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Triptych; wood; painted; St Catherine, St Margaret, St Nicholas and St Martin on exterior of leaves; interior applied ivory figures in three rows with New Testament theme; left leaf, top: Annunciation; middle: Nativity; bottom: Presentation in Temple; right leaf, top: Salutation; middle: Adoration of Magi; bottom: Flight into Egypt; central panel, top: Coronation of Virgin; middle: Crucifixion; bottom: Death of Virgin; all under arched canopies; figures in ivory are fake.
- 1226-1275 (triptych)
- 18thC(late) (figures)
- Height: 940 millimetres
- Width: 510 millimetres
- Depth: 115 millimetres
Inscription ContentS.KATHERINA S.MARGARETA S.NICHOLAVS S.MARTINVS
Purchased by the British Museum at Christie's in 1858 from the Falcke sale, the triptych had previously been in the collection of Dr Böhm of Vienna, probably by the 1830s, at which time it was furnished with a splendid provenance: it was said to have been presented in the mid-fourteenth century by the Pope to the Emperor and that documents proved it to have been given by an empress to a convent in the fifteenth century; Dr Böhm claimed to have bought it from a superior officer in the army who had acquired it at the suppression of the convent during Joseph II's reign. False royal and papal provenances filled out with local colour have often been attached by collectors and dealers to objects, whether genuine or fake. In this case it is likely that the carver of the ivories sought a commensurately princely sum for his work. He even included a small parcel of relics (probably in themselves 'genuine'; for relics see P&E registration nos. 1946,0407.1 and 1978,0502.7), housed within the Virgin Mary's bed in the scene of her Dormition.
The British Museum bought the triptych for its ivories; it was judged to be a virtually unique survival of a large-scale Gothic ivory tabernacle with original wooden frame. Ironically, the Museum's purchase turned out well for the wrong reasons. Although the ivories are historicist fakes, the wooden triptych is indeed medieval. On the reverse of the two wings are paintings of four standing saints (Catherine, Nicholas, Margaret and Martin), which were recognised in the 1960s as some of the most important surviving German panel paintings of the mid-thirteenth century (the interior was repainted and gilded when the faker added the ivories).
The intellectual climate of Strasbourg from the time of Goethe's residence there in the 1770s was highly receptive to the neo-Gothic, and this piece may be an exceptionally early Upper Rhenish 'Gothic Revival' restoration of a medieval object. These ivories are in style unlike the usual 'Paris-style' Gothic ivory fakes (1856,0623.44; 1874,0725.1 and 1902,0423.4), though a standing figure in the reserves of the Cleveland Museum of Art is by the same hand. Absurdities of costume and eccentric attributes have been introduced, while anachronistic genre details abound, but we can still admire the historical knowledge of the carver who adopted the late Romanesque style of Rhenish sculpture, exactly the stylistic phase which corresponds to that of the genuine paintings. He worked in exceptionally large pieces of elephant ivory and his figures had in many places to be cut or adjusted to fit within the original frame, but if we ignore details, the total effect of the altarpiece is now very much as it must have been originally, with applied ivory figures and relief groups against painted backgrounds.
Literature: P. Pieper, 'Zwei deutsche Altarflügel des 13. Jahrhunderts im British Museum', Niederdeutsche Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte 3 (1964), pp. 215-28; exhibition catalogue, 'Die Zeit der Staufer' 1, Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart 1977, no. 432
23 May 2008
Reason for treatment
Clean. Consolidate painted, decorated surface.
ConditionInside: The ivory figures have been removed from inside. The description of the polychrome layers is based on visual examination; no analysis was carried out. The inner surface is gilded. This is damaged around many of the dowel holes and has thinned in areas so the ground is visible. Inscription identified around the edge of the inner surface. This appears to have been built up in a ground and then gilded at some stage. It also appears to have been painted over at some stage.The paint structure appears to have been laid on a white ground. On this blue paint has been applied around the inner edge and red on the outer. The red extends to the sides of the triptych. This is visible in an area on the bottom right of the centre panel of the triptych.In some places the red and blue paint are applied directly to the wood and may therefore have been applied later in areas of loss of ground and original paint. Raised lettering is visible on the blue areas around the edge of the inside of the triptych. It appears to be contemporary or later than the blue paint and seems to be made from a white material like a ground. In one small area on the bottom right of the centre panel, the lettering appears to have a textile impression. It has traces of gilding in many places and in other areas the lettering may have been re-done with just gilding. A dark blue paint appears to be the earlier paint with a coating applied to it. A light blue has been applied over the blues and the red paint on the inside and around the edges. There are large areas of loss of this paint layer through which the earlier layers are visible. This light blue is very similar to the blue of the zig-zag and dot decoration on the inside and may be contemporary. This paint appears to extend slightly over the gilding of the inner surfaces in many places and so it may be later.The blue and white paint is flaking and lifting in many places, and has become detached in some areas.Outside: The paint layers appear to be laid on a ground which is applied to a layer of paper or parchment which is adhering to the surface of the wood. This is particularly evident on the back in the bottom corners where the paint is lost. The painted surface is dirty and paint is flaking on the edges in particular. There are some areas of loss on the painted figures but these appear to be old. Areas of re-touching are visible around the edges and in some places this extends over the blue paint on the inside.
Lascaux Medium for consolidation (acrylic copolymer dispersion, Lascaux4176 ) was introduced to areas of flaking paint with a thin brush. A piece of lens tissue was placed on top and a piece of thin Melinex (polyester) was placed on top of this. A small spatula heated to about 40deg C was used to introduce some heat and relax the paint flakes. The lens tissue was removed when the adhesive had set, using a cotton wool swab dampened with saliva.For the painted surfaces on the inside, a small amount of White Spirit (composition variable - petroleum distillate) was introduced to wet the area before applying the adhesive to prevent discolouration.A spatula heated to about 60deg C was used to re-adhere the lifting paint on the outer edges where wax had been used in a previous conservation treatment. Any excess wax was removed using a scalpel.The outer surface of the triptych was cleaned with cotton swabs of saliva and then with some swabs lightly dampened with deionised water. The gilding on the inner surface was also cleaned with swabs of saliva and then distilled water. The painted areas on the inside were cleaned with Chemsponge/smoke sponge (vulcanized rubber molecular trap, containing a minuscule percentage of mild soap i.e. <30grm per 500kg).
- Named in inscription & portrayed: St Nicholas of Myra
- Named in inscription & portrayed: St Martin
- Named in inscription & portrayed: St Margaret of Antioch
- Named in inscription & portrayed: St Catherine of Alexandria
- Representation of: St John the Evangelist
- Representation of: Virgin Mary
- Representation of: Melchior
- Representation of: Magi
- Representation of: Jesus Christ
- Representation of: Caspar
- Representation of: Balthazar
Britain, Europe and Prehistory
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Object reference number: MCM4694
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