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Panel from a Diptych Showing the Adoration of the Magi

Panel from a Diptych Showing the Adoration of the Magi
German or Flemish (active 14th century)
Panel from a Diptych Showing
the Adoration of the Magi

Third quarter of the fourteenth century
Gift of Museum Associates

In celebration of the Museum of Art and Archaeology's fiftieth anniversary, Museum Associates Board of Directors gave attendees at this year's Paintbrush Ball the opportunity to actively be involved in this "Golden Opportunity" to purchase an acquisition commemorating the Museum's anniversary. The ivory panel was chosen by Museum staff with recommendation from the Department of Art History and Archaeology as an important teaching tool and addition to the Museum's medieval collection. Pledge bids were taken during the live auction at the Ball, raising enough funds to purchase this small, important piece of artwork.

Its Use and History
by Anne Rudloff Stanton
Associate Professor
Department of Art History and Archaeology

Medieval worshippers used many types of visual aids in their devotions, from the monumental images that enriched their churches to the illuminated prayer books that guided the contemplations of the upper classes. Many wealthy people also owned small sculptures and folding diptychs made of precious materials that, depending on their size and format, could function as altarpieces for private chapels or as tiny, jewel-like 'books' that could be carried about, tucked into a sleeve or belt-pouch. An influx of elephant ivory into the European market in the later medieval period translated into a wealth of luxury items, but ivory had long been a prized material. Not only did it foster a sense of connection to objects described in the Bible, like the throne of the wise King Solomon (3 Kings 10:18), but the creamy, smooth material could be carved into minute forms and patterns and could be further enlivened with paints and gold leaf.

This ivory panel (3" high x 1¾" wide) is the left wing of a diptych, the right border of which is now lost; the style of its carving suggests that it was made in Germany or the Netherlands in the late-fourteenth century. The hole in the center top suggests that the panel, or even the whole diptych, was suspended from a chain or ribbon at some point in its history. The scene depicts the Adoration of the Magi: beneath a canopy of trefoil arches, the seated Virgin Mary holds the Christ Child on her lap as he turns toward the Magus kneeling before them. One of the standing Magi holds his pot of myrrh or frankincense in one hand and looks down at the seated group; the other turns back toward his companion while pointing up toward the star of Bethlehem. Originally, the enlarged pointing hand also would have guided the viewer's eye toward the opposing leaf of the diptych, which most likely depicted either the Crucifixion, or the Last Judgment. This object would have been read from left to right, from Christ's birth to his death, or to his second coming, and would have evoked the cycle of the Christian liturgical year, and the entire scope of Christian history, for its owner.

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