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Tabernacle
  • Tabernacle
    Civitali, Matteo, born 1435 - died 1501
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Tabernacle

  • Place of origin:

    Lucca (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1496 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Civitali, Matteo, born 1435 - died 1501 (sculptor)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved marble

  • Museum number:

    7569-1861

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 50b, The Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery, case WS, shelf EXP

The hexagonal tabernacle is an autograph work by Matteo Civitali, and is inscribed with his name in Latin as its maker. It is believed to have stood on the Altar of the Sacrament in the Baptistery of Lucca, and was used to hold the Eucharist (the wafer that Christians believed to be the body of Christ). Civitali was a leading sculptor from Lucca, who remained in his native city. The signature indicates that this tabernacle may have been part of a larger commission, as Civitali only signed his name on major works, including the chapel which housed Lucca’s most important relic, the Volto Santo (1484).

Tabernacles are used to hold the consecrated host or relics. The terms “ciborium” and “tabernacle” are sometimes used interchangeably, though strictly speaking the tabernacle holds the pyx which contains the consecrated host, while the ciborium is shaped liked a cup and directly holds the consecrated host. The pyx is an even smaller vessel designed to hold the wafer, and can be placed inside the tabernacle

Physical description

The tabernacle is hexagonal in form. The upper section consists of a dome with a pedestal for a missing sculptural element. Three shell lunettes are above the cornice and separate the dome from the middle section. There are two rectangular areas carved in a lattice pattern on the left and right sides of the middle section. The central rectangluar area is now empty, but once had a door. The base has acanthus leaves, with a frieze of winged cherub heads alternating with brackets. The inscription OPVS MATTHAEI CIVITAL runs along the bottom.

Place of Origin

Lucca (made)

Date

ca. 1496 (made)

Artist/maker

Civitali, Matteo, born 1435 - died 1501 (sculptor)

Materials and Techniques

Carved marble

Marks and inscriptions

'OPVS/MATTHAEI/CIVITAL'
WORK OF MATTEO CIVITALI

Dimensions

Height: 125.6 cm, Width: 44.5 cm, Depth: 32.4 cm, Weight: 180 kg

Object history note

Purchased by Robinson from the Gigli-Campana collection for £30 before 1861.
The back is not carved and the rear sides only partially carved, indicating that the tabernacle was originally attached to a wall or placed in a niche.
It was previously believed to have served as the tabernacle for the Altar of the Sacrament in the Cathedral of Lucca, but recent archival research indicates that it stood on the Altar of the Sacrament in the baptistery (SS Giovanni and Reparata) in the same city (Filieri, 408-409). A reference to a tabernacle commissioned in 1496 for the church of SS Giovanni and Reparata seems to refer to this tabernacle based on its original size, description of location and authorship.

Historical significance: The hexagonal tabernacle is an autograph work by Matteo Civitali. Civitali was an important Renaissance sculptor from Lucca, who remained in his native city. The signature indicates that it must have been part of a larger commission, as his signature only appears on his major works, including the chapel which housed Lucca’s most important relic, the Volto Santo (1484). Pope-Hennessy noted the similarities between the domed roof and lunettes of the tabernacle and the Chapel of the Volto Santo. The centralized plan and dome of the Chapel of the Volto Santo was most likely chosen in order to evoke the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (Petrucci, 146). This is also likely true for the tabernacle. As it was intended to hold the consecrated host, considered to be the body of Christ, believers would have drawn parallels between the early Christian chapel believed to mark the location of Christ's tomb and the form and function of the tabernacle.

The signature on the tabernacle led to the belief that the tabernacle was originally created in about 1473 for the Altar of the Sacrament in the Cathedral of Lucca, which was dismantled in 1567. However, it appears that the tabernacle instead was part of the altar of the same name in the baptistery of Lucca.

Poeschke suggested that Civitali based his design for the tabernacle on that of Mino da Fiesole in Volterra cathedral, but given the revised dating, it would appear that the reverse is true.

Civitali’s tabernacle may in turn have served as the model for other tabernacles and ciboria; Rapetti noted that a ciborium in Monzone appears to have been based on the Lucca tabernacle, due to a similar cupola and lattice work on the sides (Rapetti, 241). However, the Monzone tabernacle is freestanding. Combined with the evocation of tile work on the dome, the absence of lunettes on the dome, and the fluted pilasters separating panels of lattice work, the Monzone tabernacle is much closer to Benedetto da Maiano’s tabernacle of 1464-1465 than to Civitali’s work.

