Renaissance painted enamels and their feature in devotional paxes: insights, ideas and observations

Renaissance painted enamels and their feature in devotional paxes: insights, ideas and observations

by Michael Riddick


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Cover image: A French gilt copper pax with a painted enamel of the Pietà attributed to Nardon Pénicaud and workshop, early 16th cent. (ex-Goldschmidt and Richard von Schnitzler collections)

Arched small-scale enamels have often been considered conceived with intent to be set into frames for use as paxes for private devotional and liturgical purposes. A cursory survey of enamels set in pax frames in both private and public collections exemplify a diverse array of artworks that yield few consistencies but suggest possible ideas concerning their function, origin and the display of enamels in pax-form.

Foremost, the sheer volume of arched small-scale enamels lacking a frame far outnumber the quantity of examples featuring a frame. This suggests the enamels conceived in this regularized format may not have been necessarily intended for setting into a host of elaborate or serially manufactured frames, but were made in this preconceived format with the understanding that they could engender a variety of functions based on their shape-and-scale. Certainly, the diverse approach to enclosing these artworks in frames, sometimes in completely alternative materials,1 such as embroidery,2 is tantamount to their diverse application for the purposes of devotion (Fig. 01).

Fig. 01: Painted enamel of the Crucifixion, signed JP, 1551 in an embroidered frame (Treasury of Troyes Cathedral, France)

It is possible the proliferation of Limoges enamels in this shape-and-scale could be due to some part of the manufacturing process for producing the copper blanks supplied to enamellers from local suppliers who specialized in preparing the copper for enamelwork. It could be assumed that dies conforming to this shape may have allowed the copper blanks to be struck into this format, in much the same way coins were prepared using steel and iron dies. The quantity of workshops specializing in the production of copper blanks remains unknown notwithstanding the arrangements they had with enamellers in Limoges. However, the copper was likely of French origin during the 15th century and later depended upon Spanish “New World” copper during the 16th century, supplied along trade routes like the pilgrim’s road to Santiago de Compostela.3

Without a complete scientific examination of these objects a natural complication in examining them in this brief survey presents certain challenges but the aim is to initiate a discussion and propose new ideas that better help understand these particular enamels, their makers, and their overarching purpose and function.

Fig. 02: A silver pax with late 14th century ivory panels depicting the Crucifixion and Beheading of St. John at a parish church in the town of Pina de Ebro in Zaragoza, Spain

An initial complication is that paxes have been regularly subject to edits during their long history of survival. These precious objects tend to undergo revisions throughout their history and we may likewise observe how precious objects, such as works in ivory (like diptychs), could lose their original context and be appropriated to later Renaissance pax frames for sake of their preservation and continued function (Fig. 02). Often such revisions would seek to update an artwork’s relevance to a new functional context and time period or, at times, the central artwork of an older pax could be substituted for an alternate work-of-art based on themes pertaining to the patron saints of certain churches inheriting or maintaining these liturgical objects. In this regard, there is the possibility some early enamels could be set into later frames or vice versa.

Fig. 03: A bronze pax, after the Ballesteros workshop, with a painted enamel of the Holy Family, 16th cent. (Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas, Madrid, Spain; Inv. CE01826; left); a gilt silver pax with a painted enamel of the Coronation of the Virgin, 16th cent. (Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela-Galicia, Spain; right)

Further, the import-and-export of precious objects throughout Europe resulted in some Limoges enamels being couriered into territories outside of France where they could be subsequently set into frames prepared by the metalsmiths of the importing regions. See for example an enamel, presumably French, which is set into a crudely aftercast pax frame at the Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas in Madrid (Fig. 03, left). The crude frame, probably cast in a provincial Zaragoza workshop during the third quarter of the 16th century, replicates the frame of a finer metal pax attributed to the Ballesteros family workshop, probably made ca. 1560, and originally featuring an integral relief of the Virgin and Child.4 In this case, the central sculptural relief has been excised and the frame recast and purposed for sake of framing the enamel. Contrarily, a finer example in which a frame was individually conceived by a talented Spanish goldsmith can be observed in an example at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela-Galicia (Fig. 03, right).5

The serial reproduction of cast metal pax frames among provincial European foundries, namely in Italy, often mix-and-matched disparate frames and central motifs whose original inventions were developed under unrelated conditions and in wholly unrelated contexts yet whose devotional subjects remained relevant to certain local churches.

