by Michael Riddick
A group of three sculptures observed independently in the private art market appear to be the workmanship of a single unidentified master (Fig. 01, a-c). All three artworks are carved in walnut and represent the individual saints: Jacques,1 James2 and an unidentifiable saint who is probably John the Baptist.3 Their condition is wanting and two preserve only the heads of what must have probably formed complete figures. The bust of St. James is approximately half-the-scale of the other two saints whose scale are commensurate4 and who may have once belonged to a uniform group of statuary displayed either in niches or more probably along the wall of a religious setting as adjudged by the flattened reverse on the figure of St. Jacques.
The striking appearance of the saint’s faces are skillfully sculpted and suggest the work of an accomplished artist. Their elongated faces, prominent cheekbones, heavy eyelids, arched brows, half-circle eyes, and intricately carved hair—distinguishing itself against the smoothed features of the saint’s foreheads—offer a visual assessment both noble and penetrating.
Fragments of the original polychrome survive on the statue of St. Jacques featuring a color palette in-keeping with the traditions of Northern France during the 15th century. Indeed, the figure of St. Jacques was suggested as representative of the sculptural milieu of the Loire Valley on account of the saint’s facial features and its facture in walnut.5 The sculptures confidently pertain to the High Gothic artistic period of France during the 15th century.
Within the Loire Valley an immediate comparison with these saints can be made against the surviving statuary flanking the walls of the Sainte-Chapelle at Châteaudun Castle (Fig. 02, a-b). These elaborate and accomplished stone statues, sans their naturalism, share a similar visual language as the present group of saints with regard to their facial characteristics and draperies. The chapel was erected by the French military leader, Jehan Dunois between 1451-93, to house a fragment of the True Cross given to him by his half-brother, King Charles VII. It is believed these statues were conceived in an anonymous workshop along the Loire Valley during the last third of the 15th century.
A smaller statue within the chapel, of slightly later facture, is believed to portray Jehan and is perhaps most analogous with the group of walnut saints (Fig. 03). In particular, the feature of Jehan’s upper bridge-of-the-nose and wrinkled forehead, delineating his elder years, generally compares with the bust of John the Baptist. It could be imagined that the sculptor responsible for these wooden saints was in close proximity with the unidentified workshop responsible for the statuary at Châteaudun.6
The distinctively bulbous eyes featured on the group of saints may hearken back to earlier Romanesque influences adorning French architecture and sculpture within the Loire Valley from the 11th through 12th centuries. A wood-carved and polychrome Crowned Head of Christ from this period provides a context from which our master’s style is distantly indebted, featuring a long face, arched brows, linearly carved moustache and forked beard terminating in two alike coils (Fig. 04).
Apart from the visual relationship of these sculptures with those inside the Loire Valley of France, other analogies may be observed in the dissemination of the French High Gothic style into the Iberian Peninsula of Spain where numerous Northern Gothic sculptors were attracted on account of its growing wealth and the myriad opportunities introduced through commissions from the church, nobility and merchant class in 15th century Iberia.
Indeed, the bust of St. James was proposed as the workmanship of an artist in close proximity with the Iberian sculptor, Sebastián de Almonacid,7 celebrated for his carved figures executed for the choirstalls of Plascencia Cathedral and his contributions to the high altarpiece of Toledo Cathedral whose aegis was under the artistic legacy of Egas Cueman from Brussels.8
However, a more favorable analogy to the saints is perhaps observed in the arrival of High Gothicism in other parts of Iberia. To a lesser extent there is a general homogeny between the saints and the figures along the portal and tympanum of Santa María la Real of Aranda de Duero in Burgos, executed by Simon de Colonia, who in 1481 would become the maestro mayor, or chief builder, of Burgos Cathedral.9 To a greater extent, however, even more favorable parallels can be made between the saints and the work of Lorenzo Mercadante de Bretaña, a French sculptor active in-and-around Seville between 1454-67 and earlier in Zaragoza in 1446 where he is indentured for two years under the auspices of the sculptor, Fortaner de Usesques. It’s possible Mercadante may have collaborated with Fortaner on executing the figure of the Virgen Blanca kept in the chapel dedicated to her inside Zaragoza Cathedral.10 In particular, the drapery of this statue superficially corresponds with that of the St. Jacques sculpture.
More comparative, however, is the life-size terracotta figures Mercadante executed for the Doors of the Nativity and Baptism of Christ at Seville Cathedral with the figures’ stylized hair, high cheek bones, bulbous eyes and heavy lids that provide a similar synthesis of manner plausibly linking our sculptor to a direct awareness of Mercandante’s work (Fig. 05). However, the finer details—distinguished by the use of modeled terracotta versus chiseled wood—reveal evident differences. Further, the expressive naturalism imbued in Mercadante’s figures is absent in the austere Gothicism of the wooden saints whose maker is either contemporaneous to Mercadante, precluding him in favor of an earlier style, or altogether a later follower still dependent on Gothic modalities.
