Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Decorative Arts & Sculpture Curator, Eike Schmidt, Evaluates a Masterpiece

Eike Schmidt
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Jacobus Agnesius (attrib.), St. Sebastian, ivory, 25.2″ tall (c.1638). Image courtesy Andrew Butterfield Fine Art

The Saint Sebastian by Jacobus Agnesius is one of the largest and most spectacular ivory statues ever made. In its luscious yet exacting portrayal of the human body, its grim depiction of emotional and physical suffering, and its suggestion of the exaltation of religious release, it concentrates the essence of Baroque art in a unique way. Not only is it significantly larger than almost any other ivory figure to survive, but it was made in emulation of the grandeur and the seriousness of monumental marble sculpture. Jacobus Agnesius aspired to carve this ivory in the spirit of the Laocoon or Gianlorenzo Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. The result is a work of extraordinary power and beauty, one that epitomizes the Baroque artistic ideal to express the strongest, deepest and most sublime emotions via an extreme muscular tension and contortion of the human body. Morevoer, spanning 64 centimeters (25.2 in.) from the right foot to the left index finger, it is amongst the largest ivory figures ever made. As the size alone indicates, the hitherto unpublished Saint Sebastian, now in a New York private collection, must have been a very important commission for Jacobus Agnesius, whose oeuvre is systematically reconstructed and analyzed in the following pages. fine arts magazine

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo & Daphne, marble (1622-25), Galleria Borghese, Rome

The statuette represents a young man with a heroic, muscular build, and long and thick curly hair, who is naked save for a loincloth. He stands on his right foot, with his left leg, bent at the knee, raised and extended behind him. His arms are crossed in a complex, asymmetrical position as they jut upward over his head and in front of his body. Cords of rope bind his left wrist and right elbow. His torso arcs forcefully to the proper left, and he throws his head back over his left shoulder. As originally mounted, the figure was shown tied to a tree, which was made either of wood or metal. The figure’s complex and twisting stance is meant to convey both the weight of his body hanging down from the tree (note, for example, the tension of his painfully extended arms), and the violent thrusts of his body as he writhes in pain and tries to free himself.

The anatomy is rendered with astonishing precision. Every detail of the musculature and skeleton is recorded. On the back of the figure, for instance, the artist has correctly noted the trapezius, deltoid, infraspinatus and latissimus dorsi muscles; he has even carefully indicated the vertebrae of the spine as they ascend the median furrow. Likewise, Agnesius has depicted the bones, muscles and cartilage of the arms, chest, and rib cage with great exactitude. Studying the thorax, one can see such details as the manubrium, the xyphoid process and floating ribs all precisely indicated.

Jean-Antoine Houdon, Acorche (1767)

So exacting is his depiction of anatomy that the sculptor even emphatically displays the tortuous deformation of the body. The left arm has been wrenched out of the shoulder socket, and the rib cage is nearly being ripped apart by the weight and strain of his body struggling against the bonds. There is almost no comparison for such precise rendering of human anatomy in ivory; and even in bronze statuettes, there are few works that show such careful observation and articulation. The outstanding precision of the Saint Sebastian is evident even when it is viewed in contrast with works made specifically to display scientific knowledge of anatomy, such as the écorché figures by Willem van Tetrode (or later those by Houdon). Given this degree of detail, it is possible that, like Leonardo and Michelangelo, the ivory sculptor had dissected corpses in the course of his artistic training. Moreover, owing to the frequency of public torture and execution in Baroque Europe (especially during the Thirty Years War), he may very well have seen bodies that had been wracked and broken like that of Saint Sebastian, and used this knowledge when making the statuette. He would not be the only Renaissance and Baroque artist to learn from seeing such events. One recalls, for example, the famous drawings of hanged men by Leonardo and Pisanello; and within the seventeenth century, one thinks especially of Jacques Callot and his frightening prints of The Miseries of War.