Fig. 04: A gilt bronze pax with a painted enamel of the Nativity, 19th cent. (Louvre, Inv. OA 6184)
Fig. 05: A gilt bronze pax with a painted enamel of the Crucifixion, 19th cent. (Smithsonian Institute,
Inv. 1929-8-228)

Adding further convolution to this survey is the proliferation of faked enamel-paxes like one featuring a Nativity scene at the Louvre6 (Fig. 04) and other pastiches like one at the Smithsonian (Fig. 05) made during the 19th century. Artists and dealers capitalizing on the demand for enamels and their distinctive appeal and technical virtuosity of execution resulted in the prevalence of such pastiches and fakes. In particular, Edmé Samson’s firm in Paris serially produced a quantity of 19th century Renaissance-style enamels in gilt bronze frames (Fig. 06), some of which are still mistakenly sold in today’s art market as authentic Renaissance artworks.

Fig. 06: A gilt bronze pax with enamels of the Seated Virgin and Child and Ecce Homo by Samson, Edmé et Cie, 19th cent. (private coll.)

A majority of early pax frames accompanying Limoges enamels are crude and simple in their production. They were evidently prepared in-mind to accompany the shape-and-scale of their cognate copper blanks. They are constructed of three simple parts: a silhouetted beveled bronze frame for the front and a flat backplate with a separately prepared and attached handle. The front or back of these frames are attached by folding a series of toothed margins over the back or front plate to secure the enamel in its protective shell (Fig. 07). This mechanical assembly, avoiding the use of solder, was consistent also with the production of copper forms prepared for enameling dishes and ewers and whose assembly could not incorporate binding metals incapable of withstanding the high heat required to bake the enamel to their pure copper grounds.

Fig. 07: A copper pax with a painted enamel of the Virgin Surrounded by Angels, anonymous Limoges enameller close to Nardon Pénicaud, ca. 1500 (private coll.)

These frames appear to date to around the year 1500 and were likely produced in or near Limoges. Notably, about half of the convincingly old examples of this frame-type house enamels that appear to be the work of a single anonymous hand or master and his workshop whose style is naïve and characterized by bald-headed protagonists, thick outlines, a frequent application of cold-painted gilded stars against a dark blue enamel sky and the occasional feature of banderoles bearing French gothic lettering (Fig. 07).7 It is to be speculated if this anonymous enameller, perhaps close to Nardon Pénicaud on account of its primitive style, may have played a significant role in the genesis of this enamel format and its cognate frames, perhaps initially preparing them as products from their own workshop and later servicing copper frames and blanks to other workshops. At least four other convincingly old enamels in their early frames of this kind speak to this idea.8

Fig. 08: A gilt copper pax with glass and enameled appliques and a painted enamel of the Virgin and Child by Gaston Lefevere, 1434 (Royal Ontario Museum, Inv. 997-158-21)

Notably, one of the most significant and earliest known examples of a Renaissance period enamel is presented in the form of a pax. The pax of the Virgin and Child by Gaston Lefevere, was made in 1434 for the Church of Saint Germain in Rennes as indicated by the inscription engraved beneath its base (Fig. 08).9 The colored glass stones and interchanging enameled floral motifs, fluted handle and intricately punched decorative motifs are decidedly 15th century French in manner and the frame was evidently conceived in coincidence with the production of its central scene in-mind. The lovely composition, managed with great care, anticipates future generations of Limoges enamellers.