Although a fanciful notion, the lack of knowledge concerning Mercadante’s origins and activity in France, before his appearance in Iberia, could suggest the possibility that the walnut sculptures of saints are potentially influenced by the earliest part of Mercadante’s career in Northern France. His recruitment from the Île-de-France before his arrival in Iberia is closer in proximity with the Loire Valley than the region of Brittany from which he descended. If the provenance of the St. Jacques and Baptist sculptures are believed to have been kept within or in close proximity with their cities of acquisition, it would certainly place their locus inside or in immediate proximity with the Île-de-France. However, the austere temperament of the busts appear void of the Northern realism largely introduced to France by way of Claus Sluter and others during the late 14th century and seem to depend more on a traditional Gothic mode somewhere close to Mercadante or even possibly preceding him. In addition to stone carvers there were also various woodcarvers arriving to Iberia from France during this period, of which our sculptor could be one yet-to-be-identified candidate.11
Another sculptural group depicting the Baptism of Christ, executed in terracotta for the tympanum of the Door of the Baptism at Seville Cathedral, likewise shares parallel characteristics with our group of saints (Fig. 06). The portal appears to have involved the work of French sculptors as indicated by the presence of several fleur-de-lys along its facade, at the height of the gable, which Juan Clemente Rodríguez Estévez has suggested is representative of the city of Rouen in France from where the Cathedral’s mid-15th century organizer, Carlí Gautier, was descendent.12 While Mercadante would have been responsible for the execution of this tympanum he appears not to have completed it13 and it is believed it was left to his immediate atelier, perhaps an assistant, while later portions of the overall completion for the Door of the Baptism were eventually delegated to the Iberian sculptor Pedro Millán.14
The elusive origin of these wooden saints and their maker remain a mystery, one perhaps lost, and further obscured by the serial destruction of religious art during the French Revolution of 1799. However, if further information should come-to-light concerning the woodcarvers arriving in Iberia from France during the mid-to-late 15th century, one might pause to consider this unknown master as a possible participant in that epoch, yet-to-be-identified.
1 Binoche et Giquello auction, 17 July 2020, lot 183.
2 Sam Fogg, dealer. Item no. 17481.
3 Me Thonier auction, 12 February 2022, lot 320.
4 The statue of St. Jacques is approximately 113 cm (h); the bust of John the Baptist is approximately 23 cm (h); and the bust of St. James is 12.5 cm (h).
5 Laurence Fligny, email communication (June 2020).
6 Nicola Jennings has commented on the visual relationships between Lorenzo Mercadante’s terracotta statues at Seville Cathedral and the statuary of Châteaudun Castle. We are led to wonder if both the author of the walnut saints and Mercadante were aware of these sculptures. Nicola Jennings (2016): Lorenzo Mercadante, primus inter pares of Northern European sculptors in fifteenth-century Castlie in Lorenzo Mercadante de Bretaña. Virgen del Buen Fin. Coll & Cortes., pp. 12-45.
7 Sam Fogg, email communication (June 2020).
8 Dorothee Heim (2006): Rodrigo Alemán und die Toledaner Skulptur um 1500: Studien zum künstlerischen Dialog in Europa, Kiel.
9 It is worth interjecting that Simon de Colonia was originally a resident of Cologne, the region to which the bust of St. John the Baptist had been attributed (see auction catalog entry, note 3). Simon’s father, the talented architect, Juan de Colonia, was instrumental in influencing the architectural milieu of Iberia, serving as architect for the two towers along the west façade of Burgos Cathedral which would import the innovative architectural forms of Cologne and the Middle Rhine into Iberia.
10 Javier Ibáñez Fernández and Diego Domínguez Montero (2015): Antes de Sevilla: Lorenzo Mercader (Mercadante) de Bretaña en Zaragoza (1446-1448) in Transferencias e intercambios entre las Coronas de Ara¬gón y Castilla a mediados del siglo XV in Artigrama, no. 30, pp. 169-191.
11 Francisco Reina Giráldez (1987): Llegada a Sevilla y primeras obras del escultor Lorenzo mercadante de Bretaña in Archivo hispalense: Revista histórica, literaria y artística, vol. 70, no. 215, pp. 143-152.
12 Juan Clemente Rodríguez Estévez (1998): Los canteros de la Catedral de Sevilla, del Gótico al Renacimiento. Seville, pp. 36-43.
13 Teresa Laguna Paúl (2002): Las portadas del Bautismo y del Nacimiento de la Catedral de Sevilla in Bienes culturales: revista del Instituto del Patrimonio Histórico Español, no. 1, pp. 83-100.
14 Some scholars have attributed the tympanum to Pedro Millán and his workshop and while there are consistencies with his workmanship there are differences as well. For the tympanum’s association with Millán see José Gestoso (1884): Pedro Millán, ensayo biográfico-crítico. Seville, pp. 27-38.