Friday 17 November 2017

Leonardo and the Viaticum Cabinet

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Salvator Mundi, painted circa 1500. Oil on walnut panel.
Christie's, New York

 This painting by Leonardo da Vinci was auctioned on 15 November 2017 at Christie’s in New York.  Twenty minutes into the sale, a winning bid of $400 million USD was entered by an anonymous buyer. After associated fees, the sale price of over $450,000,000 is the highest ever paid for a work of art at auction.  

The big news in the art world this week was the sale of Salvator Mundi, the recently rediscovered painting by Leonardo da Vinci, for a record-setting $450 million USD. It is one of sixteen extant works attributed to the Renaissance master, as well as the last known Leonardo painting that was held in private hands. It remains to be seen whether the anonymous new owner will allow it to be displayed for public consumption.

Salvator Mundi, "Saviour of the World", depicts a frontal portrait of Jesus Christ dressed in contemporary garb with his right hand raised in blessing and his left holding a transparent orb. The same mysterious quality that has made Leonardo's Mona Lisa the most recognizable painting in the world is here captured in the otherworldly gaze of Christ's amber eyes.

Painted around 1500, the work once belonged to King Charles I of England. As the painting changed hands and deteriorated it was repeatedly touched up - a common practice at the time. Eventually, the overpainted original was believed to be one of the many copies produced by other artists. In 1958, it sold for only £45.

The story of Salvator Mundi's rediscovery, which began in 2005, is a fascinating read.

So fascinating, in fact, that it made us wonder if there was a hidden Leonardo painting lurking in the bowels of the Archives. Had any of our bishops snapped up an Old Master of questionable provenance en route to their ad limina visit?

The results of our search were, sadly if inevitably, much more humble. We turned up a single reproduction of the second most famous painting in the world: Leonardo's The Last Supper. Hardly surprising, given that it is believed to be the most mass-reproduced work of all time.

Top: Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-1498, oil/tempera on plaster
Below: Reproduction of The Last Supper, viaticum cabinet detail, ARCAT Artifacts Special Collection, AF.285

The Last Supper was painted on the refectory wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie convent in Milan. Leonardo used experimental techniques and paint, and the huge mural started to deteriorate almost as soon as it was finished. It has suffered under the hands of many would-be restorers over the centuries. Further deterioration occurred when the refectory was used as a stable by Napoleon's troops and when its roof was torn away by Allied bombing during WWII, which left the paint exposed to the elements for several years.

Suffice it to say, both the original painting and our reproduction have suffered from environmental exposure.

It was a rediscovery for us nonetheless. This Last Supper reproduction had originally been described in our catalogue as part of an ambry - a recessed cupboard in a church used for storing holy oils. However, when we pulled the artifact out of storage, it was clear that it was not an ambry. Further research led us to conclude it was, in fact, a viaticum cabinet, also known and a "sick call box," or a "last rites cabinet."

Viaticum refers to the Eucharist given to a sick or dying person as part of the last rites. The Latin meaning is "provision for a journey"; this final Eucharist is the spiritual nourishment that will fortify a dying person on their passage from this world to the next. Before Vatican II, it was common for Catholic households to have a viaticum cabinet with all the provisions for a visiting priest to administer last rites stored inside.

Artfacts Special Collection, AF.285
Viaticum cabinet

Why settle for one Old Master when you can have two?
The upper portion of the cabinet holds a statuette of the Pietà, its composition appropriated from Michelangelo's masterpiece, which resides in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. 

Artfacts Special Collection, AF.285

The Last Supper adorns a door that opens to reveal a storage compartment.
Before Vatican II, it was common for Catholic households to have a viaticum cabinet with all the provisions for a visiting priest to administer last rites stored inside.

This particular cabinet was donated to ARCAT by a family in 2004. It seems to be a popular model mass-produced in the 1930s and 1940s and sold through ecclesiastical supply catalogs. You can see similar examples here.*

Out of the box, this viaticum cabinet would have been stocked with supplies, including a glass bottle for holy water, a paten, a box of absorbant cotton and an instruction booklet. However, over time, families would use the storage compartment for keeping accumulated religious items, such as medals, rosaries, candles and holy cards.

Artfacts Special Collection, AF.289

This viaticum cabinet came equipped with a glass bottle with the instructions:

Artfacts Special Collection, AF.286 to AF.292

Families often used the storage compartment for keeping accumulated religious items, such as these medals and rosaries that were found inside our viaticum cabinet. 

Though it's not a priceless work of ark, this viaticum cabinet is a piece of Catholic material and domestic culture and an interesting rediscovery at ARCAT.

* Sally M. Promey, "Viaticum, Last Rites Cabinet, Sick Call Set," Constellation, in Conversations: An Online Journal of the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion (2014), doi:10.22332/con.cons.2014.1

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