Fig. 09: A gilt copper pax with a painted enamel of the Virgin and Child, last quarter of the 15th cent. (Musée de Cluny, Inv. CL18388)

An early and anonymous Virgin and Child enamel featuring a remarkably ornate frame is another early protagonist of this object type (Fig. 09). It’s openwork border, elaborately engraved reverse with a scene of three saints and an obverse featuring a tiered border with hatched molding and piercings from now-lost decorative appliques suggests a work that must have once been dazzling to its original patron. The elaborately engraved reverse suggests the interdisciplinary workmanship of several hands in the execution of a single precious work while the lack of a handle suggests this pax was intended for suspension.10 Another example of this same frame, suffering even more losses with its original openwork border excised and its presumably engraved reverse lacking and replaced with a 19th century backplate, features a Crucifixion enamel attributed to the Master of the Reliquary of Saint-Sulpice-les-Feuilles, ca. 1475-95.11 A truncated example of this same frame-type featuring an enameled scene of the Nativity attributed to the Monvaerni Master is at the Museum fur Angewandte Kunst (Inv. 997 Cl) and an additional rare complete version of this pax frame type is found in the Courtauld Institute collections featuring another enameled Nativity scene also attributed to the Monvaerni Master (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10: A gilt copper pax with appliques and a painted enamel Adoration of the Shepherds attributed to the Monvaerni Master, last quarter of the 15th cent. (Courtauld Institute of Art)

A similar artistically collaborative environment is evident on yet another early bejeweled and engraved pax featuring an Angel Lifting Christ from the Tomb believed also to be a work by the Monvaerni Master or his atelier (Fig. 11). The style of these aforenoted frames and their feature of respective enamels mostly associated with the Monvaerni Master and his activity could suggest a relationship between a yet-to-be-identified goldsmith, perhaps Parisan, and the Monvaerni Master. The quality of the Monvaerni Master’s work and his presumed noble connections resulting in such fine examples of Renaissance craftsmanship could indicate a courtly activity and a well-versed patronage distinguishing his efforts above other artistic peers.

Fig. 11: A gilt copper pax with glass cabachons, appliques and a painted enamel of an Angel Lifting Christ from the Tomb, attributed to the Monvaerni Master or his circle, last quarter of the 15th cent. (private coll.)

While the Lefevere and Monvaerni frames evince a reasonable connection of these masters presumably among patrons of high nobility during the last quarter of the 15th century and among the circles of their corresponding tradecrafts, other enamellers in Limoges appear to have begun opting for the simpler, more practical style of frame dependent upon local coppersmiths during the final decade of the 15th century and into the early 16th century as adjudged by the simple copper frames already discussed. In coincidence with the growing popularity of paxes for liturgical use, these later simplified frames may have encouraged extended patronage from provincial churches and families in the region of Limoges and other international territories with whom the region conducted business.

While various frames are observed showcasing painted enamels, to the present author’s knowledge, there is only one such object that can be confidently ascribed to an identifiable metalsmith.12 A silver pax at the Parish church of Belchite features the hallmark of Jeronimo de la Mata behind its handle. This master silversmith was active in Zarazoga and specialized in producing processional crosses, monstrances, chalices and other liturgical devices in-and-around Aragon, being chiefly active during the 1550s. Documents cite his production of two paxes involving enamels in 1561, though it is not certain if these could reflect the example kept in the Belchite church.13

Fig. 12: A copper pax with a painted enamel of the Lamentation, second half of the 16th cent., probably Aragon region of Spain (private coll.)

The enamel belonging to Jerinimo’s pax features a Deposition scene and is quite possibly the work of an enameller active in Spain rather than Limoges, France. As with other certain precious objects, Spain’s tradesmen would adopt and import the talents of other regions, one example being the art of reverse-painted and gilded rock crystals whose craft experienced its prime in Milan, Italy and Nuremberg, Germany during the first-half of the 16th century, and was adopted subsequently in Spain. The notion that painted enamels could have been produced in mid-to-late 16th century Spain, notwithstanding the champlevé techniques employed their in earlier centuries, is not without merit as we observe the Flemish advent of enamel work bolstered by experienced masters from Venice like Battista Guado and Zuan Andrea Barovier of Murano and their apprentices, in 1569, who had left Italy to practice their art in Antwerp or Antonio Neri’s comment that Venetian glass makers, likely inclusive of enamellers, were employed in Antwerp as early as 1535.14 Further indicative of this idea are two cognate paxes housed in the same style of frame which are decidedly Spanish in origin (Fig. 12).15 The visibly apparent high copper content of the frames and their handle-type are indicative of paxes made in the provincial foundries of Spain during the late 16th century and early 17th century. Their feature of enamels developed in the mode of Pierre Reymond could suggest a member or descendant of his workshop active in Spain.

