

Head-of-Saint-Paul

This impressive head depicts a bearded man caught in a moment of powerful dramatic expression. The head swerve, the gaze turned suddenly upwards, the contraction of the forehead, his corrugated eyebrows and the small mouth with fleshy lips, describe effectively the intense emotion of the character.

The sculptor lingered in the detailed rendering of the curly hair and beard, in the different kind of wrinkles that mature skin can show when exposed to sunlight and in the peculiar shape of the cranium: for sure these are the results of a careful and extended physiognomic observation.
The traces of a naturalistic polychromy – well identifiable in many areas of the sculpture like skin tone, pupils, red lips, dark hair and beard – represent a rare and precious element for a sandstone Renaissance sculpture.

 

Head-of-Saint-Paul-detail

Both the kind of sandstone and the carving of the present head resemble some of the few surviving stone sculptures achieved between the late 15th and the early 16th century in the area of Strasbourg, a region where along the centuries French art intertwines with German art. Particularly, the realistic description of the furrowed brow, the high cheekbones and the way fleshy eyebrows surround the eyes, as well as the fine and light carving of the surface describing wrinkles and skin, can be related to the work by Niclaus Gerhaert (Nikolaus von Leyden, Nicolas de Leyde; c. 1420 – after 1472).

Niclaus Gerhaert was doubtless among the most influential northern European sculptors of the 15th century. From 1462 to 1467, Gerhaert worked in Strasbourg where he achieved the Great door of the Strasbourg Chancellery: the Head of a Prophet with Turban provides notable points of comparison with the present head.

Head-of-Saint-Paul-comparison

On the Right: Niclaus Gerhaert, Head of a Prophet (from the Strasbourg Chancellery), c. 1463. Strasbourg, Museum Œuvre Notre-Dame.

His talent in rendering naturalistic details, particularly in his faces -deeply rooted in the art of his native land, Holland- is influenced by major sculptors like Claus Sluter, and connected to the art of Veit Stoss and Tilman Riemenschneider.

However, the Gothic graphical lines typical of the late 15th century sculpture (such as that by Gerhaert, or other sculptors of the same area like Lux Kotter or Veit Wagner, or Nicolas de Haguenau, particularly in the Issenheim Altarpiece, now in Colmar, Unterlinden Museum) are here overcome, towards a more realistic and natural way of depicting hair, flesh and the face in general, allowing to date the present sculpture to the first decades of the 16th century.

Head-of-Saint-Paul-side-view

As for the subject represented by this powerful sculpture, it is probably Saint Paul: in fact, the iconography of the Apostle, as proven both by art and literature, recalls that of Philosophers, emphasising his intellectual qualities (baldness, a broad forehead and a furrowed brow); also, a beard was traditionally associated the Jews, as well as a protruding nose.

 

Head-of-Saint-Paul-example

On the Right: Hans Baldung Grien, St. Peter (detail), 1519. New York, Metropolitan Museum.

 
The dramatic energy of this face is provided by intense shades created by a deep carving; furthermore, the realistic depiction of ‘old age’ in Gothic art commonly identified Saints as ascetic and spiritually ‘Holy Men’. Sometimes this devotional realism can give almost the effect of a portrait.

Realism is after all a typical feature of Franco-Flemish visual culture and it appears also in wooden sculpture, paintings and engravings, such as those by Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien.

 

Head-of-Saint-Paul-full

HEAD OF SAINT PAUL
Limestone with traces of polychromy
France (Strasbourg?)
First half 16th century
H cm. 24

Provenance: Boccador collection (Paris)

Related Litterature: Niclaus Gerhaert: der Bildhauer des Späten Mittelalters, exhibition catalogue (Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main, 27 October 2011- 4 March 2012; Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame, Straßburg, 30 March -8 July 2012) ed. by Stefan Roller; Martin Büchsel, Die wachsame Müdigkeit des Alters. Realismus als rhetorisches Mittel im Spätmittelalter, in “Artibus et Historiae” , Vol. 23, No. 46 (2002), p. 21-35.

A Splendid Pair of Iron Frames

Pair-of-iron-frames

This gorgeous pair of frames fully represents the triumph of Baroque iron. The frames are entirely made of embossed iron (repoussé): a particularly complex technique and a French prerogative that was brought back to excellent levels precisely during the Baroque era.

