Master of the Amiens Triptych (French, Paris, 1310-1320), The Gustav Rau Triptych with scenes from The Death of the Virgin. Photo courtesy Sotheby's
with two circular paper labels inscribed: 50 / Oct 20 / 71 and: 117 NATURAL LE COULTRE GENEVE; ivory, with some traces of polychromy and gilding; 26.7 by 26.5cm., 10½ by 10 3/8 in. open26.7 by 13.2cm., 10½ by 5¼in. closed. Estimation: 2,500,000-3,500,000 GBP
PROVENANCE: Paul Robert Gustav Horst collection,
sold by his son Robert Horst, Christie's London, 28 November 1961, lot 84
Christie's London, 20 October 1971, lot 50
on loan to Museum Schnütgen, Cologne, September 2009 to December 2012 (on display)
EXHIBITED: Zürich, Galerie Le point, Crédit Suisse, Engel., 1999-2000, no. 134
LITTERATURE: J. Schoch (ed.), Engel., exh. cat. Galerie Le Point, Crédit Suisse, Zurich, 1999, p. 142, no. 134NOTE: The Gustav Rau Triptych is amongst the most outstanding Gothic ivories surviving from the early 14th century. It is of breathtakingly sublime quality, and one of the supreme masterpieces of medieval sculpture ever to appear at auction. It must have been commissioned for a patron of royal or near-royal status and while it would have been used for personal devotion, its ambitious conception evokes in the viewer the grandeur of the Gothic Cathedral portals of Amiens or Notre-Dame in Paris with their famous sculptures depicting the life and death of the Virgin.
From the reign of Louis IX, Paris became the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe. With an increase in the supply of ivory from Africa in the mid-13th century, specialist ivory workshops became established there to fulfil a high demand for all forms of ivory objects, such as mirror backs and combs with profane subjects, as well as religious ivories. The large size, complex iconography and outstanding quality of the Rau Triptych are exceptional. It is distinguished by the depth of the carving, which the sculptor uses to bring many of the figures into high relief, with many heads carved fully in the round. The sculptor of the Rau Triptych re-interprets many standard subjects with great originality. The Virgin reclining on her bed as the angel announces her death, for example, is conceived with a graceful twisting movement quite different from standard, rigid representations of this scene. The figure of Christ in the Coronation is posed with great nobility and monumentality that defies its small scale and seems ahead of its time.
THE ICONOGRAPHY OF THE GUSTAV RAU, AMIENS AND MARTIN LE ROY TRIPTYCHS
The iconography of the Rau Triptych (Rau) is extremely close to two important triptychs, generally dated around 1330. One formerly in the Martin Le Roy collection (Le Roy) is currently unlocated, but was previously in the Spitzer collection (fig. 1). The other is in the Bibliothèque d’Amiens Métropole (Amiens) (fig. 2). These three triptychs are undoubtedly the most elaborate Gothic ivories to represent the Death of the Virgin. The narrative in all three begins at the top of the left wing and runs downwards, across the bottom centre panel with the scene of the Entombment of the Virgin, and continues up the right hand wing and left across to the top of the centre panel culminating in the Coronation of the Virgin. The middle of the centre panel shows a parallel vertical narrative with the Ascension of the Virgin’s soul, initially represented as a child holding a palm in a mandorla supported by two angels, then as a baby held by Christ, accompanied by angels.
The Rau Triptych is unique in the use of a double scene in the top register of the left wing. The story begins with the angel kneeling in front of the Virgin, who reclines on her bed, resting on her left arm. A heavy curtain is suspended above her. Amiens incorporates the same elements, but the composition is transposed. The latter shows the angel with a palm, whereas the angel in Le Roy passes a candle to the Virgin (probably a replacement); the attribute in Rau is lost. The use of space and the subtlety of the twisting poses of the angel and Virgin are much more sophisticated in Rau. The top half includes the rare scene of the Virgin kneeling in prayer on the Mount of Olives with the hand of God emerging from clouds in the corner. A small hole in the Virgin's hands suggests she originally held a palm indicating the chronology of the two events. This is confirmed by three other representations in diptychs where this episode is shown after the Annunciation of the Death: ex-Kofler-Truniger no. S64, Bode Museum, Berlin, SKS (inv. no. 2722) and ex-Christie's London, 4 November 2010, lot 29.
