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Triptych

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    1350-1370 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Gold and translucent enamel

  • Credit Line:

    Lent from a Private Collection

  • Museum number:

    LOAN:MET ANON.3-1980

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This folding triptych was a luxury devotional object. What makes it a particularly important survival is that three other works by the same goldsmith also survive - a unique circumstance for England.

Objects of this sort were aids to private devotion. In other words, they would have been placed in front of the owner during prayer or contemplation. Prayer manuals and preaching emphasised that the viewer should try to visualise the moments of Christ's passion, to imagine it as if it were actually happening in front of them.

The imagery on this triptych gives us further clues as to how it would have been used. When originally made, the closed triptych had images of individual saints and the Virgin Mary. These saints would have been chosen because of their significance to the original owner. The prayers of the worshipper would mainly have been directed to these saints. When opened, the images on the inside dealt with Christ's incarnation and Passion.

The original owner is unknown, but it was described in 1617 in the collection of the Wittelsbachs, the ruling house of Bavaria. At that time, it had a case, with a silver label explaining that it had belonged to Mary Queen of Scots. The inscription along the edge says that the triptych was given by Elizabeth Vaux to Claudio Aquaviva, who was the head of the Jesuit Order between 1581 and 1616. The Vaux family were prominent English Catholics, and figure amongst secret lists of Mary's sympathizers.

Physical description

A gold folding triptych, with enamel panels, composed of four elements: a square central panel, two cusped wings, and a trefoil panel above. Each of the elements bears enamels on both sides. When open, the interior shows in the top row St Anne teaching the Virgin to read, the Visitation, and St John the Baptist. The bottom row shows St James the Greater, St Edmund and St Giles. The left wing represents St Christopher, the right wing All Saints, and the trefoil top panel the Coronation of the Virgin. The outside shows on the top row the Circumcision, the Agony in the Garden, and the Flagellation. The bottom row shows the Crowning with Thorns, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. On the left wing is the Annunciation, on the right wing the Adoration of the Magi and above, the Trinity. All the figures and scenes on the panels are framed within a series of cusped ogee arches.

All of the scenes have been removed from their frame and replaced back to front, so that the enamels on the outside of the closed triptych should in fact be on the inside. This has happened since it was illustrated in 1876.

Place of Origin

England (made)

Date

1350-1370 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Gold and translucent enamel

Marks and inscriptions

Elizabetha Vaux DD Rmo Claudio Aquavivae Societ. Jesu. Gener. Praeto.
Elizabeth Vaux gave [this] to the most reverend Claudio Aquaviva, General of the Society of Jesus.
The text runs around the edge of the frame.

Dimensions

Height: 7.2 cm when open, Width: 8.4 cm when open, Depth: 0.5 cm when open, Weight: 8 g, Weight: 2.8 oz

Object history note

This object came into the possession of Campion Hall, Oxford as a bequest from its owner, the Jesuit Father Martin d'Arcy, who had been Rector and Master there in the 1930s.

The original owner of this piece is unknown. The earliest documented description of the piece is in a 1617 inventory of the collection of the Wittelsbachs, the ruling house of Bavaria. At the time of the inventory, the triptych had a case, with a silver label explaining that it had belonged to Mary Queen of Scots. The other piece of evidence for the early history of the piece is the inscription along the edge which says that the triptych was given by Elizabeth Vaux to Claudio Aquaviva, who was General of the Jesuit Order between 1581 and 1616. These two pieces of evidence are not mutually exclusive. Although we have no documentation, a member of the Vaux family might well have had contact with Mary, Queen of Scots, as they were prominent recusants, and figure amongst secret lists of her sympathizers. Mary is known to have made presents to her supporters, such as the rosary which she gave to the Countess of Arundel just before her execution. There are two likely possibilities for the Elizabeth Vaux of the inscription: the first was great granddaughter of Sir Thomas More, and wife of the fourth Baron, whom she married in 1585. She was an active Jesuit sympathizer. The other was her step-sister-in-law, who was smuggled to France by the Jesuits in 1582, and who seems to have become a Poor Clare. Either of this might have conveyed a gift to the General of the Jesuit Order, although ther is no record of any contact between Aquaviva and the Vaux family.

The Wittelsbachs would have had an obvious interest in the piece, as they could claim distant kinship with Mary - Wilhelm V in particular is known to have collected many relics and sacred vessels.