The embossed iron is obtained from a foil and this implies (in fact, obtaining large format sheets was technically impossible) that the artifact was necessarily made with the juxtaposition of several parts, joined together with rivets.

Pair-of-iron-frames-detail

These frames, which could host maybe a pair of mirrors or paintings, are very rare objects and find a significant confirmation in the most important western museum dedicated to the art of iron: the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles in Rouen, France.

Pair-of-iron-frames-comparison

An iron frame, France, First Half 18th century. Rouen, Musée Le Secq des Tournelles.

The refined ironwork technique, almost defying the intrinsic characteristics of the metal, emerges in the rendering of the classical and generous acanthus leaf vegetal scrolls, that with graceful symmetry create the frame, referring to the unsurpassed elegance of the age of Louis XIV (1651-1715).
The Sun King himself, identifying the Ferronnerie as the ‘Fourth Art’, therefore on a par with the three major arts, encouraged its application in a wide range of artistic fields.
Besides, both the Sun King and Louis XV had a passion for locks and iron objects, that they manufactured on their own in a small workshop specificallly built for them.

Pair-of-iron-frames-example

Top: F. Boucher, Two Pastoral Scenes (1736-1742). Bottom: G. Boffrand, Design for the Bedroom of Prince de Rohan in Paris, Hotel de Soubise (1735–36).

In the history of the frame, the ones made of metal (silver, gilded copper, brass etc) represent a less common class, but the present pair is undoubtedly an even more notable exception and a rare and significant witness of the refined French ferronerie.

Pair-of-iron-frames-view

PAIR OF FRAMES
Wrought and repoussé iron
France
First half 18th century
Cm. 86 x 56 H

References: Henri-René d’Allemagne, Ferronerie ancienne, Catalogue du Musée Le Secq des Tournelles à Rouen, 2 voll. Schemit, Paris 1924 (English edition: Decorative antique ironwork, Dover Publ., New York 1968), pl. 185.

A Delicate 18th century Wax ‘Bambinello’

delicate-wax-bambinello

A wide and deep frame encloses the figure of the Child Jesus placed in a landscape at sunset. The Redeemer is represented as a naked little boy, resting on his side, with the right hand on his chest, the eyes looking upwards, and his mouth half open.

The scene is rich in meaningful details: Jesus looks away, alluding to the forthcoming Passion, and among the grass blades we recognize some flowers with evident symbolic content. White thistle refers to the sufferings and to the Crown of thorns; daisies are the symbol of Jesus’ innocence; the slender violet alludes to the Lent color and stands for the humility of the Son. Finally the vine -hanging from an oak tree- recalls the correlation between wine and blood, a very important moment in the Mass ceremony, and therefore it constitutes a clear prefiguration of the Last Supper.

delicate-wax-bambinello_detail

Several features explain the original context for this work, that must be related to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies between the 17th and the 18th century, a moment of extraordinary importance for the Italian wax-modelling. Particularly, the very minute and detailed wax ‘scenography’ connects the present relief to the well-known works by Lo Giudice, owners of one of the most important wax-modelling workshops in Palermo (Grasso and Gulisano 2011).

Starting from the image of the Nativity, which was born in the medieval Franciscan context, the cult of the Christ Child, worshipped individually, spread throughout Europe from the 16th century onwards.
Especially in Sicily, between the late 17th and the early 18th century, the diffusion of the wax “bambinelli” placed inside glass cases is well attested: the present work belongs to this typology, originating in women’s religious orders (see Grasso and Gulisano 2011, p. 126-134; T. Crivello 2014).

delicate-wax-bambinello_comparison

Left: Sicilian workshop, Wax ‘Bambinello’, 18th century. Diocese of Syracuse. | Right: G. Serpotta, Cherub making soap bubbles (1699-1706). Palermo, Oratory of San Lorenzo.

