The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw an increased demand for small portable devotional shrines or tabernacles made of ivory or metal, typically with a courtly, elegant, yet tender Virgin standing in the center. The wings, carved in a rougher style, are rich in anecdotal charm. On the left are the Annunciation to the Virgin, her Visitation with Elizabeth, and the Three Magi. On the right are the Nativity and the Presentation in the Temple.
This artwork is meant to be viewed from right to left. Scroll left to view more.
Left, the Annunciation and the Visitation (above); the Adoration of the Magi (below)
Right, Mary, Jesus, and Joseph in the Manger (above) and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (below)
Virgin and Child
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Title:Folding Shrine with the Virgin and Child
Medium:Elephant ivory with metal mounts
Dimensions:Overall: 9 9/16 x 8 1/2 x 1 3/4 in. (24.3 x 21.6 x 4.4 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
This complex folding shrine of ivory is a type known in academic literature as a "tabernacle polyptych," so called because the two-part wings may be closed around the central statue and locked, forming a protective case resembling a small tent or tabernacle. Judging by its scale, mechanics, and composition, the present work is a typical example of the fourteenth-century. The iconography and construction of sculptures of this type are consistent across numerous surviving examples, as can be seen in others in the collection (acc. nos. 17.190.253, 17.190.174, 41.100.122).
When opened, the wings reveal a complex iconographic program surrounding the life of the Virgin Mary and the infancy of Jesus. A crowned and veiled Mary commands the center of the composition. She holds the infant Jesus in the crook of her left arm. Her right hand, now damaged, once held a flower. Sculpted nearly in the round and more than double the scale of the low-relief figures in the wings, Mary and her child command a monumental presence at the center of the composition. Clockwise, the low-relief carvings on the wings show the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, and the Adoration of the Magi. In a twist on common medieval iconography of the Adoration, the three kings on the lower left break the wall of their framed, low-relief scene and present their gifts to the monumental Virgin and Child at center. The scene thus situates the kings as both the original witnesses to Jesus and as models for the aristocratic worshippers, who owned and used ivories such as this to guide their prayers toward Jesus and Mary as an intercessor.
All elements show multiple hair-line fissures and the inner left wing has suffered a major crack. The folding shrine preserves abundant traces of polychromy and gilding and, while appearing to be largely whole and well-preserved, it is in fact highly fragmentary. Documentary evidence demonstrates that the central sculpture of the Virgin and the four wing panels are separate elements joined by a modern collector. In the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the wings, then unattached to any central carving, were in the possession of the collector Joseph Fau. The Parisian art collector Charles Mège purchased them at the auction of Fau’s estate in 1884 and thereafter joined them to the central carving of the Virgin and Child. The holes on the edges of the wings bear witness to the recent association of these elements and the presence of earlier hardware, while the heavy scoring on the bottom of the central figure demonstrate that it was once affixed to an independent base. A similar folding shrine in the collection of the Victoria and Albert museum suggests that this base was a rectangular plinth supported by four feet (inv. no. 4686-1858). The roofline of the current shrine has also suffered losses. The gables of the outer wings are planed off and feature slats for the insertion of a decorative antefix or roof finial. There is a hole in each corner of the tabernacle’s roof, indicating the further presence of now-lost pinnacles. The two holes bored horizontally on the ridge may suggest a lost crest of ivory or metal. Alternatively, a later owner may have drilled these holes to facilitate the hanging of the carving from a wall, a typical practice among nineteenth-century collectors of medieval ivories.
Raymond Koechlin, Les Ivoires Gothiques Français, Vol. II (Paris: Auguste Picard, 1924), no. 136, p. 60 (our shrine).
Paul Williamson and Glyn Davies, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, Part 1 (Victoria and Albert Museum Publishing, 2014), pp. 137-158.
John Lowden and John Cherry, Medieval Ivories and works of Art: The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto: Skylet Publishing/The Art Gallery of Ontario, 2008), 59-61.
Catalogue Entry by Scott Miller, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial and Research Collections Specialist, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, 2020–2022
Joseph Fau(only the wings; until 1884); his sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris (March 3-8, 1884, no. 161; only the wings); Charles Mège, Paris; [ Jacques Seligmann, Paris (sold May 1910)]; J. Pierpont Morgan (American), London and New York (1910–1917)
Palais au Trocadéro, Paris. "Exposition universelle internationale de 1889. L'exposition rétrospective de l'art française au Trocadéro," May 6–1889.
Royal Ontario Museum. "Seven Centuries of English Domestic Silver," January 22–March 8, 1956.
Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art, Cornell University. "A Medieval Treasury: An exhibition of Medieval Art from the Third to the Sixteenth Century," October 8–November 3, 1968.
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute. "A Medieval Treasury: An exhibition of Medieval Art from the Third to the Sixteenth Century," November 11–December 10, 1968.
Catalogue des objets d'art et de haute curiosité [...] composant l'importante collection de feu M. Joseph Fau. Paris: Hôtel Drouot, March 3–8, 1884. no. 161, p. 48, (only the wings).
Darcel, Alfred, and Emile Molinier, ed. Exposition rétrospective de l'art française au Trocadéro. Exposition universelle de 1889. Lille: L. Danel, 1889. no. 118, p. 18.
Migeon, Gaston. "Collection de M. Ch. Mège." Les Arts 86 (February 1909). p. 6, ill.
Koechlin, Raymond. Les Ivoires Gothiques Français: Volume I, Text. Paris: Editions Auguste Picard, 1924. no. 136, p. 128.
Koechlin, Raymond. Les Ivoires Gothiques Français: Volume II, Catalogue. Paris: Editions Auguste Picard, 1924. no. 136, p. 60.
Freeman, Margaret B. "A Shrine for a Queen." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., 21, no. 10 (June 1963). p. 329, fig. 2.
Calkins, Robert G. A Medieval Treasury: An Exhibition of Medieval Art from the Third to the Sixteenth Century. Ithaca, N.Y.: Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art, 1968. no. 71, pp. 7, 9–10, 150–51.
McCarthy Irgens, Laurie. "Medieval Arts: Special Loans." Bulletin of the Krannert Art Museum 2, no. 1 (1976). pp. 6–7, ill.
Tomasi, Michele. "Luxe et Dévotion au XIVe Siècle: Autour du Tabernacle de Thomas Basin." Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres 2 (April–June 2012). pp. 1016–17, fig. 12.
Lowden, John. Medieval and Later Ivories in the Courtauld Gallery: Complete Catalogue. London: Courtauld Gallery, 2013. p. 56.
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