Since the Middle Ages, the city of Limoges in central France thrived on the artistic production of enamel on metal. Similar in composition to glass, enamel consists of silica and a fluxing agent colored by metallic oxide or carbonate and fused to a metal surface by heat. From the twelfth through the fifteenth century, Limoges enamel painters gouged into the surface of the metal (champlevé) or raised thin dams between areas of color (cloisonné) to establish the design and to prevent pigments from mixing. By the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries, materials and techniques developed that permitted painters to apply enamels more freely to copper surfaces, without obvious demarcations between areas of color, in a manner that approached the painting of oil on paint or canvas. Unlike oil painting, enameled metal retains its hue without fading, or tel que l’ambre une fleur (like a flower in amber), as the poet Théophile Gautier wrote in a sonnet to the nineteenth-century enamel painter Claudius Popelin.
This technical development paralleled the growing cult of antiquity in France and the widespread circulation of printed images. While religious themes had dominated Limoges enamels in the Middle Ages and continued to cover the surfaces of Limoges plaques particularly in the first third of the sixteenth century, images of Greek and Roman subjects, readily available to painters through engravings and woodcuts, predominated from the 1530s.
The earliest series of Limoges plaques based on classical rather than religious subjects drew from the Aeneid. It is also the largest: eighty-two plaques are known, of which fifteen are in the Metropolitan Museum (88.3.85). The production of this series is hardly surprising, since ancient texts in the original and in translation had a wide readership in the literate society of France at this time. Courtly and allegorizing so-called Troy romances still circulated, but scholars like Guillaume Budé encouraged a new appreciation of more accurate versions of the epics. Homeric themes were much favored as artistic subjects at court; for instance, at Fontainebleau, scenes from the Iliad decorated the king’s chamber in the 1530s, and those from the Odyssey adorned the Galerie d’Ulisse in the 1540s. Virgil’s Aeneid and Statius’ Thebaid also inspired artistic representations. A series of more than eighty enamel plaques offered the scope to recount the many episodes of an epic, and originally they may have fit into the panels of a small room. Such an enamels cabinet, though exclusively of portraits, was found in Catherine de Médicis‘ Hôtel de la Reine in Paris, as the 1589 inventory of her effects records.
In the case of the Museum’s enamels, the Master of the Aeneid based his series on woodcuts from the historiated Aeneid printed by Johann Grüninger in Strasbourg in 1502. The painter varied his work from the printed model, changing the format, often reducing the number of figures to emphasize the principal action, and rendering black and white into color.
The dependence of enamel painters on print sources is entirely natural in the case of artisans unschooled in either Latin or Greek. The enameler Colin II Nouailher transformed a parade of the Nine Worthies from a series of engravings attributed to Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen into individual enameled medallions (28.217.2). While the Aeneid series exists only in single representations of each composition, this set, more typically for Limoges production, is known in multiple examples. The Nine Worthies—three from antiquity, Hector, Alexander, and Julius Caesar; three from the Old Testament, Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus; and three from the Middle Ages, King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godefrey de Bouillon—indicate another attraction of classical myth and literature. Important personages from ancient and more recent times served as exemplars for contemporary men and women. For example, Francis I was compared to figures from all three categories: Louise of Savoy referred to her son as glorieux et triumphant second César; Claude d’Espence, in his Institution d’un Prince Chréstien (1548), called him un second David; and Raphael portrayed him as Charlemagne in the fresco in the Vatican’s Stanza dell’Incendio. Myth and history were read for moral application to present concerns; thus contemporary leaders sought to be associated with models from the past. Depicting Julius Caesar astride a horse and wearing a plumed helmet reinforced this Roman emperor’s relevance to the present.
Toward the end of the sixteenth century, mythological subjects crowded the surfaces of decorative objects such as a pair of candlesticks by Master I.C. (39.66.1). The Twelve Labors of Hercules fill the oval repoussé medallions of one, while the principal gods—each identified by an attribute, Jupiter with an eagle, Neptune with a trident, for instance—fill the ovals of the other. Cupids cavort around the pans, called bobeches, that catch the wax from the candles, while terms and swags encircle the stems. Once again, the enameler relied on engraved sources: Heinrich Aldegrever’s prints of the Labors of Hercules and the Master of the Die’s amorini after Raphael’s designs.
In these three instances, the Aeneid series, the Nine Worthies, and the candlesticks, antiquity was used for episodic illustrations, as emblematic medallions, and finally as decorative motifs. This shift reflects growing familiarity with antique sources in France by mid-century, as well as the increased collecting of Limoges objects by such patrons as the constable Anne de Montmorency, the powerful commander of the armies.