Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Jousting Armour

I’ve written previously about some rather fine 17th century English jousting armour at the V&A. To provide contrast, the jousting armour in this post is about a century earlier (1520-40) and German. Although all of the pieces that make up this display are from different sets, bequeathed to and bought by the museum at different times, they are unified in their use of decorative fluting. This technique was particularly popular during the reign of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor. As a decorative device, fluting was intended to imitate contemporary pleated doublets, but it also, essentially produces a corrugating effect, strengthening the metal and providing greater protection.

This style of helmet (M.2705-1931), known as an armet, first became popular at the end of the 15th century. The hinged visor reduced much of a nobleman’s vision to reduce the risk of facial injury. This was not seen as a particular impediment as, unlike actual battle armour, the jouster only needed to see in one direction. The gorget (M.62-1953) protected the neck and shoulders. This example has the same fluting as before, but has an added element in that the neck-edge is in the form of a twisted rope or torse. Unfortunately, the way that these items are exhibited, with the armet over the top of the gorget, means that this detail can only be glimpsed from the back. The breastplate (M.197-1951) was made in the Bavarian town of Landshut by Wolf Grossschedel, and bears his mark. The odd-looking, semi-circular piece of metal attached at the right pectoral area is a lance rest, indicating that this was for sports jousting rather than battle. The final piece in this ensemble is the backplate (M.116-1953). Unlike the heavy breastplate that faced the full force of any potential injury, this was a much lighter as it wasn’t a target area. While the fluted decoration is present here again, the absence of the rope-like edging seen on the gorget and breastplate would again suggest that it is the work of a different maker and from a different set.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Three Graces

The Graces are, by tradition, the three daughters of Jupiter/Zeus: Thalia (youth and beauty), Euphrosyne (mirth), and Aglaia (elegance). This group was commissioned by John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford, when he visited the studios of Antonio Canova in Rome in 1814. There Russell saw and was, justifiably, taken with a version of The Three Graces (now in the Hermitage, St Petersburg) commissioned for Empress Josephine, the former wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. As she had died earlier that year, the Duke made an offer on the piece, but was thwarted by her son, who claimed ownership. Not to be done out of a sculpture, Russell commissioned Canova to produce a second version which was completed in 1817 and installed at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire in 1819.

One of the reasons I love this piece is the sheer skill demonstrated by Canova. His working technique was to dictate the design and then allow his workers to carve out the broad shapes, saving the final level of detailing for himself. This is what set him apart from his contemporaries and led to comparisons with the finest sculptors of antiquity – Canova could make solid, cold marble look as though it was as warm and responsive as human flesh. I’ve spent so much time with this piece, looking at how an individual figure balances within the group or how the artist renders the touch of fingers on a face. It is truly spectacular and never fails to take my breath away.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Lamentation over the Dead Christ

I’ve spoken before of my love of the work of Andrea della Robbia and his mindbendingly garish colour choices. This terracotta group, entitled The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, dates to about 1510-1515 and comes from his workshop, if not from the hand of the master himself. As the work incorporates the Virgin Mary cradling the figure of the dead Christ, it may be classed as a Pietà. In this arrangement, Mary is at the centre, with St John the Evangelist to the left and Mary Magdalene on the right.

Such a piece would have been intended as a focus for religious devotion in a church, and terracotta was a particularly popular medium at this period in Tuscany and the area around Bologna. The V&A’s information card notes that groups like this were particularly difficult to make and it seems that Mary Magdalene shattered during the first (biscuit) firing. This meant that the figure was unsuitable for further firing to add the glaze and instead she was painted. The other figures are all partially glazed and, while I do mock the palette, I’m still taken aback at how vibrant and vivid the colours are some 500 years after it was first made.

There’s so much to like about this piece, from the obvious skill in its manufacture, to the ‘make do & mend’ approach to the misfired Magdalene. There’s even something incredibly charming (if wholly blasphemous) in Christ’s exceptionally chilled position and facial expression, like a terracotta Snoop Dogg. For me, the greatest charm of the piece is the contrast between the front and the back. The front is exquisite and must have provided a point of concentration for generations of worshipers. But the back is so strange, almost alien in appearance. As the piece was never intended to be seen in the round, there was no need to waste unnecessary effort and clay on detail – just enough to keep it structurally stable remains. Whichever way you look at this sculpture, it remains a visually arresting and thought provoking piece.