The Wallace Collection

Plaques depicting Scenes from the Life and Passion of Christ
Treasure of the Month - December 2009

Plaques depicting Scenes from the Life and Passion of Christ

These exquisite, lavishly gilded painted enamel plaques were made in Limoges, central France.

They probably formed part of an altarpiece or retable for private devotion. The plaques illustrate the story of man’s original sin and subsequent salvation through Christ’s sacrifice (Crucifixion). The subjects are mostly biblical. The Fall and Expulsion, from the Old Testament (Genesis 3: 6, 23), introduce scenes of the life and Passion of Christ from the New Testament (Gospels) and other sources.

Limoges was the major centre for the production of painted enamels from the late fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. Enamel colours are painted onto a copper base. Flesh tints and gilding enrich the surface and enlevage (scraping away an upper layer of enamel to reveal a contrasting colour beneath) often provides fine detail. Several kiln firings were required to make painted enamels. Initially, production concentrated almost exclusively on plaques depicting religious subjects. During the sixteenth century objects for secular use were introduced, with mythological subjects and contemporary portraits becoming popular.

The theme of Christ’s Passion was popularized by the Passion plays that originated in medieval Germany and reached the height of their success in the fifteenth century. In depicting scenes from Christ’s Life and Passion, enamellers usually derived their iconography from German prints, especially those by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Martin Schongauer (c. 1440/53-1491). The Wallace Collection’s plaques are after German prints, but modified to enhance the enamels’ elegance and sumptuousness. The majority follow Dürer hugely influential Small Passion series, comprising 37 woodcuts and first published in book form in 1511.

The workshop that produced these plaques is unidentified. It specialized in plaques after Dürer’s Small Passion, which may constitute a distinctive French manifestation of the ‘Dürer Renaissance’ of c. 1570-c. 1630.

The plaques were arranged in this order and put into the current frame in the 19th century, by someone unfamiliar with the narrative’s chronology. Several plaques are incorrectly placed within the sequence. For example, Christ driving the Money Changers from the Temple should follow Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, not precede it. The series is probably incomplete. Christ’s story ends bleakly with the Deposition, rather than including promise of redemption manifest in Christ’s Resurrection.

Further Reading

  • Erika Speel, ‘Dictionary of Enamelling’, Ashgate, 1998

© Trustees of the Wallace Collection 2009. Text by Suzanne Higgott.