I have mentioned more than once that woodworking fascinates me – so often the work of a master wood carver reveals the soul of both the creator and the wood he has worked on.
This remarkable set of choir stalls, chiefly made from walnut, are from a Monastery in Pavia. Made circa 1500 they have pride of place in a large room in the Bode Museum, and are fine examples of carving in the elaborate detailing at the ends and columns as well as the art of wood inlay known as marquetry.
When I first looked at the scenes they appeared to be simply reflections of town life somewhere in Italy but then I noticed a pair of figures in one scene – two women embracing at the door of a house. Their postures mirrored what is often seen in representations of the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary. It appears that the artisan created each scene to include an episode from the story of the Virgin Mary using events from the Official Gospels and the apocryphal Gospel of James;. But here they are seen as part of everyday life in a town not as a special event. Perhaps it was done to remind us that often momentous events take place in the most mundane settings.
The birth of the Virgin who was, according to James, the daughter of Anna and Joachim.
Amongst the apocryphal stories is one of several men into who’s guardianship the priests wish to place the Virgin. When Joseph presents himself miraculously his staff broken into bloom signifying that he was to be the chaste protector of Mary and the earthly father of the Christ.
The only panel which is based on a recognized Gospel account is the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth – again a favorite subject for artists. Strangely that most frequently used of subjects,The Annunciation is not included amongst these panels.
It would appear that the artist ran out of inspiration for the last two panels that show only empty village settings.
Though it may well be that he moved on to another project elsewhere and another artist took over his work. Or perhaps the workshop may have run out of the necessary materials and he created scenes with the woods and veneers at hand.
Interspersed with this narrative are panels depicting the various instruments of the passion and for the celebration of mass.
A thurible sits ready and smoking to cense the elements of the mass – chalice and pyx in one panel as empty as the tomb. The pincers and hammer at the ready to do their part in the crucifixion.
As with most woodwork from the period the creators’ name may well be hidden somewhere within the design – though these pieces were to the honour and glory of God, artistic vanity and rightful pride of workmanship demanded some small recognition. According to the Museum listing it is the product of the Mantuan workshop of one Bartolemeo di Polli – I’ve come up with nothing on him – with additions by others unknown.
Their names may have faded or be unknown but their craftsmanship remains as a testimony to their days spent on this earth mastering their art.
27 novembre – San Primitivo