Flight Of Fancy: A Rare And Sacred Art Object

Diverging a bit from Tuesday’s post about a sculpture of a giant stick of butter, today I wanted to share with you a favorite type of art object which also looks like something other than what it is, but whose meaning is far more important. While the sculpture of butter requires interpretation and serves no practical purpose however, in the case of a Eucharistic Dove, we come across something which has both immediate and deeper meanings to it. For not only is the Eucharistic Dove a beautiful and practical form of storage container, it also helps to re-emphasize Christian teaching for the viewer.

A Eucharistic Dove, or more properly, a “peristerium”, is a box which takes the shape of a dove, and is designed to hold the Blessed Sacrament. Derived from the Ancient Greek word “peristera”, i.e. a female dove or pigeon, the object in question was sometimes also called a “columba”, that word being the equivalent of “peristera” in Latin. In English, the term “Eucharistic Dove” seems to have stuck with most art historians, and so shall we in the course of this post.

The dove has long been a familiar Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit, one of the three persons who make up the Christian Trinity: God the Father, God the Son (aka Jesus for the uninitiated), and God the Holy Spirit. You’ll recall from the Gospels how, at the Baptism of Christ, the Holy Spirit appeared descending from Heaven in the form of a dove, see St. Luke 3:21-22. Throughout the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, the appearance of a dove always heralds God’s favor, making it an even more worthy shape for holding the Eucharist.

As mentioned earlier, the Eucharistic Dove box was designed to hold the already-consecrated communion bread known in English as a “host”. The box usually hung above or very close to the high altar of a church, typically from a canopy placed over the altar. Sometimes the object functioned as a case for a pyx, a type of small, pocket-sized box containing the Eucharist, which could be easily removed to bring communion to the sick and dying. Usually the Eucharistic Dove was made of precious metals such as silver, gold, or bronze, but there are examples in other materials, including carved wood and ivory. In many cases, these bird-shaped boxes were covered with enamel or precious stones to give greater glory to the even more precious object which they contained within them.

The earliest written mention of a Eucharistic Dove dates from a will of 471 AD, in which St. Perpetus, Bishop of the French city of Tours, bequeathed a silver one to a friend. Given how frequently they are referenced in surviving church documents from around that time however, it is believed that their use goes back much earlier. St. Basil the Great, for example, is said to have commissioned several of them in the 4th century AD, when he was a bishop in what is now modern-day Turkey. In Western Europe they seem to have been more popular in England, France, and Spain, while in places like Asia Minor, Greece, and the Holy Land, they were almost ubiquitous.

In the West, many of the best surviving examples of Eucharistic Doves were made in the French city of Limoges. Today, Limoges is perhaps best known as a center for fine porcelain manufacturing, but up until their destruction during the French Revolution, its workshops were famous for creating the finest ecclesiastical and luxury enamel work in Europe. Examples of Eucharistic Doves from Limoges are in many collections around the world, including here in America at The Met in New York, the MFA in Boston, and the Walters in Baltimore. Here I show you an example which is in the collection of the MNAC in Barcelona; you can see not only the beautiful detail work of the wings and feathers, but also the hidden compartment on the back of the dove where the pyx containing the Eucharist would have been placed:

Dove1

Dove2

As beautiful and interesting as these ancient objects are, if you’re not Catholic – or possibly even if you are – you’re going to have a hard time finding one of these bird-shaped boxes in your local church. That’s because they gradually fell out of favor in the Western Church during the later Middle Ages, and a greater emphasis was placed upon keeping the Blessed Sacrament secure in what we more commonly see in Western churches today, a heavy and locked tabernacle. As you might imagine, a relatively small box, hanging from a string or a chain, could be more easily stolen or, as happened at Lincoln Cathedral in 1140 during a Mass attended by King Stephen of England, the string carrying the box could break, causing the receptacle to fall and be damaged. And particularly after the coming of the Protestant Reformation, the Church wanted to keep the Eucharist safe from those who would seek to profane it.

While we hardly see Eucharistic Doves in the West these days outside of museums, and the likelihood of a revival in their use in the Latin Church is non-existent, they are without question one of the most beautiful and unique objects to have developed in the history of Christian art.

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Butter and Basketball: The Price Of Contemporary Art

A recurring theme in these pages is that of valuation in the art market. Having spent a decent amount of time and some considerable lolly in studying the art trade at Sotheby’s in London, I like to keep up with trends on the business side of things, particularly when they intersect with museums and public collections. Now bear with me, gentle reader, because this morning I’m going to be sharing a couple of different art stories with you that don’t really have much of anything to do with one another, but I think you’ll see my point in the end.