Fig. 13: A group of gilt bronze paxes with niello appliques and painted enamels, 16th century, Italy (possibly Florence), previously attributed to the Master of the Large Foreheads and here attributed to an anonymous French-Italian enameller active in Italy. From left-to-right: the Annunciation (Victoria & Albert Museum); Virgin and Child (Walters Art Museum, Inv. 44-216); Nativity (Courtauld Institute of Art)

A small group of painted enamels set in a variety of Italian pax frames (Fig. 13) may call into question their presumed maker. The enamels featured on these paxes are attributed to the Master of the Large Foreheads, an enameller thought active in Limoges between 1480-1520 and whose manner is believed derived from the influence of the Master of the Orléans Triptych.16

While these enamels are certainly indebted to the broader works attributed to the Master of the Large Foreheads, their simplified architectural forms, slightly variant application of poincons and naïve execution suggest a different author altogether. Further, their presence in Italian pax frames could alternatively imply an Italian author whereas previously it was thought these enamels were imported into Italy from France. While this latter idea remains possible, there is yet the visual language present in these enamels which is commensurate with contemporary Venetian types like those observed in late 15th century Venetian enameled glass making (Fig. 14, left) or paxes entirely conceived in enamel and evidently close-in-manner to the aforenoted paxes (Fig. 14, right). Another possibility is that they were executed by a Frenchman active in Italy, perhaps descendent of the Master of the Orléans Triptych’s workshop or that of the Master of the Large Forehead’s workshop. Louis XI’s restrictions on the rights to create painted enamels among select Limoges families could have encouraged an enterprising artist’s departure to Italy.17 Likewise, the Italian influences in France following the Italian campaign initiated by King Charles VII in 1494 may also have prompted such a move. Nonetheless, there yet remains debate concerning the centers of enamel work in Italy, in which Milan and Florence have also been postulated as possible locales for the facture of painted enamels.18 The feature of applied niello friezes, bases and tympanums on these paxes could suggest a connection with goldsmiths in Florence but their general Lombard architectural style likewise encourages also a fair proximity within the area of Venice and Milan too.

Fig. 14: A beaker depicting the Penitent Magdalene, enameled and gilded glass, Italy, late 15th cent. (Musée Jacquemart-André, Inv. OA 934; left) and a painted enamel pax of the Virgin and Child, Italian, ca. 1500 (private coll., right)

Alternatively, the appearance of this master’s works featured disparately in various Italian pax frames could suggest the enamels served as replacements for the central image of these paxes or possibly a forger could have utilized flawed antique Italian paxes within which to set his forged enamels during the 19th century, attempting to pass them off as authentic Renaissance originals. An enamel of the Adoration of the Magi, originally believed authentic and attributed also to the circle of the Master of the Large Foreheads at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum was shown to be a 19th century fake based on scientific analysis.19

In some cases, certain Italian paxes do appear preconceived with the intent to feature painted enamels produced in Italy. A well published example is a Lombard enamel of Christ at the Column set in a fine gilt silver setting with silver floral appliques along its margins.20 Another presumably undiscussed but important and well-preserved Italian pax with a painted enamel as its central motif is in the Museo Poldi Pezzoli.

Fig. 15: A gilt bronze pax with niello appliques, possibly by Jacopo del Magnolino (?) and a painted enamel of the Lamentation, Italian, ca. 1500 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Inv. 32.100.293; left); a gilt bronze pax with niello appliques, possibly by Jacopo del Magnolino (?), Italy (Florence?), ca. 1492-98 (private coll.; right)

A frame of probable Lombard origin is known by an example at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, featuring a Pietà enamel of Italian origin (Fig. 15, left). Another frame likely from the same workshop and lacking its central motif, perhaps due to damages if an enamel had once been present, was formerly with the Davis Kielar gallery (Fig. 15, right). It’s niello armorial along the pediment features the arms of Pope Alexander VI. The Pope’s choice goldsmith at this time was Jacopo del Magnolino and with this goldsmith’s activity between Florence and Rome, he could be a possible candidate for its facture, presumably made sometime after the Pope’s installation in 1492 but before Magnolino’s death in 1498.21 If correct, it could be a scarce indication of this master’s workmanship which still remains unidentified to-this-day.

