Triptych Pendant depicting Martyrdom of Saint Barbara, Mary Magdalen, and Saint Gereon

Pendant triptych comprising a central box, hinged wings, a predella, and a crowning superstructure. The inside of the wings and the box are enameled with opaque red and translucent red, green, lapis blue, purple, and amber. Both clear and amber enamels are placed over gold foil. Four arches surmounted by two rows of oval windows decorate both the outside of the wings and the inside of the central panel. On the inside, the windows alternate horizontally and vertically between blue and green translucent enamel with the interstices filled with red opaque enamel. A thin gilded plate from which the design has been cut out is laid over the enamel. With an overall engraved dot-and-lozenge pattern, the gilded wings are framed by a simple soldered molding.

A single bent strip forms the sides of the central box onto which is fastened (with two rivets visible on the back) a representation of the beheading of Saint Barbara in cast gilded silver. Saint Barbara kneels beside her tower, while her father, dressed as a warrior, raises his sword behind her. Three spiral colonnettees attached to a hilly, engraved ground terminate in branches that intertwine to form the two flat arches framing the scene. When the triptych is open, Mary Magdalene (on the left) and Saint Gereon (on the right) face the central scene. Both stand within pointed arches against finely hatched blue grounds. These arches, with intricate scrolls over translucent red enamel in the spandrels, are cut from the same plaque as the molding around the edge that is soldered to the enameled plate below. Both figures have gold faces and finely hatched amber halos. Appropriately, Saint Gereon is dressed as a knight. His red mantle with a gilded border is lined in amber, and his blue armor has short breastplate with a heavy amber collar and a green skirt (imitating satin or velvet) with a tooled amber border. He wears pointed red shoes and plumed baret over his long, curly amber hair and carries all of his attributes: a shield, a sword, and a banner. The latter curls behind his head and is seen from the reverse on the right. Mary Magdalene wears a green tunic with long sleeves below a short-sleeved narrow gown of red damask (with its design in gold). It is tied above the waist with a long blue sash decorated with lozenge-and-dot design. Her mantle is purple with a green lining and her striped turban is green and red. She holds her attribute, an ointment jar (the vessel in one hand and the top in the other) that she used to anoint Christ's feet.

Above a cornice of palmettes and emanating from spiral colonnettes soldered to the sides of the central box are branches with leaves that intertwine and culminate in a central loop. The predella soldered to the base has trefoil openwork designs and a loop attached to the bottom. The date "1504" has been inscribed on the bottom with (as revealed under high magnification) the same pointed tool as the windows on the wings.

The kneeling figure about to be beheaded in the center of this triptych pendant is Saint Barbara, the legendary third-century daughter of a wealthy pagan who reacted violently when she converted to Christianity.1 The father was later struck down by lightning, and Barbara became a patron saint who protected people against lightning and sudden death. Wearing this luxurious miniature altar dedicated to Saint Barbara would have established its medieval owner as devout and pious and perhaps have placed her under the saint’s protection.

When opened, the triptych reveals Mary Magdalene on the left and Saint Gereon on the right. Mary Magdalene wears her characteristic blue-green tunic over a red damask gown and holds her attribute, a vessel of ointment used on Christ’s feet before his burial. Saint Gereon wears a red mantle over blue armor, a plumed hat, and pointed shoes. He too carries his attributes, in this case a sword, shield, and banner. Historical accounts say that Emperor Maximian executed Gereon in the early fourth century for his refusal to make a pagan sacrifice.

The wearer of this pendant was probably associated in some way with the city of Cologne, Germany. Saint Gereon has a basilica dedicated to him there, and Saint Barbara appears as one of six female martyred saints in The Virgin and Child with Saints, a triptych painted in Cologne about 1510 (now in the National Gallery of Australia).

The enamel technique used to create this jewel is known as basse-taille. It entails engraving or chasing a low-relief or intaglio design in gold or silver and then filling the spaces with powdered enamels, which are then fired in a kiln. This pendant used both opaque and translucent enamels. The metal is finely hatched in places where the clear enamels were applied over gold foil. The date 1504 has been engraved on the underside of the central element, and a bail at the bottom of it suggests that it may have once supported a pearl drop.

Yvonne J. Markowitz, “Triptych Pendant Depicting Martyrdom of Saint Barbara, Mary Magdalen, and Saint Gereon” in Artful Adornments: Jewelry from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by Yvonne J. Markowitz (Boston: MFA Publications, 2011), 40.

Provenance

1939, Julia A. Berwind (b. 1865 - d. 1961), New York and Newport, RI; November 9-11, 1939, Berwind sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, lot 363, to the Brummer Gallery, New York (stock no. N4481); 1947, sold by Brummer to the MFA for $1000. (Accession Date: November 13, 1947)

Credit Line

1941 Purchase Fund

Triptych Pendant depicting Martyrdom of Saint Barbara, Mary Magdalen, and Saint Gereon

  • German (Cologne), Medieval (Gothic), 1504
  • Maker Unidentified,
Cologne, Germany
Dimensions
Overall (open): 7.2 x 6.3 x 0.7 cm (2 13/16 x 2 1/2 x 1/4 in.) Overall: 7.2 x 3.6 cm (2 13/16 x 1 7/16 in.)
Medium or Technique
Basse-taille enamel and gilding on silver
Classification
Enamels
Accession Number
47.1450a-b
On view
Catalonian Chapel Gallery, in honor of I. W. Colburn - 254A

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