By Mary Jo Gibson
October 26, 2012
Imagine receiving this priceless, courtship box, dated 1300-1350, carved with scenes from romances and literature of the day. Each panel represents the courtly ideals of love and heroism; on the lid knights joust as ladies watch from the balcony; on the left, knights lay siege to the Castle of Love, the subject of an allegorical battle. The remaining scenes on the casket are drawn from the stories about Aristotle and Phyllis, Tristan and Iseult; tales of the heroic and gallant, the deeds of Gwain, Galahad and Lancelot.
The origins are medieval French, the box made of ivory and bone with iron mounts. The mounts were added when the box was in the Spitzer collection. The box was originally mounted in silver, but the pieces were dismounted while in the Douce collection, 1836, and remounted with iron in the Spitzer collection in 1890. Photographs show the casket once stood on four bronze feet shaped like lions which were added to the casket sometime after 1913, when it belonged to Henri Daguerre. The provenance of this antiquity begins in 1780 when it was recorded in drawings while in the collection of Reverend John Bowle (b. 1725, d. 1788), Wiltshire. One can only begin to imagine the mementos placed in this casket over time, or the love that inspired such a gift.
Meeting on the Turret Stairs
Frederick William Burton 1816-1900
Images of courtly love have influenced artists for centuries, the stories never cease to inspire. The theme of this painting comes from a medieval Danish balled which describes how Helelil fell in love with Hildebrand, Prince of Engelland, one of her twelve personal guards. Her father ordered his seven sons to kill him.
They stood at the door with spear and shield;
‘Up Lord Hildebrand! Out and yield!’
He kissed me then mine eyes above:
‘Say never my name, thou darling love’
Out of the door Lord Hildebrand sprang,
Around his head the sword he swang.
Hildebrand kills her father and six brothers before Hellelil intercedes to save the youngest. Hildebrand dies of his wounds and Hellelil herself dies shortly afterwards.
Burton did not choose a violent episode and instead freely interpreted the story, placing their farewell on the turret stairs and leaving the reason for it to the imagination. His invention of a chaste kiss on the woman’s outstretched arm and the lack of eye contact adds to the poignancy of the painting.
The Skull Watch of Mary Queen of Scots
This Memento-Mori watch presented by Mary Queen of Scots to her attendant Mary Seaton, is from the 16th century. The forehead of the skull is engraved with a figure of death between a palace and a cottage, and a quotation in Latin, ‘pale death visits with impartial foot the cottages of the poor and castles of the rich’. (Horace)
The skull is held upside down and the jaw lifted to read the silver dial. The hour is struck on a bell. Made by Moyant A. Blois (1570-90). The skull is silver gilt and engraved with figures of death with his scythe and hourglass, Adam and Eve and the crucifixion. The lower part of the skull is pierced to emit the sound when it strikes. The works occupy the brain’s position in the skull fitting into a silver bell which fills the entire hollow of the skull. The hours are struck on this bell by a small hammer.
Tudor Death’s Head Ring
An exceptionally rare Tudor Memento Mori ring, circa1550-1600. Such rings were a timely reminder of the importance of spiritual preparation for death. One is listed in Henry VIII’s inventory: “A ring of golde with a deathes hedde.”
I will close the lid on this Cabinet of Curiosities with this image of the Tower of London, the famous ravens overlooking the wall, as if perusing the incoming prisoners being ferried to the fateful gate on the Thames.
Enjoy the Halloween festivities, and look for my next post about The Raft of Medusa on Museum Monday.