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Miniature altar

  • Place of origin:

    Netherlands (north, probably, made)

  • Date:

    1500-1520 (made)
    1550-1570 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Boxwood and silver

  • Museum number:

    225-1866

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10, case 5

Carved boxwood roundels of religious scenes were a Netherlandish speciality of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. Many of them acted as pendant beads for rosaries. Within about fifty years of having been carved, the roundel was incorporated into a mount in the form of a 'house-altar'. These were free-standing small images, some portable, which were intended for domestic use in private prayer. The lay couple kneeling at the prayer desks are the original owners of the carving, and the saints presenting them to the Virgin and Child and Saint Anne would have been their patrons, perhaps even their name saints.

Physical description

A round relief of the Virgin and Child with St Anne. Below them are figures of a male and female donor at prayer desks, the man presented by St James the Greater, and the woman by St Michael. The relief is mounted in a silver miniature altar in the form of a triptych, with hinged semi-circular wings. The console is pierced with a quatrefoil diaper. The wings are decorated with foliate designs. The top has an escutcheon with the head of a cherub, topped by a figure of God the Father.

Place of Origin

Netherlands (north, probably, made)

Date

1500-1520 (made)
1550-1570 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Boxwood and silver

Dimensions

Height: 9.3 cm, Width: 7.8 cm when open, Width: 4 cm when closed, Depth: 2 cm, Weight: 4 g

Object history note

This object was bought at the sale of the Le Carpentier collection in Paris, 23rd May, 1866. Nothing is known of its provenenace before this date.

The lay couple represented kneeling at the prayer desks in the roundel must represent the original patrons of the carving, and the saints presenting them to the Virgin and Child and Saint Anne would have been their patrons, perhaps even their name saints. The two blank shields on the prayer desks, however, render any positive identification of these patrons impossible. Representation of patrons in reliefs of this sort was not unusual - Williamson has compared the V&A relief with a relief in the British Museum which shows the kneeling figures of Jacques de Borsele, Lord of Gouda, and his wife Ursula de Foreest, being presented by Sts James and Ursula.

Historical significance: During the fifteenth century, there had been an increasing emphasis on the importance of private prayer being regularly undertaken by lay people. This trend fuelled a massive growth in domestic religious images. This object shows a husband and wife being presented to the Virgin and Child with St Anne by their patron saints, whilst kneeling at prayer desks. In other words, it is a visual representation of the way in which the prayers of these lay people to the saints were expected to benefit their souls through the saints' intercession on their behalf.

Historical context note

Carved boxwood roundels of religious scenes were a Netherlandish speciality of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. The most familiar examples are those hinged double roundels which seem to have acted as pendant beads for rosaries, and which when opened to reveal the religious image, would have acted as a focus for prayer. There are no traces of a hinge on the border of this roundel, but if it were part of a pendant, then it would have been originally set into a hemispherical frame, which may have been hinged. In any case, within about fifty years of having been carved, the roundel had been incorporated into a silver mount which takes the form of a miniature 'house-altar' - a term which denotes free-standing small images, some portable, which took their inspiration from larger church altarpieces, but which were intended for domestic use in private prayer. The rope-work silver loop at the back of this piece is unusual, and might indicate that it was suspended - it may however, simply have been an easy handle for carrying the object.

Descriptive line

Miniature altar

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

Williamson, P. Netherlandish Sculpture 1450-1550 (London: V&A, 2002), pp. 146-7, cat. no. 48.

Labels and date

SHRINE
Silver, set with a late 15th century boxwood carving of St. James the greater and an angel presenting two kneeling figures to the Virgin and Child and St. Anne.
Second half of the 16th Century
Unmarked []

Production Note

Boxwood carvings of this type were a speciality of the Netherlands in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The silver mounts are clearly of later date (about fifty years), but are also Netherlandish.

Materials

Boxwood; Silver

Techniques

Hand carving; Casting; Engraving (incising); Piercing

Subjects depicted

Cherubim; Donors

Categories

Religion; Christianity; Woodwork; Metalwork

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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