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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The World’s Greatest Swimming Pool (That Never Was)

We could probably nominate a number of structures as candidates for “World’s Greatest Swimming Pool”. For example, the “Neptune Pool”, a Greco-Roman fantasy by architect Julia Morgan at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California comes to mind. It incorporates not only a wealth of decorative tile work, statuary, and other ornaments, but even the restored façade of an actual Roman temple which publisher William Randolph Hearst imported to the U.S. But for my money, the greatest of all swimming pools was one designed by the Catalan Surrealist Salvador Dalí – which was never built.

Back in the 1950’s, Dalí created a set of 6 tiles for a massive swimming pool, which was supposedly commissioned by a member of the regime of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco. Called “The Catalan Suite”, the tiles bore images of different elements which the artist associated with the seaside in Catalonia, including the sun, starfish, compass roses, birds, and trencadís (the broken tiles often used by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí.) The bright colors would have sparkled beneath the surface of the water in the strong Mediterranean sunlight.

The most likely candidate for the commission, it seems to me, was Eugeni d’Ors, like the artist a fellow Catalan conservative and Franco supporter, who was often put in charge of overseeing artistic commissions by the Spanish government. Dalí and d’Ors had known each other for many years, since the older d’Ors was a friend of Dalí’s uncle and a fellow member of the Ateneu (“Athenaeum”), a private club for intellectuals and the well-to-do in Barcelona. They worked together on several projects, including publication of “The Cobbler of Ordis”, a collection of poems by Dalí’s lifelong friend Carles Fages de Climent, which contained a preface by d’Ors and illustrations by Dalí.

In 1954, a total of 100,000 of these Dalí-designed tiles were produced at a factory in Onda, a town in the Valencian province of Spain known for its high-quality industrial ceramic output. Yet although the materials were ready to go, the swimming pool itself, unfortunately, was never built. I suspect the reason is that d’Ors just so happened to have died in 1954, probably around the same time that the tiles were completed. As a result, Dalí was left with thousands and thousands of tiles, and nowhere to put them.

Enter German lawyer Peter Ackermann who, as this article explains, met Dalí twenty years later, when the artist was trying to get these unused tiles off his hands. About 60,000 of the tiles were left, and while it’s difficult to imagine a normal person losing 40,000 tiles, this is Salvador Dalí we’re talking about, after all. Presumably the rest disappeared as a result of breakage, theft, or the artist giving them away; they turn up at auction periodically.

Unlike his near-contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, Dalí did not seem particularly interested in clay as a medium, which is highly unusual for someone hailing from the Iberian Peninsula. While Picasso designed pots and vases produced by French ceramics factories which today are highly prized by collectors, and Miró created enormous ceramic tile designs for walls or floors that were installed in public spaces, Dalí did not do much exploration in this area. Yes, he designed telephones that looked like lobsters, and couches that looked like Mae West’s lips, but things made out of dirt were not something that seem to have attracted his attention all that often. That makes this particular foray into the world of ceramics all the more special.

The Artsy article tells us that Mr. Ackermann is now selling his 60,000 tiles to whoever wants to take them off his hands. Since I didn’t win the Powerball jackpot last week, I won’t be acquiring them for my make-believe villa on the Costa Brava. But if you have around $20 million on your hands, and are thinking about building yourself a nice place in which to take a dip, consider the possibilities of paving that backyard oasis with tiles by the greatest Surrealist artist of the 20th century. You’ll almost instantly have the greatest swimming pool in all the world.

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I’ve Got Opinions (Here Are A Few)

It’s a curious sensation when you realize that you have become permanently linked with certain topics in the minds of other people.

Not infrequently, I get pinged regarding stories making their way around the interwebz, by readers who automatically associate me with the subject matter of the reporting – Renaissance altarpieces, Catalan cuisine, the planet Krypton, etc. There’s an expectation that I’ll have an opinion worth sharing on the story, whatever it may be. It’s incredibly humbling that you want to know what that opinion is, gentle reader, when far better writers than I do not get nearly as much support: so thank you for your continued patronage.

Here comes a brief potpourri of links and opinions for you to have a think about today. As it happens, all of the following stories are courtesy of readers who asked me about these subjects, or tagged me in posts about them. So as you can see, I really am paying attention, most of the time.

– There’s no news yet on any results from the exhumation and paternity test conducted on the remains of the late Salvador Dalí, which took place last week. News reports indicate that when his coffin was opened, the artist’s legendary mustache was found to still be intact and in place, nearly two decades after his death. Tests are currently being carried out by forensic pathologists in Madrid. I’m withholding judgment until the scientists and courts reach a conclusion, but you can guess my opinion about this whole thing given what I wrote previously.

– A fire in Normandy destroyed 182 objects and an entire wing of the Tatihou Island Maritime Museum (“Musée maritime de l’île Tatihou”, pictured below) – including three paintings on loan from The Louvre. The blaze was most likely sparked by two lighting strikes during intense summer storms. Estimates put the value of the lost works at somewhere north of $1.3 million. However institutions like that of the Maritime Museum on Tatihou and their holdings carry far greater worth than their intrinsic value would suggest, since these objects tell the preserved history of their communities. If you have such collections in your area, please go support them – they need your assistance to survive and thrive for future generations.

– Meanwhile in the Las Vegas ‘burbs, a hideous structure called Holy Spirit Catholic Church will soon be open so that everyone can come in and play “Tabernacle Hide-and-Seek”, that favorite Spirit of Vatican II game. About the only thing that’s marginally interesting about this church are its tapestries, from the same artist who designed the tapestries for the Taj Mahoney, a.k.a. the monstrosity known as the Cathedral of Los Angeles. (I’ve not made up my mind about his work yet: are they good, or are they just kitsch?) On the whole, the interior looks like a day spa in space as imagined by Roger Vadim, where one could have a seaweed wrap while listening to some Zen Buddhist chant piped through the sound system. But who am I to judge.

[N.B. Interestingly, another new parish named for St. Anthony of Padua opened in suburban Las Vegas last year, and while I can’t say that I love it, exactly, at least it looks like a Catholic church, and one that takes reverence for both the Blessed Sacrament and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass seriously.]