All three triptychs have the next scene in common: St John the Evangelist meeting the Virgin who is accompanied by three women. The undulating clouds along the top of the middle register are repeated in the scene of the Dormition below to indicate the miraculous transport of the apostles to the Virgin’s bedside. In Rau the Virgin lies in her bed, her head resting on a pillow, with all 12 apostles crowded around. Amiens and Le Roy treat this register with some key variations, which extend into the following two episodes. Raymond Koechlin misinterpreted the iconography in the lower left register in Amiens when he criticised the awkward arrangement of the arch above the prostrate apostle. In fact the prostrate figure in Amiens, also seen in Le Roy, clearly has a halo and must represent the Virgin, who in some accounts of the Dormition, falls to the floor in prayer when Christ appears at the gathering of the apostles at her bedside (see the Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol.8). Besides, all 12 apostles are clearly shown in the Amiens Dormition in addition to the prostrate figure. Both Rau and Amiens make some compromises in scale to incorporate all the apostles, but Rau has the clearest narration of all three triptychs because it simplifies the scene by excluding the prostrate Virgin. The individual heads of the apostles in Rau are keenly observed, many carved completely in the round, in a manner that is very close to Amiens.
As the narrative moves into the bottom of the centre panel, the lower register in all three triptychs incorporates two episodes. In Amiens and Rau, where the Virgin is shown in her bed in the previous scene, on the left the Virgin is placed in her coffin. Rau is unique here in showing the face of the Virgin shrouded, her facial features delicately indicated beneath the cloth. This is unusual, but appears also in a single left leaf from a Death of the Virgin diptych (OA 2606) and in the triptych with scenes of the Life and Death of the Virgin (OA 6931), both in the Louvre.Amiens divides the 12 apostles between the two episodes in the register with six attending the placing in the coffin and six attending the next scene of the carrying of the bier; the transition is skilfully handled by one apostle pointing in the direction of the action. In Le Roy the Dormition begins in the lower left wing, where three apostles sit above the prostrate Virgin, and extends into the left part of the central register, where four more apostles gather around Her bed. To complete the representation of all 12 apostles in Le Roy the remaining five are shown carrying the bier with St John in the lower right register holding the palm. Here again Rau is the most ambitious, because it succeeds in depicting three complete groups of 12 apostles in the Dormition, Entombment and Funeral Procession. This is achieved by showing four figures on the right of the lower central register walking towards the Funeral Procession in the lower right wing, the remaining eight apostles carrying the bier for the Virgin’s coffin, St John in front holding the palm. This arrangement creates less confusion in the central register because the four apostles on the right at first appear to be part of the placing of the Virgin's body in the coffin; only their slightly smaller scale indicates a separation from the main scene.
RIGHT WING AND THE ASCENSION
The small figure in front of the bier, seen in all three triptychs, is the Jewish high priest who tries to knock the bier to the ground. In his attempt his hands are miraculously fixed to it (and in some accounts his arms are torn off) until he repents and acknowledges Jesus as the Son of God. In Rau, the apostles carry an empty bier, because the coffin has been dramatically elevated up into the middle right register by four angels. The continuity of the story is cleverly told with the repetition of the cloth hanging from the bier. The middle register in Amiens has an animated scene with the elevation of the Virgin’s body wrapped in a blanket, held by two angels, whilst some sleeping and some astonished apostles are shown around the tomb. Le Roy has a simpler composition, analogous to Rau, with four angels carrying the Virgin’s body. Finally, at the top of the right wing, the Virgin is shown as a young woman with angels leading her towards the upper central panel with the Coronation. Rau, again, is the more ambitious composition as it incorporates four angels (Le Roy has two and Amiens three) and one of the angels is beautifully depicted playing the violin.
With the physical body of the Virgin being led by the angels into the heavenly central scene, the narrative splits to show the Virgin's soul in a mandorla transported up from the Entombment in the bottom central register which is then transformed into a baby held by Christ. Twelve attendant angels play instruments or wave censers. Amiens matches the number of figures in this register, but Christ is shown half-length and the unity of the Rau scene is broken in Amiens by the arches which separate two of the angels. Le Roy is simpler still, lacking the figure of Christ.
The final scene is the Coronation of the Virgin. Here the three triptychs have a similar distribution of the figures, the Virgin and Christ enthroned with an angel above crowning the Virgin, but whereas Amiens and Le Roy add two angels on either side, Rau skilfully adds four angels, two of whom play musical instruments.
DATING THE GUSTAV RAU TRIPTYCH
Koechlin dated Le Roy and Amiens around 1330. In the 1981 exhibition Les fastes du Gothique Danielle Gaborit Chopin concurs with this dating, cataloguing Amiens to around 1330-1340 and suggesting that Le Roy may be slightly earlier. However, this conclusion is based on the perceived mishandling of the Dormition in Amiens which has been demonstrated above to be unfounded. More recently Gaborit Chopin has associated Amiens with a triptych in the Louvre with scenes from the Life and Death of the Virgin (OA6932) which she dates earlier to 1315-1335. Today Koechlin's grouping of these ivories as products of the Workshop of the Death of the Virgin is generally dismissed because the carvings are too varied. Gaborit Chopin proposes a tighter, more homogenous group associated with OA 6932, including Amiens, the diptych with the Life of the Virgin and Christ in Lille and the triptych with the Passion of Christ in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection. She evocatively describes the archetypal early 14th century Parisian style of these works with their: 'figures aux proportions élancées , drapés habiles, gestes graciuex, visages aimables aux long yeux fendus, cheveux et barbes aux ondulations soignés. La nette elongation des torses des personnages assis … est caractéristique de cette période. Les proportions des figures, leurs visages très souriants et munis d’un nez retroussé, un peu vulgaire...'.
