Spotlight On … the Crucifixion.
Written by Philip Warner.
For a blog posted on Maundy Thursday it is fitting that the topic of conversation this week should be the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This stunning panel of embossed calf leather is coated with a silvered and yellow varnish to resemble gold relief.
The detail in the image is remarkable, especially in the rendering of the different textures. The wispy clouds rolling in towards the figure of the crucified figure point to the closing darkness moments before Jesus’ death as recorded in Matthews’ gospel.
From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). (Matthew 27)
John. W. Waterer, founder of the Museum of Leathercraft, dates the panel to the late 16th Century and characteristic of the decorative arts of the Netherlands of that time [Spanish Leather, Faber: 1971].
The panel is an example of the fine detail in low relief that can be achieved by embossing (pressing) vegetable tanned calf skins. Only a finely tooled and heated metal plate, applied under pressure, could encourage the skins to take up the form they are pressed into with such astonishing degrees of detail.
The surface finish of silvered, yellow varnish simulates gold; this suggests that the image would have been created to imitate the elaborate work of goldsmiths for church use. Leather imitating high art could, of course, be produced at a fraction of the cost of precious metals. The plate embossing process could also ‘mass produce’ such imagery. Waterer, for example, notes in his book that two other impressions are known … but then tantalises us by not revealing his sources. A job for another day, I fear!
As I was photographing this, it struck me that there is a considerable amount of wear on the torso of Jesus.
A light bulb moment happened! The day before, I had been in conversation with Professor Matthew Collins. He had been explaining his ground breaking work in using the DNA of historic objects made of animal material to shed light on the farming, breeding and trade practices of our ancestors. We spoke too, in reference to books and manuscripts, of how the research could also capture human DNA markers and bacteria, by way of showing how various objects had been handled by people hundreds of years ago. I recall we spoke on how it might even be possible to extract markers to indicate human saliva, thus indicating people had kissed certain objects.
The wear pattern on the body of Christ depicted on our little pretend-gold panel would seem to me to be no mere accident of the ages. It shows a part of the image was touched, maybe even kissed, in reverence. The body of a saviour who died for the sins of a fallen world and then rose again three days later. So, once again, the treasures of our small museum flare brightly. Who, where, and how many people have worshipped at the foot of this image? Could cutting edge technology help us uncover these mysteries? Could they help us breathe new life into the history of this object, and those who interacted with it? Some food for thought …