Art History Paper Essay, Research Paper
November 12, 2000
Art History Paper
Italian Monstrance in the RISD Museum
The Early Renaissance Room is small and square with burgundy colored walls. These characteristics give the view of the room a sense of going from the darkness of the Middle Ages to the rebirth of the renaissance, which is showed in the light colored adjacent room. Coming through the store entrance, one can experience the development of art through time. First one finds the roman and Greek sculpture room, which leads to the early Christian and then to the early renaissance. This allows the visitor to understand the pieces according to the period of time in which they were done.
The main piece of the room is The Entombment of Christ, which is a sculpture set up as an altar. It is surrounded by paintings with religious subject matter, which were done around the same period of time. Across from the altar, to the left there is a small sculpture of a Pieta which represents the Virgin Mary holding Christ at the moment of his death. To the right there is a glass case with a series of objects that are representations of the art and lifestyle of the mentioned period. Apart from two platters which are mounted on the walls, it is only inside the case where a set of non religious elements are found within the room. Some of these elements include an Italian Pharmacy Jar, an Italian Casket with couples and love scenes represented on it, a medallion, a coin and an Italian storage jar. Also inside the glass case there are a few religious objects from the 16th century such as a Venetian Goblet and a Spanish Monstrance (40.002).
The monstrance is about 12 inches tall and made in gold-coated silver. It is very well carved and it has an interesting display of small details, which shows a good knowledge of the medium by the artist. The general form of the piece is perfectly symmetrical and it has a tubular composition created by a set of arches and columns. It has a smooth but complex look to it, created by carving elaborate details on a smooth silver surface.
As the description on the Museum label explains, it epitomizes the Gothic style because it has most of the elements of a gothic cathedral. On the top point there is leaf which might be representative of a roman ideal, or just part of a code of arms. These leaves create the form of a cross to imply the religious character of the piece. Moving down, a crown shape is clearly distinguished in the way small columns are set in a circular form around the central pyramid shape. The small columns lead to gothic pointed arches also set in a circular way. Further down another set of arches are set around, creating an empty space in the center of the piece. On the outside walls there are representations of flying buttresses and gargoyles which where originally used to support the weight of the walls and as part of the draining systems respectively. In the case of the monstrance they are just used to epitomize the gothic style.
Up to this point the piece resembles a Gothic Cathedral. From this point down the piece consists of a sort of pole or handle in which the cathedral is placed. This area is much more simple. It only has two bands without much detail and a third smaller band on the upper section which might symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at the moment of his death. The base of the piece is simple, it seems to be made with a thicker silver layer and it has a circular form with loops that represents a type of flower. Throughout the whole piece different flower patterns are used, especially a four-leaf flower which is constantly repeated in the upper area of the piece.
The general form of the monstrance, as it was mentioned before, resembles a Gothic Cathedral. This probably has to do with its original function, which is to hold the consecrated Host for it to be adored. This is a tradition only seen in Christian churches, therefore the form of the piece in which the host, which is the representation of the body of Christ, is placed, is a church to represent the presence of Christ within his church. The area where the host is placed is elevated in this particular piece by the base to represent its closeness to heaven and therefore its holy character. This was a technique also used in gothic churches. Architects would build them creating a visual effect of elongation and therefore portray a sense of elevation, of being closer to heaven.
It is interesting to consider that, although the piece is heavily decorated on the outside, its inside is completely smooth. This was probably done because of the delicacy of the host that was to be placed inside. Also it might be influenced by the dematerialization characteristic of the time. Another reason might be that the host was to be admired by the faithful from a distance; because of its celestial character, the piece was not supposed to be carried or studied by anyone, so maybe the artist decided that it was not important to elaborate the interior of the piece.
It is important to note that because of the way the piece is set up inside and on the back of the glass case, it is very hard to appreciate certain details it has to offer; it would be more appropriate for it to be placed closer to the front or on its own, outside the case so that it could be fully appreciated. On the other hand it is appropriately placed within the museum. It belongs to the time period within which it is placed and it is important that it is displayed because it is a good representation of the transition between the late middle ages and the early renaissance.