Fig. 16: A gilt bronze pax with a painted enamel of the Virgin and Child, Pénicaud workshop, early 16th cent. (Gallery il Quadrifoglio, Milan, Italy; left); a gilt silver pax with a painted enamel of the Virgin and Child, Pénicaud workshop, early 16th cent. (Musée Mandet, France; right)

Returning to the enamels of Limoges, a pair of enamels associated with the Pénicaud workshops depicting the Virgin and Child are observed in very fine contemporary French pax frames (Fig. 16). While these enamels may have emanated from the same workshop the apparent taste of their benefactors is presumably reflected by the difference in taste shown between the two works: one tempered and classical, the other flamboyantly gothic.22 This suggests that the commission of these works, particularly from the Pénicaud workshops, may have stimulated an “invenio” on the part of the patron, much as it would also in Italy, in which the patron could express their genius and showcase their wealth through objects-of-art involving various trades and workmen in the completion of a finished spectacled work-of-art. The quality of the pax frames observed featuring several of the painted enamels connected with the Pénicaud workshop may also indicate a close bond between the Pénicaud family and talented metalsmiths active elsewhere in France or perhaps also in Burgundian Spain (see cover image for another exemplar work of this kind).

In sum, the observations made here concerning pax frames and their feature of painted enamels will hopefully begin a dialogue through which further studies can be made about the activity of their authors, the designation of such authors and the relationship of enamellers with patrons and other tradecrafts as well as a continued identification of fakes and pastiches.


Endnotes:

1 A painted enamel of the Crucifixion is set in a unique ivory frame with a later wood backing and handle. This ivory frame once featured now-lost appliques (collection of Florian Dadat, see also Sotheby’s auction, 11 April 2018). Other enamels are known framed in wooden pax frames like one in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum (Inv. 527) and another of Spanish origin (La Suite Subastas auction, December 2017), arguably linked to the same presumably Spanish enameller featured in Figure 12.

2 Another rare example of a pax-style enamel set in an embroidered frame was offered for sale at Tessier and Sarrou et Associes on 7 Dec 2016, Lot 285, featuring an anonymous 16th century enamel of John the Baptist after a model connected to Pierre Reymond’s workshop.

3 Other sources have been suggested, such as England via the port of La Rochelle and Germany via trade routes connected from Lyon.

4 For a discussion of this pax attributed to the Ballesteros family workshop, kept at a church in Cabeza la Vaca, see Antonio Morón Carmona (2015): El ajuar de platería de la parroquia de Nuestra Señora de la Victoria de Osuna in Estudios de Platería, San Eloy, Universidad de Murcia, pp. 339-49. See also María Luisa Martín Ansón (1984): Esmaltes de España. Editora Nacional, Madrid, p.148.

5 A similar example, executed probably by a nearby Spanish workshop may have also produced a fine pax setting for an enamel in a private collection. See Lempertz auction, 18 November 2016, Lot 904.

6 Sophie Baratte (1999): Y-a-t’il de faux émaux peints de Limoges au musée du Louvre? in Berliner Beiträge zur Archäometrie, band 16, pp. 129-35.

7 Examples of enamels by this master, preserved in their original frames, are found in the Musee de Cluny (Inv. CL15156), Hermitage Museum (Inv. Ф-2656); private collection (Fraysse & Associes auction, 5 May 2010, Lot 14); and a private collection (formerly with Bernard Descheemaeker).

