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February Treasure of the Month

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February Treasure of the Month

A painted enamel dish depicting Apollo and the Muses by Martial Courteys, Limoges, France, c. 1580

The Treasure of the Month series offers the opportunity to highlight less well-known works from the collection as well as to look with fresh eyes on beloved masterpieces. This month we focus on this painted enamel dish depicting Apollo and the Muses by Martial Courteys.

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This magnificently enamelled dish, a masterpiece of artistic and technical virtuosity on a copper base, is one of the most ambitious works by the superb Limoges enameller Martial Courteys. Little is known about Courteys, whose father and brother were also enamellers. He is first recorded in 1579 and had died by late December 1592.

The subject of the dish, Apollo and the Muses, is inspired by Classical mythology. The scene is set on Mount Parnassus in Greece, sacred to the god Apollo and the nine Muses. In antiquity, Apollo was associated with musical harmony, while the Muses were believed to be goddesses of creative inspiration, and also linked to learning. As a result, Mount Parnassus was connected with both music and poetry. At the centre, seated on the highest crag, Apollo plays a lira da braccio. The Muses accompany him on their instruments. The young woman pouring water from a vase is the nymph Castalia, who threw herself into a stream when pursued by Apollo. It became known as the Castalian spring, and was believed to be a source of poetic inspiration. These figures are all dressed all’antica — in the style of the ancients. The winged horse is Pegasus, who was symbolic of Fame, particularly fame associated with poetic genius. The scene is observed by two wreathed poets, perhaps intended for the ancient poets Homer and Virgil. Martial Courteys has inscribed his initials in gold at the centre of the dish. The owner’s coat of arms, suspended from the tree, has not been identified.

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The back of the dish

The scene is ultimately derived from Raphael’s fresco in the Stanza della Segnatura at the Vatican in Rome, which dates to around 1510-11. This became widely known through Marcantonio Raimondi’s related engraving, produced around 1517–20. In about 1556-7 Giorgio Ghisi engraved a version derived from Raphael. It was copied by the French Renaissance designer Etienne Delaune, whose version may be the source here. The subject became increasingly popular during the sixteenth century. In France around mid-century it was the subject of two frescoes at the royal château of Fontainebleau.

The symmetrically arranged, playful grotesque ornament around the border, which is also indebted to Classical precedent, was used by Courteys on several other enamels.

The back of the dish comes as a revelation. At its centre, a kaleidoscopic feast of grotesque ornament evokes prints by Delaune with similarly radiating ornament and strapwork. The distinctive arabesque ornament on the border is closely comparable with a design for Moresque border ornament published by Baltazar Sylvius in 1554.

This dish is a tour de force of the enamellers’ art, from the fine delicacy of the draughtsmanship and the range and subtlety of the palette, to the dexterity with which silver foil has been laid beneath translucent turquoise enamel to convey the texture of drapery.

- Suzanne Higgott, Curator of Glass, Limoges Painted Enamels, Earthenwares and Renaissance Furniture.

Gallery Talks

Thursday 13 and Monday 24 February at 1 pm with Suzanne Higgott, Curator of Glass, Limoges Painted Enamels, Earthenware and Renaissance Furniture, in the Sixteenth-Century Gallery.