Over on Art Market Monitor, there’s a report about Art Bridges, an art lending foundation headed by Alice Walton – of Walmart fame – that has recently gone on what that publication refers to as something of a “buying spree”. Ms. Walton, who is also the foundress of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, is focusing on getting more museums to share items in their collections in collaborative exhibitions with other museums, so that these works can be seen by more people and spend less time locked away in storage. On the surface, that’s certainly a very laudable effort.

Except…well.

What caught my eye in the piece was a reference to the foundation purchasing a piece titled “Untitled”, by American sculptor Robert Gober. I’m familiar with his work, from having seen it at The Hirshhorn here in Washington and at The Whitney in New York. As you can see, this particular example appears to be an unwrapped stick of butter, although in fact it’s made of beeswax, wood, and wax paper. What you can’t tell from the photo is that this is the biggest stick of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” you’ve ever seen, measuring about 4 feet long.

butter

Now we can agree that, from a *craft* point of view, this is a pretty neat item. It looks just like the real thing, right down to the blue labelling on the unwrapped wax paper, which we see from the underside in reverse. In its way, it’s in the vein of similar food objects which artisans have created for centuries: colorful glass grapes from the island of Murano outside of Venice, for example, or wooden tea caddies in the shape of pears or apples that were popular in England and America during the Georgian period.

But, as painstakingly well-crafted as this object is, there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable basis here for justifying its price tag of $2.285 million. Because really, isn’t this just a great, big, melting slab of kitsch? Ricky Schroder could have had it in his bedroom on the 80’s sitcom “Silver Spoons”, and no one would have batted an eyelid.

This isn’t the only item acquired by the foundation whose valuation is rather head-scratching. “One Ball Total Equilibrium (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series)”, by well-known provocateur Jeff Koons, was purchased for a whopping $15.285 million at Christie’s last year. The work consists of a basketball suspended in a Perspex water tank. Interesting, perhaps, but $15 million worth of interesting? At best, it seems more of a ho-hum homage to British artist Damien Hirst – who formerly specialized in dead animals floating in tanks of formaldehyde – and doesn’t present anything particularly interesting to the viewer.

Koons

Elsewhere in the art news world, there’s an interesting factoid in The Art Newspaper this morning about a work by the Mexican Baroque painter Cristóbal de Villalpando (1649-1714), one of the most important artists in Mexican art history, which was discovered hanging in the office of the President of Fordham University in the Bronx. “The Adoration of the Magi” had been in the possession of the university for many years, but had not attracted a great deal of attention. An expert in Villalpando’s work had gone on a hunt for it some years ago, as The Art Newspaper describes, and now this work along with a number of others by the painter are part of an exhibition of his work at The Met which runs through October 15th.

Magos

How would you value this recovered masterpiece, alongside the aforementioned butter and basketball? Neither of us will ever own it, in part because I don’t have the wall space for it, and you probably don’t either. But given its age, beauty, and complexity, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Villalpando’s painting was worth far more than the two contemporary sculptures we’ve looked at today – and you’d be utterly wrong.

It’s difficult to know what this particular altarpiece would bring at auction, not that Fordham has any intention of selling it. Pieces by Villalpando come up for sale occasionally, and from my (admittedly rather quick) research, smaller-sized works by this artist will go for somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000. The price of a very old painting such as this depends on a number of factors, including the subject matter, the materials used by the artist, and the overall state of preservation.

So what would this fairly well-preserved, impressive Villalpando depiction of a beloved scene from the Christmas story, which stands over 6 feet tall, fetch under the hammer – $500,000? Perhaps $750,000 if there is some serious institutional interest? On a good day, maybe it could make over $1 million? That’s still far less than what was paid for the two contemporary sculptures which we looked at earlier.

As I said at the outset, I freely admit that comparing the work of two living American sculptors to the work of a 17th century Mexican painter is illogical: an apples and oranges argument or, if you will, a butter and basketball argument. But quite honestly, I don’t care. Logic was abandoned long ago by the people who produce, promote, and patronize most of contemporary art, and we need to call a spade a spade.

We live at a time in which purveyors of the vapid, protected from reasonable criticism by the gatekeepers of high culture and their patrons, are valued more highly than the masters of the sublime. A fool and his money are soon parted, as the old proverb goes, and so if Ms. Walton and others like her wish to be fools, they live in a free country which entitles them to do so. By the same token, however, their fellow citizens are equally entitled to not only laugh at the garbage art which they are trying to promote, but to not even go look at it. (After all, that’s what you have me for.)

What you can and should do, frankly, is go see the work of truly great artists like Villalpando and others, whether at The Met or at your local museums and galleries. Learn about them, and come to a greater appreciation of the fact that their skill still speak speaks to us down the centuries to today. Your reward will be far greater, and you will have far fewer scratches on your scalp.

