Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Tabernacle Polyptych with the Madonna and Child and Scenes from the Life of Christ

ca. 1275–1300
Northern France (?)
Ivory with traces of original gilding and polychromy; silver hinges.
H. 9.7 cm, w. 13.1 cm (with open wings).
Credit Line:
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 304
The use of folding shrines in private devotion requires the participation of their owners, who must open the wings in order to contemplate the images. Here, the form is essentially French, but the weightier proportions and architectural elements are more characteristic of northern Spain.
The reliefs of the wings of this polyptych follow a standard medieval iconography, but the quality and depth oftheir carving are exceptional. Polyptychs of this mode generally are dated to the first decade of the fourteenth century, but the style of the Virgin and Child here recalls earlier, late Romanesque prototypes. Wilhelm von Bode suggested the early date of about 1300 for the present work (1). Unlike the more dynamic and lively fourteenth century Madonna and Child type commonly found in such polyptychs, the Lehman version has a static, hieratic, and frontal composition. As such it may be compared with a seated Madonna and Child in the Louvre, Paris, from about 1250 (2). However, in its treatment of folds the Lehman ivory is more fluent and differs from the angular style of thirteenth-century ivories (3). The faces of Mary and her child with small eyes and pupils are unusual; they do not correspond to the majority of ivories of this type, customarily ascribed to workshops in Paris or Île-de-France. It is therefore likely that this polyptych was made in a more provincial workshop, possibly in Northern France about 1275 – 1300. Richard Randall, following critical notes on the present work made by Marvin Ross in a copy of the Parke-Bernet sale catalogue, expressed doubts about the authenticity. In a letter of 6 March 1987 to George Szabo, he wrote, “more than the left wing might be suspect. It is quite stiff, and the foliation on the pinnacles seems too good to be true. However, . . . (4). Randall based his judgment on a photograph and did not study the actual ivory. Recent close inspection of the polyptych did not bring forth grounds to support his view. Originally the polyptych would have had four pinnacles on top, the bases of which remain visible, and a larger one crowning the center of the roof. Also lacking is the oblong base, as indicated by the roughened underside of the canopy. It may have been used to store a small relic (5). The right colonnette is an early replacement.

Catalogue entry from: Frits Scholten. The Robert Lehman Collection. European Sculpture and Metalwork, Vol. XII. Frits Scholten, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Princeton University Press, 2011, cat. 30, pp. 64-65.

1. See the catalogue of the Walters sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries,
New York, 1 May 1941, lot 1051.
2. Danielle Gaborit-Chopin. Ivoires Médiévaux, Ve-XVe siécles. Départment des Objects d’Art, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2003, no. 94.
3. See Richard H. Randall, Jr. The Golden Age of Ivory: Gothic Carvings in North American Collections, New York,1993, no. 7.
4. The letter is in the Robert Lehman Collection files.
5. See Randall 1993, no. 33.
Count Schuwaloff, Saint Petersburg; [ Jacques Seligmann & Company, Paris and New York]; Mrs. Henry Walters, Baltimore; Walters sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 1 May 1941, lot 1051. Acquired by Robert Lehman from the Walters sale.
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