Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Art Eyewitness Book Review: The Wyvern Collection

The Wyvern Collection

Medieval and Renaissance Sculpture and Metalwork

By  Paul Williamson

Thames & Hudson/ 384 pages/$95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Many of the great art museums in Europe and North America preserve significant collections of Christian devotional art from the Middle Ages. A few institutions like the Cloisters Museum in New York City and the Musée de Cluny in Paris specialize exclusively in the magnificent art of Christendom, created during the ten centuries from the fall of Rome to the rise of the Renaissance.

One of the great, modern-day, assemblages of medieval art, however, cannot be found in a museum. The Wyvern Collection was amassed by an unknown - or at least unnamed - art enthusiast over the last thirty years. Thames and Hudson has just published a splendid catalog, highlighting 213 works of art from the Wyvern Collection.

The decades-long act of amassing the Wyvern Collection is an astonishing example of single-minded devotion to preserving - and sharing - the treasures of the past.  In the preface to the book, the personal motivation for collecting these talismans of medieval civilization is explained:

For me, collecting has always been about the wonder of the creative process and awe at the skill of the artist, although most of those who are represented in this volume are anonymous.

Fittingly, the identity of the Wyvern collector remains anonymous.

Superlatives are quickly exhausted after paging through The Wyvern Collection. I was particularly impressed with several of the more "primitive" pieces, statues of the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus from Catalonia and Umbria in Italy, both dating, c.1230-60. 

The new Thames and Hudson book is a work of art, as well. The large format of the illustrations, along with their clarity and fidelity to color tones, enable readers to appreciate art treasures they are unlikely to see anytime soon.  

Part of the Wyvern collection was displayed in a special exhibit in 2005 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Until the happy day when a repeat presentation is mounted, the Thames and Hudson volume is as good as it gets and this book is superlative.

Special credit should go the author of the accompanying text, Paul Williamson. For many years the curator of medieval sculpture at the V & A, Williamson is one of the world's leading authorities on the art of the Middle Ages. His informative commentary is a model of close analysis and of wide-ranging references to similar works of art.

Before we examine some of the  treasures of the Wyvern collection, it important to recognize a salient fact about the Christian art of the Middle Ages. The wonder about the medieval art of Christendom is that any has survived at all.  

Over the centuries, Christian art has been subjected to savage campaigns of destruction. The Vikings, the Mongols and the Ottoman Turks inflicted great damage during the Middle Ages and early modern era. But the worst perpetrators of violence against Christian art were themselves Christians.

The very act of Christian vandalism of Christian art gave rise to the term Iconoclasm. The inspiring Icons of the Greek Orthodox Church were subjected to widespread destruction from 754 to 843 AD. A group of militaristic Byzantine emperors tried to "purify" the very religion they had sworn to defend.

The Wyvern collection has only a few works of art from the Byzantine Empire. Most of the Wyvern treasures date from the era of the building of the great cathedrals in Western Europe during the twelfth through the fourteenth century. 

In medieval art, form followed function - and faith. An excellent example is the Plaque with the Crucifixion, which is likely to have served as the cover for that rarest of treasures - a sacred book. 

Plaque with the Crucifixion. Northern Spain, c. 1150-75

Created in the north of Spain, c. 1150-75, the plaque was made by the repoussé technique. A sheet of copper was hammered from the reverse side to form the low relief image of the  crucifixion. Forward-facing images of personifications of the sun and moon hover above the extended arms of the crucified Christ. These recall the way that saints posed in Byzantine icons. They also testify to the tenacious staying power of pagan motifs. 

Plaque with the Crucifixion also points to the future of European art. The flanking positions of the Virgin Mary and St. John would be used time and again in paintings of the Crucifixion by Flemish masters like Rogier van der Weyden and his Renaissance successors. 

Here, in this one object d'art, we can see the progression of the Western artistic tradition.

Such exquisite works of art from the Gothic era are survivors of two of the worst acts of Iconoclasm in history: the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution. The Plaque with the Crucifixion likely escaped destruction because the power and religious fervor of the Spanish monarchy held Iconoclasm at bay in Spain. Other nations were not so fortunate.

Destruction of Christian art was carried out with particular ruthlessness in England during the Reformation and the related Puritan revolt of the 1640's. A document from that tragic time illustrates the zealous bigotry common to "Iconoclasts" throughout history.

In 1547, the government of Edward VI, the sickly, young successor to Henry VIII, ordered the clergy of England:

To take away, utterly extinct and destroy all shrines, coverings of shrines, all tables, candlesticks, trindles or rolls of wax, pictures, paintings, and all other monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition: so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glass-windows or elsewhere within their churches or houses. And they shall exhort their parishioners to do the like within their several houses.

Similar instructions were issued by the Republican tribunals during the French Revolution. While Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety were busy sending “enemies of the state” to meet Madame Guillotine, their henchmen were decapitating statues of biblical characters, Hebrew kings like David or Solomon and New Testament figures like Joseph of Arimathea.                   

The Wyvern collection contains several such severed heads. One especially battered example, from France, c, 1160 , shows the head of an apocalyptic figure. Similar examples have been traced to the church of Notre-Dame de la Couldre in Parthenay. These, dispersed to museum collections around the world, are believed to have been hacked down during the French Revolution.  Certainly the damage to this "elder" would support this conclusion. 