This description perfectly corresponds to the style of Rau and clearly places it in this esteemed group. However, Rau is of notable refinement within this group, and perhaps stands at the head of it. Its iconography has both originality and complexity that has been discussed in detail above and this superiority is achieved not only by the clarity of the compositions, but also by the depth of the carving and animation of the gestures and expressions. This is best illustrated in the placing of the Virgin's body in the coffin, where St John leans dramatically forward, his head carved fully in the round, his left hand held up in a simple gesture of sadness, whilst two apostles talk intently by his side. Such lively characterisation of story and emotion seems in advance of the other two triptychs, or any of the same scene from diptychs, such as those in Berlin (SKS 2722), or ex-Kofler Truniger (S 64) or ex-Christie's 4.11.2010 lot 29. For a comparably sophisticated treatment of action in a Gothic ivory relief one must look at the great ivory from the Musée du Cluny known as the Triptych of Saint-Sulpice-du-Tarn (fig. 3). Here the figure of St John from the Crucifixion provides a strong comparison with the Rau St John in his forward movement, bringing his head completely clear from the background, in the treatment of his characteristic physiognomy and in his composed gesture. Clearly, the drapery in the Cluny triptych is more complex and voluminous than inRau, but it may be suggested that the latter forms a link between the workshop of the triptych of Saint-Sulpice-du-Tarn and that of the Death of the Virgin group proposed by Gaborit Chopin. Therefore, the date of the Rau Triptych could be suggested to be the earliest in this group, around 1310-1320.
THE COLLECTION OF PAUL R. G. HORST
Paul Robert Gustav Horst was born in New York in 1863 and died in Germany in 1958. He was married twice; his first wife, Anna Carolin Christensen, was an opera soprano. He had four children, the youngest being Robert Percival Kendall Horst (1911-1978). Horst was a businessman who worked in the family Hop business in America around 1900. He travelled extensively in Europe and was in business in London around 1916 and lived partly in Paris in the 1920s.
The Paul R. G. Horst collection was sold at Christie’s, London on 28th November 1961 by his son, Robert. It comprised a total of 63 lots, 17 important French, Flemish and German ivories, 13 pieces of Continental metalwork, 17 Limoges and Spanish enamels, two Roman objects and 23 lots of Renaissance jewellery. The two outstanding enamels in the collection were a 13th century enamel bookcover of the Crucifixion and a Chasse, formerly in the Jacon Astley, 16th Baron Hastings collection, which had been exhibited in the 1857 Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition; Horst may have bought this when it appeared at auction in Paris in 1910. Amongst the collection of ivories there were four Flemish 17th century figures and one German late 15th century plaque of the Annunciation, now in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. The French Gothic ivories included six single leafs and four diptychs. One of the latter is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Saint Petersburg, Florida. Another was formerly in the Abbot Robert Charles collection at La Forte-Bernard and was sold in the Dormeuil sale, Sotheby's Paris, 19th November 2007, lot 19. Several of the ivories from the Paul R. G. Horst collection can be traced back to auctions in Paris such as those of Abbot Robert Charles (1873), George Hoentschel (1910), two pieces from Alexandre Léonce Rosenberg (1924) and Emile Levy (1928). Pride of place in the ivory collection, however, was undoubtedly reserved for the Gustav Rau Triptych.
RELATED LITERATURE: R. Koechlin, Les ivoires gothiques français, Paris, 1924, vol. 1, pp.139-141, vol. 2, pp.89-94, nos. 210, 211, 212, pls. LII, LIII;
D. Alcouffe (et al.), Les Fastes du gothique: Le siècle de Charles V, exh. cat. Grand Palais, Paris, 1981, pp.185-6, no.143
P. Williamson, The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Medieval Sculpture and Works of Art, London, 1987, pp.122-125, no.23
R. Randall, The Golden Age of Ivory. Gothic Carvings in North American Collections, New York, 1993, p. 92, no. 111
P. Barnet (ed.), Images in Ivory, exhib. cat. The Detroit Institute of arts, Detroit, 1997, pp.26-27, no.26
D. Gaborit Chopin, Ivoires médiévaux Ve-XVe siècle, cat. Louvre Museum, Paris, 2003, p. 344, no. 123, pp. 286-388, no.152, pp. 388-389, no.153
Sotheby's. European Sculpture & Works of Art: Medieval to Modern. London | 02 juil. 2013 www.sothebys.com