These wax reliefs made of various materials are generally extremely fragile and they often appear damaged, whereas the present one is in a rather exceptional state of conservation despite the considerable size of the figure, whose very soft modelling – another reference to Sicilian Baroque culture – recalls the stucco works by the great Palermo sculptor Giacomo Serpotta.

delicate-wax-bambinello-view

Sicilian wax modeller
BABY JESUS
Polychrome waxes and various media
Southern Italy (Sicily)
Second half of 18th century
Cm 55 x 47,5h (frame included)

References: Congresso internazionale sulla ceroplastica nella scienza e nell’arte, Atti del I congresso, Firenze 1977; S.Grasso – M. C. Gulisano, Mondi in Miniatura. Le cere artistiche nella Sicilia del Settecento, Palermo 2011; T. Crivello, L’iconografia del Gesù Bambino nella ceroplastica, in OADI, IX, 2014.

A nice pair of Emilian Bronze Doorknockers

battenti-emiliani-bronzo-detail

The quality of this nice pair of bronze doorknockers with dark patina is mainly due to their formal richness: a lyre-shaped body with arms adorned by foliages and vegetal scrolls among which – in the centre and in correspondence of the knocking element – appears the mask of a satyr with goat horns.

Bronze-doorknockers-detail

Leonine and grotesque mascarons are typical and recurrent elements in doorknockers and other small Renaissance bronzes: on one hand they recall the ancient world and on the other they certainly have an apotropaic function.
Among the best witnesses of the fortune of this kind of image we can remember an early work by Michelangelo: the iconic marble Head of a Faun, carved around 1489 but lost in 1944 and today known through the descriptions by Condivi and Vasari, and thanks to some plaster casts.

bronze-doorknockers-comparison

On the left : Michelangelo Buonarroti, Head of a Faun, c. 1489 (lost in 1944).

Michelangelo’s head, like that of our doorknockers, is bearded and laughing, showing large eyebrows, a “broken” nose and an open mouth with protruding teeth and tongue. It is a powerful and fascinating representation, which can also be found on cameos, handles, doorknockers and other Renaissance objects: an allusion to the most wild and instinctive aspect of mankind, as it was already celebrated in the ancient and pagan world.

Another doorknocker, nearly identical to those presented here and certainly made in the same workshop, is housed at Museo Stefano Bardini in Florence (Nesi-Rago 2009, p. 168). Two other quite similar ones were still in place in 1903 on a door of a house in Reggio Emilia (Balletti 1903, p. 121-122).

Look at a stunning pair of German doorknockers here; and discover an unrivalled spanish one here.

bronze-foorknockers-comparison-other

On the left: Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder, c. 1474-1475. Florence, Uffizi Gallery. | On the right: Emilia workshop, Doorknocker, late 16th century. Florence, Museo Bardini.

The collection of small bronze objects from the Ancient World , mainly focused on medals, starts in the late Middle Ages and leads, during the Renaissance – in Veneto, especially in Padua-, to a ‘rebirth’ of small bronzes, often made by excellent artists such as Pisanello and Donatello and inspired by the ancient models. The production of these small bronzes quickly became a specific genre – addressed to a cultivated élite of refined amateurs – rapidly spreading in Emilia and in Tuscany.
Considered as autonomous works of art, Renaissance small bronzes will be then very appreciated between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, and sought after by the greatest and best European collectors.

As the great 14th century poet Francesco Petrarca already noticed, the special charm of small antique objects derives from the fact that they are manageable sculptures, providing a pleasure that is certainly visual but also substantially tactile; the same aspect is emphasized, centuries later, by Galileo, and again in 1961, the celebrated antique dealer Luigi Bellini wrote: “Bronzes are like pearls, […] because you feel a physical pleasure in caressing them […], you would never stop”.

Bronze-doorknockers-pair

PAIR OF DOORKNOCKERS
Italy (Emilia)
Second half 16th century
Bronze
H cm 16
Bibliography: La camera delle meraviglie, exhibition cat., Galleria Mazzoleni, Milan 1985, n.20; Museum, exhibition cat., Galleria Lorenzelli, Bergamo 1994, p. 244.
References: A. Balletti, Gli ultimi battenti in bronzo a Reggio dell’Emilia, in “Rassegna d’Arte”, 1903, III, p. 121-122; Museo Stefano Bardini. I bronzetti e gli oggetti d’uso in bronzo, ed. by A. Nesi, cat. by T. Rago, Florence 2009, p. 168, cat. 65.

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