Head of a Young Man. France or, c. 1300 

Another head (c.1300), perhaps of an angel, bears comparison with the damaged elder. With an enigmatic smile recalling a kouros of archaic Greece, this striking work of art shows no sign of desecration. It was clearly removed from a stone structure but not, according to Williamson, severed from a statue.
Might it have been "removed" from a medieval church during the early years of the Gothic Revival of the nineteenth century? Collectors are not iconoclasts but when a medieval work of art is wrenched from its surroundings, the effect is the same.

To continue commenting on the subject of Iconoclasm would be a disservice to the Wyvern collection. These medieval treasures can be viewed from a number of vantage points. In terms of the number of first-rank works of art, statues of the Virgin Mary with Christ Child dominate the Wyvern collection. These remind us of the revolutionary change in the appreciation of women that took place in Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance - thanks in large part to the Christian reverence for the mother of Jesus.

Goddess or Gorgon. In the ancient world, Greek and Roman art had little place for women save in these two conflicting roles. With the rise - and survival - of Byzantine icons that changed. 

Acknowledgement as saints in heaven and a positive role model in this world were achieved for women through veneration of the Virgin Mary. Her status as Theotokos Hodegetria, "Mother of God who shows the way," influenced art throughout Christendom and inspired unparalleled levels of beauty during the Gothic era and the Renaissance.

The Virgin and Child. France or South Netherlands (Belgium), c. 1380-1400

An especially fascinating example is The Virgin and Child, crafted from fruitwood in the southern Netherlands (modern-day Belgium) or northern France, c.1380-1400. Pious and demure, the Virgin Mary bows her head to the infant Jesus who seems older and wiser than his years would allow. Jesus raises his hand in benediction and Mary lowers her gaze in acknowledgement of God's favor.

This role reversal is difficult to understand in our secularized world. Yet a Christian during the Middle Ages would have understood that this image of a beautiful, girlish Mary was not created to tempt us to "worship" her. Rather, this sculpture was intended to remind us that the salvation of all believers , including the Virgin Mary, comes from the divine child she holds in her arms. 

By comparison, images of the Christ Child as an individual are comparatively rare. The Infant of Prague, which dates to the late sixteenth century, springs readily to mind. The Wyvern collection has an Infant Christ, carved from Walnut wood, and painted and gilded. It was lovingly preserved, perhaps as part of a chapel or convent collection. It would never have been displayed nude, as we see here, but would have been clothed in rich garments, depending on the dates of the Christian liturgical calendar.

The Infant Christ. South Netherlands (Belgium), c. 1500-10

This charming sculpture does represent a "humanization" of the idea of God. This was a  theological innovation of St. Francis of Assisi during the early thirteenth century. Christian teaching has always affirmed that humans are created "in the image and likeness" of God. But the practice of setting up Christmas nativity scenes, credited to St. Francis, was controversial. 

To the Reformation leaders the "humanization of God" turned Christian doctrine inside-out. God was being re-cast, in their offended view, in man's image.

That inversion did not trouble the French revolutionaries who as devout Utopians aimed to make man into a god. But Christian devotional images disturbed them greatly for these provided human beings with an alternative route to self-fulfillment and to a cosmic vision where the State was not the ultimate reality.

As a result, Iconoclasts of both camps went to war against Christian images. What we see of the Wyvern collection in this beautiful book is a mere remnant, a testament to what was lost.

One of my cultural heroes, Carl Sagan, wrote, "History is full of people who out of fear or ignorance or the lust for power have destroyed treasures of immeasurable value which truly belong to all of us.” 

History also raises-up human beings, of generous spirit and enlightened minds, who dedicate themselves to saving and sharing "treasures of immeasurable value which truly belong to all of us.” 

Mr. "Wyvern" (if I may be so bold)... many thanks.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                               
Photos Courtesy:  The Wyvern Collection and Thames & Hudson

Introductory Image:                                                                                                          The Wyvern Collection Book Cover: Courtesy Thames & Hudson

Plaque with the Crucifixion.  Northern Spanish (Aragon or Navarre), c. 1150-75.                 Copper; repoussé, over a wood core; h. 31cm, w. 21 cm.  No. 0614. © 2018 The Wyvern Collection
Provenance: Bought from Bruno Speybrouck, Kortrijk, Belgium, September 2006. Formerly in the Parra collection, Zaragoza, until 2003; Luis Elvira, Castelló; Jan Pareyn, Brussels

Head of a Young Man.  French (Île-de-France, or possibly Burgundy or Champagne), c. 1300  Limestone, painted; h. 24 cm  No. 1565  © 2018 The Wyvern Collection
Provenance: Bought at Delorme & Collin du Bocage auction, Cannes, 2 August 2011, lot 25, through Sam Fogg, London. On loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1993-2000; Sotheby’s, New York, 22 May 2001, lot 15; Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 10 December 2010, lot 230.

The Virgin and Child.  French or South Netherlandish, c. 1380-1400. Fruitwood (possibly pear), painted and gilded; h. 21.5 cm. No. 1696. © 2018 The Wyvern Collection
Provenance: Bought from Sam Fogg, London, May 2012. Formerly in a Dutch private collection; Jan Roelofs, Maastricht.

The Infant Christ. South Netherlandish (Mechelen and Brussels), c. 1500-10. Walnut, painted and gilded (figure); oak, gilded, with applied lead ornaments (base); h. 33.4 cm (figure), 4.7 cm (base). No. 1819. © 2018 The Wyvern Collection
Provenance: Bought from Bernard Descheemaeker Works of Art, Antwerp, January 2013. Formerly in a Belgian private collection.

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