In the early twentieth century, the triptych passed into the National Collection in Munich, from where it was sold some time before 1939. Although looted from a safety deposit box in London during the war, it was eventually restored to the Mannheimer family, its legal owners, who presented it as a gift to Father d'Arcy.

Historical significance: This is a high quality example of a luxury devotional object, probably produced in England. It is unique for an English medieval goldsmith that four examples of his work should survive - and from that group, this is the most significant piece.

Historical context note

We know very little about the ways in which an object such as this would have been used. Small, portable luxury objects of this sort, usually decorated with saints and images from Christ's passion are often described as aids to private devotion - in other words, they would have been set in front of the owner during prayer or contemplation. Prayer manuals and preaching in the period emphasised that the viewer should try to place themselves empathetically at the moments of Christ's passion, and to imagine it as if it were actually happening in front of them. However, it is now becoming clear that the boundaries between private devotion and structured worship within the church were extremely porous. Marian Campbell has cited the evidence of an English will of 1359 which describes an enamel panel not very different from this one being used to decorate the altar of a private chapel. Unstructured prayer and contemplation could also take place within the church, even during services.

The iconography of this triptych gives us further clues as to how it would have been used. When originally made, the closed triptych would have presented, on front and rear, images of individual saints and a small series of images devoted to the Virgin Mary. These saints would have been chosen because of their significance to the original owner - Campbell has pointed out that most of the saints can be linked to those venerated in a Norwich hospital founded in the thirteenth century by Bishop Walter de Suffield. It would have been these saints to whom the prayers of the worshipper were mainly directed, so that they could intercede in heaven on their behalf. When opened, the images on the inside dealt with Christ's incarnation and Passion. The wings introduced this series, with the story of the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi. In the Magi scene, the pointing finger of the second king directs our attention not only to the star above, but beyond, to the image of the Trinity in the upper panel, reminding us that the Magi recognised the presence of the Divinity in the Christ Child. The central panel reads top down, from left to right. Five of the images tell the story of Christ's Passion. The first story is unusual, in that it represents Christ's Circumcision. Marian Campbell has pointed out that some medieval authors, such as the author of the Meditationes Vitae Christi, considered this as the first moment that Christ shed his blood, and thus an appropriate part of a Passion sequence. The images on the outside thus offer options for supplication, whilst those on the inside invite the viewer to contemplate Christ's dual nature as God and Man, along with his human suffering, and resurrection.

Descriptive line

A gold folding triptych, with enamel panels, composed of four elements

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Enzler, L., Stockbauer, J. & Zettler, F. Ausgewählte Kunstwerke aus der Königlicher Residenz zu München (Munich: F. Zettler, 1876, p. 17
Gauthier, M.-M. Emaux du Môyen Age Occidental (Fribourg: Office du Livre, 1972), pp. 264-5
Clemen, P. "Die Chorschranken des Kölner Domes" Wallraf-Richartz Jahrbuch I (1924), p. 57
Campbell, M. "The Campion Hall triptych and its Workshop" Apollo CXI (1980), pp. 418-423
Alexander, Jonathan, and Paul Binski (eds.), Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1987.

Production Note

Although it has frequently been described as French, this piece can be linked to a group of enamels which were plausibly executed in England in around the middle of the fourteenth century. Unusually, three other pieces which were clearly produced in the same workshop also survive: an enamelled gold plaque now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (1917.190.916), and a pair of double-sided plaques in the Kunstgewerbe Museum, Cologne (G. 998 and 998 Cl.). None of these plaques bear any of the physical characteristics that have been tentatively ascribed to Parisian translucent enamels of this period, such as the enamelling of nimbi in opaque red. Furthermore, the fact that no 'rouge cler' enamelling, is used on the triptych might also be unusual for a Parisian work on gold of this date, given that the technique was a speciality of Parisian goldsmiths' work by 1350.

There are also iconographic reasons for favouring an English attribution for this piece: devotion to St Edmund was almost exclusive to England, and it has been suggested by M. Campbell that St Anne was popular in England throughout the fourteenth century, but only achieved more general popularity towards the end of the century. Campbell has also remarked on the coincidence between the saints represented on the triptych with those venerated at a hospital in Norwich founded by Bishop Walter de Suffield in the thirteenth century.

Finally, the provenance is also conducive to an English origin, given that the triptych was certainly in Britain by the later sixteenth century.

Materials

Gold; Enamel

Techniques

Enamelling

Subjects depicted

Trinity, doctrine in Christianity

Categories

Religion; Christianity; Scotland

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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