8 See for example an anonymous enamel of the Virgin and Child and an enamel of the Crucifixion attributed to the workshop of the Master of the Louis XII Triptych (private collections, both formerly with Bernard Descheemaeker); an enamel of the Virgin and Child attributed to the workshop of Nardon Pénicaud (Sothebys auction, 21 April 2004, Lot 5); and an anonymous enamel of the Crucifixion (Museum of Decorative Arts in Limoges).

9 GASTON LEFEVRE FIST ET DONNA CEST PAIX [PARIGIUM?] A SAINT GERMAIN DE RENNES EN L’AN MIL CCCC XXX IIII.

10 Another rare enamel attributed to the Pénicaud workshop is set within a silver frame also intended for suspension (formerly in the Thomas Flannery collection: Sothebys auction, 8 July 2005, Lot 45). The pax frame, possibly later than the enamel, features a gothic inscription along its base: VENITE ADOREMUS DOMINUM and the Jouin family coat-of-arms engraved on its silver backplate.

11 This pax was formerly with Bernard Descheemaeker (www.worksofart.be).

12 Uniquely, there is also one unsigned, but dated pax, of Northern origin (perhaps from Cologne, Germany judging by its style), bearing the name of its donor, Jacob Weise, dated 1561, at the Museum fur Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt am Main (Inv. WMH4). The pax features an enamel superficially attributed to Jean Pénicaud II.

13 Francisco Abbad Ríos (1951): Jerónimo de la Mata (Goldsmith of the 16th century). Seminary of Aragonese Art, no. 3.

14 Antonio Neri (1612 / trans. 1980 by Rosa Barovier Mentasti): L’arte vetraria. Milan: Edizioni il Polifilo.

15 One example features an enamel of the Penitent Jerome at the Hermitage Museum and another depicting the Lamentation is from a private collection (Pierre Berge auction, 10 December 2019, lot 64).

16 J.J. Marquet de Vasselot (1921): Les Emaux limousins de la fi du XVe siècle et de la première partie du XVIe, Paris, no. 69, pp. 137-49 and Philippe Maurice Verdier (1967): The Walters Art Gallery: Catalogue of the Painted Enamels of the Renaissance, Walters Art Museum, p. xviii.

17 Philippe Verdier, Maurice S. Dimand, Kathryn C. Buhler (1977): Enamels, rugs, and silver in the Frick Collection. New York: Frick Collection.

18 For the suggestion of Milan see Paola Venturelli (2003): Smalto, oro, e preziosi: Oreficeria e arti sintuarie nel Ducato di Milano tra Visconti e Sforza and for the suggestion of Florence see Jeremy Warren (2018): Venetian Enamels: The Case for Florence? in I rami smaltati del Rinascimento italiano, 1, pp. 55-70 and Marco Verità (2017): The So-Called Venetian Enameled Copper Artworks of the Italian Renaissance: the Technology and Provenance of the Enamels-an Analytical Approach: Venetian enamelled copper artworks of the Italian Renaissance in Archaeometry, 60.

19 Veerle Van der Linden, Olivier Schalm, Jos Houbraken, Mienke Thomas, Eva Meesdom, Annemie Devos, Rita Van Dooren, Hans Nieuwdorp, Elsje Janssenf and Koen Janssens (2009): Chemical analysis of 16th to 19th century Limoges School ‘Painted enamel’ objects in three museums of The Low Countries. Interscience.com. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. (accessed April 2021).

20 Paola Venturelli (2011): Oro Dai Visconti Agli Sforza: Smalti e Oreficeria Nel Ducato di Milano. Silvana, Milan., no. 38, p. 194.

21 Eugène Müntz (1898): Les arts à la cour des papes: Innocent VIII, Alexandre VI, Pie III (1484-1503); recueil de documents inédits ou peu connus, publié sous les auspices de l’Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres. E. Leroux, pp. 105-07.

22 Two further impressive pax frames featuring painted enamels attributed to the Pénicaud workshop have recently been sold at auction: Piasa auction, 9 December 2016, lot 52 (ex-Piet-Lataudrie and Georges Salles collections) and Lempertz auction, November 2020, lot 2122 (ex-Goldschmidt and Richard von Schnitzler collections) (see cover images of this article).

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