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for the appreciation of such beautiful examples of the decorative art of our own land.
The accompanying plates of the five panels of the reredos are from photographs by Mr. Albert E. Coe of Norwich. The plate of the entire tabula, and those of the two panels from the church of St. Michael-at-Plea, have been reproduced from photographs by Messrs. Walker and Boutall, by kind permission of the Society of Antiquaries.
In conclusion, I must express my thanks to Dr. Bensly for much kind help, especially in connection with the Sacrist's Rolls, &c.
On the Retable in Norwich Cathedral and
Paintings in St. Michael-at-Plea,
J. G. WALLER, F.S.A.
The remains of medieval art still extant at Norwich are of an especial character, which cannot be paralleled elsewhere; and the Retable discovered in Norwich Cathedral, with its reverse having been used as a table (perhaps owing its preservation to this fact) is, perhaps, the most interesting example in England. My old friend, Albert Way, once Director of the Society of Antiquaries, in 1847, soon after its discovery, gave a memoir of it, wherein both he and Sir M. Digby Wyatt assigned its execution to one of an Italian School. To this opinion I must add my testimony, as it is impossible for me to resist the evidence that it presents before me. In the interesting series preserved at St. Michael-at-Plea, there are two evidently by the same hand, with details that tend to the same conclusion.
The retable consists of an oblong tablet about 8 ft. 5 in. in length, and is built up with slabs of oak 81 ins. wide and full of an inch thick, and when complete—for it has lost its upper slab—it would have been 3 ft. 5 in. wide. This mode of construction follows an Italian custom, whereas in England, Flanders, and Holland, panels of wainscot oak were employed and fitted into framework, as can be shown by many examples in the Eastern Counties. Here the divisions, five in number, are made by a framework fixed upon the tablet by dowels, and of course this was done after the painting, &c., was finished, as indeed was proved by the evidence of its having overlaid parts of the margins. Lanzi, in his Storia Pittorica, tells us that “towards the end of the fourteenth century they began to place over the sacred altars oblong tablets divided into various partitions by means, now of pilasters, now of small columns,” which has an obvious analogy with that we are considering. The whole was enclosed by a border, in which were a series of armorial bearings, some of which remain, the intervals between them having an ornamental spray expressed in relief. An account of the arms was given by Mr. Way, and has been followed by Mr. W. H. St. John Hope.
One of the features to which especial attention must be given is the relief of the backgrounds, the process of which is described by the quaint Italian writer, Cennino Cennini, and quoted by me in my paper printed in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, 1897. Vasari, in his life of Margaritone, tells us that he formed diadems and other ornaments in relief with the whiting (gesso) mixed with size, so that it is probable that it was derived from Greek sources, as this artist was a student in their manner, and is the first recorded to have used the process. No more beautiful example of this work can be found than that under consideration, and though it was a good deal practised in the Eastern Counties in the fifteenth century, it was degenerate in character even in the best examples.
1 See “Observations on a Painting of Fourteenth Century,” &c., p. 205 in Norwich Volume of the Archæological Institute ; also Proceedings of Society of Antiquaries, 1897.
2 “ Lavoro ancora sopra il gesso stemporato con la medesima colla fregi, e diademe di relievo ed altri ornamenti tondi.”_Vasari, l'ita de Margaritone.
The painting was executed in the superior tempera composed of the yolk of egg (rossume) beaten up with the acid from tendrils of the fig tree, but other acids could also be used, and was of great antiquity, and so prized in Italy that its use was continued long after the improved system of oil painting was introduced from Flanders. Carlo Crivelli never used any other vehicle.
The retable was probably made for an altar dedicated to the Passion or to St. Mary of the Passion, and has the five subjects usually given, viz., The Flagellation, Christ bearing the Cross, the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension: and it would have been fixed immediately above the altar.
THE FLAGELLATION. The composition of this subject has several variations from the very numerous examples of medieval times, which, however, always show a tall narrow column, Christ standing behind, having his hands bound in front of it. A slight difference was made in the Greek Church, where Christ is shown in front of the column, with the hands bound behind it. This latter arrangement became the fashion in the schools of Italy from the middle of the fifteenth until the close of the sixteenth century. Here the treatment is unique and anomalous. The figure is in front of the column, to which the hands raised up above the head are bound, and it is thus suspended, the tips of the toes only touching the ground. Cords about the body further attach it to the column.
i See Guide de la Peinture. Manuscrit Byzantin, traduit par le Dr. Paul Durand, p. 194.
This mode of suspending the figure of Christ to expose his body to the scourgers is, as far as my experience goes, unknown to Christian art, except by this example. But the student of classic art cannot fail to perceive an analogy in the well-known subject of the flaying of Marsyas. There are two sculptures of the figure as prepared for execution in the Florentine gallery, and the whole story is given upon a sarcophagus in the Doria palace in Rome, as well as on another in the monastic house annexed to the basilica of St. Paul outside the walls of that city. The upper part of the figure of Marsyas in the latter strikingly accords with that of Christ under consideration, and it is only in the lower limbs that the latter differs, as a matter of course. Such à deviation from the ordinary conventions, established under ecclesiastical law, is extremely curious, inasmuch as such variations were not left to the artist, and, to my mind, must have been suggested by one familiar with the classic subject, perhaps adopted in order to emphasize the cruelty of the punishment.
The expression of resignation given to the face of our Lord in the Norwich picture is very beautiful, and will stand beside any example of the time; whilst the contrast shown in the brutality of the features of the scourger upon the right side, who, whirling the knotted scourge and dancing in his fury, lets down his hose upon his feet, a comic element in the tragedy, is a remarkable testimony to the power of the artist. The whole figure also, though attenuated, in this obeying a law however, and wanting in anatomical knowledge, is very refined and delicate in its treatment; this is specially seen in the modelling of the body.
1 The fine illuminated page of the Litlington Missal, recently exhibited, does indeed show the same arrangement (as pointed out by Mr. Hope), except that the figure stands firmly, and it cannot be doubted that it had a similar origin.