The Louvre Opens a Fundraiser to Purchase Two Gothic Statuettes

1. Paris, around 1260-1280
Descent from the Cross,
Ivory - H. 23 cm x 24.2 cm x 30 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMNGP / Martine Beck-Coppola

23/10/12 - Fundraiser - Paris, Musée du Louvre - There exist very few 13th century ivory groups and none of them is complete ; many show the Virgin, like the Crowning at the Louvre. The museum also holds a Descent from the Cross (ill. 1), a Parisian Gothic work notable because of its rarity but also for the quality of its treatment. Made up of five figures, the group was missing a piece until today. In the center, Joseph of Arimathea is carrying the dead Christ ; the sculpture of these two figures reflects a great technical skill and the sharp overlapping folds are typical of the second half of the French 13th century. The iconography, however, is unusual as in most scenes, Christ taken down from the cross is generally held by the waist and dominates the composition whereas here the body is totally abandoned in the arms of Joseph of Arimathea who becomes the central figure ; his hands are covered with a cloth out of respect for the sacred body he is touching, thus recalling also the moment of the Elevation during the mass. On the left, Mary is kissing her Son’s hand and we can easily recognize the allegorical figure of the Church holding a chalice.
These four pieces joined the museum in 1896 then in 1947 Baron and Baronne Robert de Rothschild donated a fifth figure which was not immediately associated to the Descent from the Cross but was instead identified as a prophet ; in fact, a restorer even added a scroll in his hands. Danielle Gaborit-Chopin [1] at last proposed seeing Nicodemus removing the nails from Jesus’ feet, then associated it to the rest of the group.
This ensemble which must have been placed in an architectural setting, with the figures at different levels, was originally balanced out by other persons : Saint John, a traditional attendant at the Crucifixion, was probably on the right, symmetrically across from the Virgin, while the allegory of the Synagogue corresponded to that of the Church.

2. Descent from the Cross,
completed by Saint John and the Synagogue

These two missing figures (ill. 2) were recently found in a private collection and listed as National Treasures. The Synagogue, with its eyes blindfolded, is holding the tablets of the Law in its left hand and is supposed to have a broken spear in its right. Saint John is holding his Gospel and wipes his tears with the cloth from his robe.
These two small sculptures are stylistically similar to the other statuettes. We find the same refinement in the details, a similar treatment of the faces with high cheekbones, elongated eyes and a rather prominent nose. The robes of the Synagogue present the same cone-shaped folds breaking on the sides. The silhouettes are drawn-out and their attitude expresses a meditative pain. Finally, these two pieces also show traces of color and gilt.

The Louvre has just launched a fundraiser for their acquisition. The budget needed in able to purchase these two statuettes comes to 2.6 million euros. The Société des Amis du Louvre is contributing generously with a total of 1.3 million and Axa Art has added 500,000 euros. The balance is therefore a mere 800,000 euros to be found before 31st January 2013. Donations can be made notably on the site Tous mécènes.
We do hope that the Louvre will meet its fundraising goal in order to reunite this exceptional ensemble.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, mercredi 24 octobre 2012


[1] Danielle Gaborit-Chopin, "Nicodème travesti. La Descente de Croix d’ivoire du Louvre", La Revue de l’Art, 1988, n° 81, pp. 31-46.

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