Selling Off: An American Museum’s Treasures Go To Auction

For the last few months, a BIG controversy going on in the art and museum world has been the decision of the Berkshire Museum, located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to sell off 40 of the objects in its collection, including paintings by some of America’s most important artists. That decision has incurred the wrath of art experts and museum executives around the world, and not without consequence to the museum. At the same time however, the upcoming sale of the Berkshire’s art treasures will give other institutions an excellent opportunity to pick up some major works of art, which in some cases have never appeared on the market before.

Earlier this summer the Berkshire announced that, after a two-year period of soul-searching, it will shift its curatorial focus in order to survive as an institution. To do so, it would have to sell off a significant number of works of art in its collection. It wants to build up its endowment, renovate its facilities, pay the bills, and change from a more traditional, catch-all small museum to one focused on the promotion of science and community activities. You can read more about that process by following this link.

The Berkshire’s decision was condemned by art and museum experts around the world, but more importantly earned the ire of both the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), both of which provide professional accreditation to the Berkshire, as well as to hundreds of other American museums. Sale of a work of art in a museum’s collection – known in the trade as “deaccession” – in order to purchase another work of art is, while rarely a good thing, a reality for many institutions; the sale of a work of art to fund other purposes however, may be considered a professional ethical violation by the AAM and AAMD.

In an excoriating joint press release released in July, which you can read in full here, the two professional bodies condemned the Berkshire’s decision to deaccession its art:

Selling from the collection for purposes such as capital projects or operating funds not only diminishes the core of works available to the public, it erodes the future fundraising ability of museums nationwide. Such a sale sends a message to existing and prospective donors that museums can raise funds by selling parts of their collection, thereby discouraging not only financial supporters, who may feel that their support isn’t needed, but also donors of artworks and artifacts, who may fear that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum’s budget shortfalls. That cuts to the heart not only of the Berkshire Museum, but every museum in the United States.

About 6 weeks later, the Berkshire announced that, by mutual agreement, it was withdrawing from affiliation with the Smithsonian. As the reader probably knows, the Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum organization in the world. It not only runs nearly two dozen museums and research centers of its own, but it maintains affiliate relationships with well over 200 museums around the country. These arrangements allow smaller museums to have access to Smithsonian curatorial expertise, scientific research, lending privileges for exhibitions, and so on. Given the difficulty and indeed the prestige involved in becoming a Smithsonian affiliate institution, abandoning that relationship is not something to be taken lightly – but there you are.

I’m not going to weigh in on the deaccession controversy here, other than to say that selling major works of art from your collection, so that you can have a place to teach local kids how graffiti is cool, with the result that they grow into anti-social, juvenile delinquents inordinately impressed by their own cleverness, is a stupid idea.

Among the works of art scheduled to go on the auction block at Sotheby’s this fall are two major paintings by Norman Rockwell, which the artist personally donated to the museum during his lifetime, and whose sale has infuriated the Rockwell family. The earlier work of the two, “Blacksmith’s Boy” (1940) is rather massive, at almost 6 feet long, but that should just fit over your sofa, if you’ve got $7-10 million sitting around.

Rock2

The later Rockwell painting, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop”, is a compositional tour de force of complex angles, surfaces, and lighting effects, a truly major work by America’s foremost illustrator of the 20th century, which entirely justifies its $20-30 million dollar auction estimate.

Rock1

Other paintings up for sale include works by Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Edwin Church, and George Inness, arguably the three most important American landscape painters of the 19th century. There is also a prime example of one of Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s (great-uncle of my friend and new media gadfly Neal Dewing) classic Tonalist interiors populated by languid ladies of leisure.

Dewing

And there is a rare, large religious work depicting the prophet Daniel interpreting the handwriting on the wall for King Belshazzar by the 18th century American academic and historical painter, Benjamin West.

West

Also on offer are portraits by Charles Wilson Peale and his son Rembrandt Peale. The Peales, as you may know, were America’s most famous family of artists during the Revolutionary and Federal periods, who painted iconic portraits of everyone from Washington and Jefferson to Lewis and Clark. The Berkshire is selling off its portrait of General Forman, by Peale the father, and General Washington, by Peale the son.

PealePere

In addition to the forgoing there are also sculptures by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Alexander Calder, two of the most prominent American sculptors of the early and mid-20th century, respectively. Continental works include paintings by William Bougereau, Raoul Dufy, Pieter de Hooch, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edouard Vuillard, and others. There are even a few Chinese antiquities, including a massive, 10-panelled lacquered screen from the late 17th century Qing Dynasty.

Not every piece heading to the Berkshire auction is by a major household name in art history, of course. Still, every one that I’ve seen listed for sale is certainly museum-worthy. It’s a pity that the collection could not have been preserved, and given to a museum on better financial and philosophical footing. But in the end, whether purchased by other museums or acquired by collectors who later donate their collections to museums, these works may end up being better-known and more widely seen, once they leave the institution where they are currently housed.