ENAMEL in essence is glass powdered, made into a paste by the addition of water, colored by the various metallic oxides, applied as the artist may desire to the metallic base, and fused in the heat of the furnace. Whatever the technical method, be it cloisonné, champlevé, basse taille, or painted enamel, this vitrified paste is the medium with which the artist works. Cloisonné was the earliest method used. Upon the metal base, usually gold, the intricacies of the design were traced by means of tiny flattened wires soldered to the ground.. The cloisons, that is, the compartments so formed, were then filled with the various pastes, fused, and the surface smoothed and polished. This was the method of the Byzantine school. Champlevé, the mediaeval process, was the direct opposite of cloisonné. The artist with his burin hollowed out the metallic surface, later filling his design with the enamel to form a champleve or field of color raised to the original level of the surface. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries this technique reached the fullest development in the great French school of Limoges and the German schools of the Rhine and the Moselle.
In this collection there is one example of champlevé enamel, from Limoges, a Chasse in CASE B, dating from the second half of the thirteenth century. The chasse, the most primitive type of mediaeval reliquary, represents in form a gabled house or church and was placed upon the altar to house the relics of a saint or martyr. I t is particularly effective in color, the figures of the Blessed Saviour, Saint James and Saint John, the Agnus Dei and the angels, which are reserved in the copper gilt, contrasting splendidly with the enameled cobalt ground, the light blue and the turquoise of the medallions. In technique it shows workmanship typical of the later half of the thirteenth century when the figures were reserved in the metal and the background enameled, an exact reversal of the earlier practice which became general in Limoges enamels in the middle of the thirteenth century.
In the late thirteenth century, the Italian workman began to use a new technique. The metal plate, usually of silver, was engraved with the design or slightly modeled in relief, the entire surface being then covered with translucent enamel, the colors accentuating the lines of the design. This is the process we usually call basse taille. In this same case is an example of this translucent enamel, a Diptych of Italian workmanship, fifteenth century. One wing bears a representation of the Adoration of the Magi; the other, the Adoration of the Shepherds. It is a very splendid piece, the high lights and the flesh tones flashed in in opaque white, the engraved silver ground enhancing the blues, golds, pinks, and greens of the enamel.
This was almost entirely an Italian development. The Limoges workman had carried on the champlevé work, but the strong lines and designs of the earlier periods were replaced by a multitude of details. Fortunately toward the end of the fifteenth century there came a new development with the introduction of painted enamels, which completely supplanted the champlevé and for two centuries Limoges became once more the great center of the enameler’s art. This painted enamel was a complete revolution in technique. I t was found that the enamel needed no cloisons or channels to attach it to the surface, if the metal plate, usually of copper, was covered on both sides with the enamel. The face of the plate was therefore usually covered with a white enamel and the reverse with a contre enamel of waste. Upon the enamel base the design was worked out and laid in in the desired colors. In other words, it was painting in enamel, the colors being united with the base by fusion.
Seven examples of this technique are exhibited in the central case, CASE C. The earliest piece is the Kiss of Judas by “Monvaerni.” This, in all probability, was not the artist’s name, but by a curious mistake it has come to be applied to a class of primitives with certain characteristics of style which can be roughly dated to the last quarter of the fifteenth century. The dominant colors are blue and gold. The blue ground is sprinkled with clouds and stars of gold and the greater part of the robes are blue but with innumerable cross-hatchings of gold. While the composition is crowded and overdone, there is a splendid sincerity and a naiveté which cannot fail to appeal.
The great master of the early school was Nardon Penicaud, the first of an extraordinary family of enamel workers. He was born in the later half of the fifteenth century and the period of his greatest activity was between the years 1495 and 1520. We are especially fortunate in having in CASE C three very characteristic works from his hand, three Triptychs. Two have a central representation of the Adoration of the Shepherds, the wings of each, when taken together, representing the incident of the Annunciation; on one side the Angel Gabriel, on the other the Blessed Virgin. The third triptych bears the Annunciation upon the central plaque, the two wings representing the Circumcision and the Nativity. This last piece is a very fine example, the composition excellent and the colors subdued and rich. It bears the arms of Marsault de Parsay of the Limousin and those of the family of Van Ghistele, Flanders. They are united to form the “lozenge” at the base of the central plaque, the man’s arms to the “dexter” (spectator’s left), the woman’s to the “sinister” (spectator’s right). This would seem to imply that the widow Marsault de Parsay (née Van Ghistele) had ordered or acquired the triptych and had it mounted as a memorial to her husband. The curious thing is the incorrect heraldry and the shape of the shield, which would point to an earlier date.
Nardon Penicaud’s style is characteristic. The women’s faces have a mild expression, sometimes rather silly, redeemed by a sense of innocence and purity. The palette is restrained, and the colors warm and clear, usually dark blue, violet, and green. The overabundance of detail and the insistence on gold, so characteristic of ” Monvaerni,” is lacking, but the whole picture is studded with “jewels” solid lumps of glass fused upon the surface of the enamel. The flesh tones have the curious violet tinge characteristic of the early work, when the enameler had no reds, except a very deep shade, and was compelled to use a faint wash of manganese as a substitute.
But it is Léonard Limosin who is the most splendid figure in the long list of French enamelers. Some artists were his equal, a few his superior, but none surpassed him in personal fame and renown. He was born about 1505 at Limoges, but the decisive fact of his life was his removal to Paris at the command of the King. There he came into direct contact with the new movements, for François I was the great patron of the French Renaissance. In Nardon Penicaud we have the lingering Gothic influence; in Léonard Limosin the untrammeled art of the full Renaissance. His art covered a wide field, for he fashioned not only decorative pieces and plaques but a very large number of portraits. These portraits are his most characteristic works, since they constitute his personal contribution to the history of enameling. CASE C contains two very typical pieces, the Portraits of two well known Huguenots, François de Maurel and Claude Condinet. They are signed in a usual manner, L L, and both are dated 1550, a period when Léonard Limosin was at the height of his powers.
The other piece is a Plate by Jean Limosin, 1528-161o, a close relative of Léonard’s without a doubt, but it is impossible to establish the exact relationship. The plate is decorated with pure Renaissance arabesques and masks, the bowl with a most amusing representation of Abimelech gazing down from the top of a classic portico upon Isaac and Rebekah, while in the background the herdsmen of Gerak and Isaac strive for the wells of Esek and Sitnah. The artist has added the chapter of Genesis, Chapter 26, so that we shall make no mistake about the scene. The colors are very striking, the opaque colors contrasting with the paillons small areas of translucent enamel on a base of silver foil. The reverse is decorated with the gray monochrome of grisaille work.