Wednesday, April 30, 2014

St Sebastien : a stunning ivory sculpture rediscovered

A few years ago, a stunning ivory sculpture reappeared on the art market after several centuries out of view, during a limited time exhibition. Stunning because it was one of the largest ivory sculpture created, of extremely high quality of sculpting, that could be compared to great artists' masterpieces in marble.

The sculpture transmits lots of emotion, and the exhibition title summarized it perfectly : ''Agony, Ecstasy, Ivory". It was the Saint Sebastian of Jacobus Agnesius, done around 1638.

''The statuette represents a young man with a heroic, muscular build, and long and thick curly hair, who is naked save for a loincloth. He stands on his right foot, with his left leg, bent at the knee, raised and extended behind him. His arms are crossed in a complex, asymmetrical position as they jut upward over his head and in front of his body. Cords of rope bind his left wrist and right elbow. His torso arcs forcefully to the proper left, and he throws his head back over his left shoulder. As originally mounted, the figure was shown tied to a tree, which was made either of wood or metal. The figure’s complex and twisting stance is meant to convey both the weight of his body hanging down from the tree (note, for example, the tension of his painfully extended arms), and the violent thrusts of his body as he writhes in pain and tries to free himself.''

''The anatomy is rendered with astonishing precision. Every detail of the musculature and skeleton is recorded. On the back of the figure, for instance, the artist has correctly noted the trapezius, deltoid, infraspinatus and latissimus dorsi muscles; he has even carefully indicated the vertebrae of the spine as they ascend the median furrow. Likewise, Agnesius has depicted the bones, muscles and cartilage of the arms, chest, and rib cage with great exactitude. Studying the thorax, one can see such details as the manubrium, the xyphoid process and floating ribs all precisely indicated.''

Andrew Butterfield, dealer who discovered it, said “It is one of the largest and most astonishingly detailed sculptures in its representation of the anatomy and has a degree of raw emotional power found only in very great works of art. The statue is two feet tall, twice the size of what is normally considered large for a work in ivory. Given its scale and its quality, it was almost certainly commissioned for a prince or other royal patron."

Mr Butterfield, who is also a researcher, treasure hunter, and specialist in Renaissance and Baroque sculpture, bought it from a South American dealer in 2010, who did not know who the sculptor was. Mr Butterfield arranged the sculpture cleaning by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 The result is a work of extraordinary beauty and power. “With its luscious yet exacting portrayal of the human body, its grim depiction of emotional and physical suffering, and its suggestion of the exaltation of religious release, Agnesius’s Saint Sebastian is almost without parallel,” said Butterfield. "Size alone would not make the work desirable, of course. In carving this nearly naked martyr-saint, who was tied to a tree and shot with arrows in the third century, Agnesius used the curvature of the tusk to create an arced, anguished body, supplementing it with two pieces for the arms."

Little is known about the life of Jacobus Agnesius, who was most likely from northern Europe, but studied and worked extensively in Italy. Works by his hand are exceedingly rare, and up to now only two have been universally recognized: the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew in the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi, France, signed by the artist and dated 1638; and the Saint Sebastian in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. Each of these works is a masterpiece, noteworthy both for the unsurpassed skill of the carving, as well as the dramatic representation of intense suffering.

This sculpture was exhibited for the first time to the public early 2011 during the exhibition called 'Agony, Ecstasy, Ivory: The Saint Sebastian of Agnesius, A Rediscovered Masterpiece and A Selection of Italian and Other European Old Master paintings' at Moretti Fine Art / Adam Williams Fine Art, 24 East 80th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues.

Some quotes about this sculpture:

"The carving is amongst the largest ivory figures ever made in Renaissance and Baroque times", writes ivory expert Eike Schmidt, head of the Minneapolis Institute of Art's Department of Decorative Arts, Textiles & Sculpture, in an essay commissioned for a catalogue on the work.

"It is a powerful, expressive work invested with an extraordinary understanding of anatomy," says Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery in London.