THANK YOU, Jake Backus!
In the article about the last stop of our London Gibbons tour, I asked if anyone had more photos of Gibbons’ works. Jake Backus wrote that he visited the Gallerie Estensi museum in Modena, Italy late last year and offered these wonderful photos.
“The Modena panel laments the triumph of death, in particular the death of kings and princes.”
— David Esterly
The panel, created around 1685, is a “momento mori” to Charles II. Charles’ brother, James II, followed him to the throne, and either James, or his wife Mary, commissioned the work. There are differing accounts of who the gift was given to in Modena. Esterly and Beard write that the panel was a gift to Mary’s father, Alfonso IV, the Duke of Modena.
The panel measures 49 inches by 69 inches, 125 cm by 175 cm.
A museum card near the panel today says that the gift was to Francesco II, or “from the collection of Francesco II.” Both may be correct, as Francesco II is the son of Alfonso IV.
The Modena piece of carving by Grinling Gibbons.
Carved lime wood on an oak panel.
From the Collection of Francesco II d’Este.
The subject of this ‘tour de force’ of carving, gift of James II Stuart of England and Maria Beatrice d’Este Stuart to Duke Francesco II d’Este, is a death memorial relating to Charles II Stuart of England (1685). Its author, the greatest specialist of this kind of work in the Baroque era, illustrates the theme of the transience of life by describing vegetable elements in minute detail – there are twenty-seven recognizable botanical varieties – game, shells, allegoric elements, as well as a piano score by Edward Coleman, with a poetic text from a drama by James Shirley. In the central medallion there is a self portrait of Gibbons himself.
The central theme about the death of royalty is embodied in the musical score near the center of the panel. It represents the lyrics of a 17th funeral dirge by James Shirley, from his stage play “The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses.”
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
Sceptre and crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
The chained skull and tumbled crown are tributes to death, as are the collection of coins above and to the left of the skull. Those coins represent other kings and princes claimed by the icy hand of death.
It is remarkable that of a woodcarving survives for over 300 years. It is not surprising that this one shows signs of wear and aging. If one looks closely, there are notable ghost areas on the background, where parts have disappeared. Esterly speculates that at one time the panel might also have included other objects such as a sceptre, scythe or spade (from the lyrics), perhaps in the open space above the skull. There’s also breakage on parts that extend most forward. For example, there are remnants of a chain across the musical score. What else might have been hanging from that chain? Maybe another portrait medallion?
Thanks Jake, for a closeup of Gibbon’s portrait medallion. Jake says it appears to be about 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter, quite a nice piece of detail carving. With the inscription, “GIBBONS INVENTOR ET SCULPIST,” Gibbons assures us he played both the role of designer and of sculptor.
By this stage of Gibbons’ career, he was hearing criticism that he was only a simple carver. In order to clear the air of these ideas, Gibbons included a banner in the Cosimo panel proclaiming himself as the “inventor” and prominently included this Modena portrait medallion where he again asserts his design and execution roles.
One of the legends about Gibbons concerns pea pods in his carvings. The legend is that if the pea pod is open, Gibbons was commissioned and paid for the work. If closed, he was not paid. At the far right edge of the panel, Jake found for us an open pea pod.
Thanks again, Jake, for bringing us more details of Gibbons’ work. Jake apologizes for what he considers poor quality due to glass reflections. Instead, I applaud his efforts to bring us striking details despite having to contend with glass, less than optimal lighting and ghost reflections of museum visitors. Well done, and I certainly appreciate them!
We can also thank Jake’s cousin who lives near Modena and made a special trip to the museum to gather the information on the museum card and to double check their photo policy.
BTW, Jake lives way down in the southwest corner of the UK, between Truro and Falmouth “looking out to sea” as he says.
Books you might like about Grinling Gibbons and his work.
"Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving" by David Esterly
A history of Gibbons' woodcarving work through the eyes of an expert carver. David Esterly has become today's leading authority on Gibbons, and carves in ways similar to Gibbons. His book takes us on a very thorough tour of Gibbons' work and how it evolved through Gibbons' lifetime.
"The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making" by David Esterly
At its base, this is the story of restoring the Gibbons' carvings that were damaged by a fire at the Hampton Court Royal Palace in 1986. Yet, it is very much more; full of history, analysis, discovery of woodcarving techniques and the art of making art.
"Grinling Gibbons & the English Woodcarving Tradition" by Frederick Oughton
A study of English woodcarvers that uses Gibbons as the center of focus.
"The Work of Grinling Gibbons" by Geoffrey Beard
The description says, "This magnificently illustrated book..." A review says, "Disappointed in the number of photos of his fabulous woodcarving.... But, it does show what an incredible talent he possessed!!"
"Grinling Gibbons: his work as carver and statuary 1648-1721" by David Green
I found little description of this book, but see it in the "Select Bibliography" of one of Esterly's books.
A few Videos and Audios
[Video] BBC Program: "The Glorious Grinling Gibbons - Carved with Love" - in four parts. (about an hour)
[Video] "Grinling Gibbons' carvings at Hampton Court Palace" - a short video featuring Royal Court warder Konrad Jordann talking about "a few of my favourite things." (2 minutes 41 seconds)
[Audio] NPR All Things Considered - "Re-Creating The 'Lost Carving' Of An English Genius" - an interview with David Esterly (7 minutes 5 seconds audio at upper left)
About the photos...
Most of the pictures in this series of articles are mine. Any picture with my photo credit is available for your use, as you please.
Pictures that specifically credit other sources, such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, St. Paul's Cathedral, or particular artists are published here with their permission and that permission stipulates they may not be copied for commercial use. I appreciate their permission and ask that you honor the agreement I have with them. Thanks.