Historical context note

Tabernacles are used to hold the consecrated host or relics. The terms “ciborium” and “tabernacle” are sometimes used interchangeably, though strictly speaking the tabernacle holds the pyx which contains the consecrated host, while the ciborium is shaped liked a cup and directly holds the consecrated host. The pyx is an even smaller vessel designed to hold the wafer, and can be placed inside the tabernacle. During the early Christian period and the Middle Ages, there were no firm regulations on where the consecrated host was to be kept as long as it was secure. Two synods – at Cologne (1281) and Münster (1279) – determined that the sacrament must be locked in a receptacle above the altar, but did not specify the type of container or a more specific location. The sacrament was therefore preserved in either cupboards, pyxes, ciboria or tabernacles which could be in the sacristy, on the high altar, on a nearby altar. It could also be housed in small containers in the form of doves or chalices which were suspended over the altar. This practice was especially popular in England and France from the tenth century until its prohibition in 1863, when the Catholic church determined that the host should be kept in tabernacles either on or near the high altar. Tabernacles could be either freestanding or incorporated into the wall above the altar.

Free standing, temple-shaped tabernacles were popular in Renaissance Italy; particularly in Tuscany and nearby Liguria. Desiderio da Settignano (c.1430-64) is credited with being one of the earliest artists to experiment with the freestanding “temple” type of tabernacle in a lost work for San Piero Maggiore in Florence. Another significant work is Desiderio’s wall tabernacle in San Lorenzo in Florence of about 1461, an early example of the genre that inspired many followers. Every major city in Tuscany from the 1460s -1480s had a freestanding tabernacle in its major church or hospital. Artists such as Mino da Fiesole (1429-84), Vecchietta (Lorenzo di Pietro, c.1410-80), and Benedetto da Maiano (1442-97), are credited with works in Pisa, Prato and Siena. (Cagliotti, 408).

Civitali unusually combined the “temple” format with the wall tabernacle. Though it appears to follow the model of the freestanding temple form, its uncarved back indicates that it was meant to be either attached to the wall or placed in a niche. The lattice work on the sides is reminiscent of Benedetto da Maiano’s tabernacle in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and also Vecchietta’s bronze tabernacle now in the Duomo in Siena. This may have been derived from the fourteenth-and fifteenth- century German practice of housing the Eucharist in “sacrament houses” which contained latticed doors in order to allow the faithful to the view the Sacrament.

Descriptive line

Tabernacle, in marble, by Matteo Civitali, Italy, Lucca, ca. 1496

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

Filieri, M, (ed.). Matteo Civitali e il suo tempo: pittori, scultori e orafi a Lucca nel tardo Quattrocento, (Milan, 2004) Cat. No. 4.3
Petrucci, F. "La religiosità lucchese nelle sculture di Matteo Civitali," in Matteo Civitali e il suo tempo: pittori, scultori e orafi a Lucca nel tardo Quattrocento, (Milan, 2004), pp143-151.
Rapetti, C., Storie di marmo: Scultura del Rinascimento fra Liguria e Toscana, (Milan, 1998), p241
Poeschke, J. Die Skulptur der Renaissance in Italien, Band I. Donatello und seine Zeit, (Munich, 1990), p149
Pisani, L., "Matteo Civitali, Riflessioni in margine ad una mostra," Arte Cristiana xciii, 2005, p104
Pope-Hennessy, J., assisted by Lightbown, R. Catalogue of Italian Sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1964, I, pp. 274-5, cat. no. 287.
Inventory of Art Objects Acquired in the Year 1861 In: Inventory of the Objects in the Art Division of the Museum at South Kensington, Arranged According to the Dates of their Acquisition. Vol I. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1868, p. 37
Maclagan, Eric and Longhurst, Margaret H. Catalogue of Italian Sculpture. Text. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1932, p. 67
plate 2, p. 44
Motture, P., Jones, E. and Zikos, D., ed. by, Carvings, Casts and Collectors: The Art of Renaissance Sculpture, London, 2013

Materials

Marble

Techniques

Carving

Subjects depicted

Shells; Seraphim; Egg and dart; Acanthus

Categories

Sculpture; Christianity; Religion

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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