Favorite Art Fact File
Who? Costanza Beltrami, IAS blog Staff Writer
What is one of your favorite artworks? A Marriage Casket produced at the turn of the fifteenth-century by the Embriachi workshop, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
…and your favorite detail? Two of the scenes on the side of the casket, representing the Greek Hero Jason killing a dragon, removing its teeth and then sowing them during his quest for the Golden Fleece
Why? Although surely expensive, this marriage casket and its mid-quality carving helps me imagine what a medieval houses would have looked like. I also love that the Ancient Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece could excite and interest medieval people as it still does today.
IASBlog (Costanza Beltrami) explains …
Marriage caskets such as this were often gifted to brides, who could use them to hold jewels or documents. This particular piece is made of carved bone plaques, which represent the story of Jason on the body, and eight virtues on the lid. The reliefs are set in a certosina frame, a marquetry technique where various types of wood, bone, metal and mother-of-pearl were arranged to form geometrical patterns.
The coupling of bone carving and certosina frames is typical of the Embriachi family, a dynasty of Italian sculptors and entrepreneurs who appeared in the late fourteenth-century in Florence, but later settled in Venice, a popular production centre for certosina furniture. Specializing in the carving of horse and ox bone, the Embriachi could imitate the color and smoothness of ivory, an extremely expensive material carved in large numbers and with unsurpassed skill in 14th-century France, but at a much lower price. Next to large-scale altarpieces commissioned by the Certosa di Pavia monastery or by Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, the Embriachi also mass produced stock items with mythological or romance scenes, among which the V&A’s marriage casket.
The myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece represented on the casket is timeless — it was composed around the 8th century BC, although the oldest surviving version is Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, dated to c. 200 BC. It narrates the quest of Jason and the Argonauts, a group of Greek heroes and demi-gods who set out to find the Golden Fleece and to regain Jason’s throne as King of Iolcus, usurped by his uncle Pelias. They accomplished this feat with the help of the sorceress Medea, although they actually failed to regain the throne and settled in Corinth.
The casket shows many of Jason’s adventures, now jumbled by nineteenth-century restorations: at the beginning of the trip, the hero kneels before King Pelias, receiving the promise that his throne will be returned in exchange for the Golden Fleece; then, he meets Medea, and they fall in love; thanks to Medea’s potions, Jason yokes and plows a field with two fire-breathing oxen, as requested by King aeetes, owner of the Fleece; afterwards, Jason kills the dragon guarding the Fleece, sows his teeth and fights with the men emerging from the field, before finally the Golden Fleece; eventually, Jason and Medea sail away. In the remaining two scenes, Jason stands with a man and a woman on a shore, and then kneels gesturing to Medea who is being rowed away in a boat, a possible reference to Medea’s flight from Corinth after she murdered her own son in anger at Jason’s unfaithfulness and marriage with Glauce, daughter of the King of Corinth.
References: “Marriage Casket,” V&A Online Catalogue, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O157340/marriage-casket-casket-workshop-of-embriachi/; Frank Minney. “Bone.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T009854; Antonia Boström. “Embriachi.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T025969.
Workshop of the Embriachi, Marriage Casket, wood, bone and horn, 37.6 cm x 33.9 cm, ca. 1390-1410, with later restorations. Victoria and Albert Museum, inv. no. 4304:1-1857. Images: © Victoria and Albert Museum.
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