The emphasis on suffering in the ivory statuette is also evident in the treatment of the features of the face. The eyebrows are drawn together, the eyes are rolling back into the head, and the mouth is open, revealing the precisely rendered tongue and teeth. The open mouth gives the impression that he is moaning or exhaling with pain. He is in extremis. The saint is swooning with anguish.

Jacques Callot, The Miseries of War (the Hanging Tree), 1633

Who was the artist who carved the Saint Sebastian? The expansive pose of the entire body set in motion, as well as the precise rendering of the musculature, and the active and tightly wrapped drapery folds are immediately comparable to a three-figure group representing the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (Albi, Musée Toulouse-Lautrec), which is dated and signed in ink, “1638 / Jacobus Agnesius / Caluensis Sculp[sit].” Although we have a date, a name, and probably even a place, it has not been possible to identify the artist with any documented personality anywhere in Europe. Moreover, to this day there has been enormous confusion regarding Agnesius’s oeuvre. In particular, his work has been mixed up with that of Adam Lenckhardt (1610–1661).

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J. Agnesius, St. Sebastian (detail)

Most recently, in the catalogue of the ivories in the Louvre, Philippe Malgouyres attributed a figure of Saint Sebastian at the Louvre (Inv. Thiers 158) to Agnesius, but underscored the differences of this work with another one of almost identical pose in the collection of the prince of Liechtenstein, which traditionally has been attributed to Lenckhardt (inv. No. 306). Yet the figures in Paris and Vienna are so close to each other that Christian Theuerkauff in his biographic survey of Lenckhardt’s oeuvre (1995) even disparaged the ivory in the Louvre as a “much later” replica after the figure in the Liechtenstein collection, which he accepted as an autograph work by Lenckhardt.

Adam Lenckhardt, Neptune, ivory (c.1650)

Clarity is achieved as soon as one tests the shaky ground upon which the Liechtenstein figure’s attribution to Lenckhardt is based. It goes back to a description in an inventory of the belongings of Prince Karl Eusebius von Liechtenstein (1611–1684), which was drawn up not long after 1678, and reads in translation: “A holy Sebastian of ivory, tied to a tree of metal, standing on a black base, by Lenkhart” (“Ein heyliger Sebastian von helffenbein, angebunden an Einen metallenen Baumb, stehet auf einem Schwartzen postamente, von Lenkhart”). Ever since Edmund Wilhelm Braun in 1913 connected this document with the ivory figure of Saint Sebastian extant in the Liechtenstein collection, it was thought to be a fixed star of Lenckhardt’s oeuvre. However, even from a documentary standpoint alone, it is far from likely that the inventoried work would refer to the existing ivory figure. To start with, the existing figure is not at all tied to a tree of metal, but of dark wood—which Theuerkauff confusingly calls “wood of the iron tree” (“Holz des Eisenbaumes”). Whereas the present wood base and tree may well be later replacements, there is no indication at all that the ivory figure might have originally been tied to a tree of metal – which would have been, most likely, of bronze. Neither is Saint Sebastian’s unusual pose mentioned in the inventory, nor are any measurements provided that would give a clue to the described figure’s possible identity with the existing Saint Sebastian. The description could refer to almost any existing ivory figure (granted that it would have been later separated from its original tree), if it weren’t for Lenckhardt’s name. (See below left: Adam Lenckhardt [attrib.], St Sebastian tied to a tree, 1642)  The Vienna-based artist from Würzburg is, by the way, the only sculptor whose name recurs numerous times in the inventory, and who, according to further documents, benefited from Prince Karl Eusebius’s patronage over many years. No less than nine ivory sculptures are attributed to Lenckhardt in the inventory: apart from the Saint Sebastian, there are two Crucifixes (both untraced);

 Most importantly, the style of the Saint Sebastian in the Liechtenstein collection differs markedly from Lenckhardt’s known oeuvre. These stylistic differences account for the fact that Wolfgang Born already in 1936 interpreted the Saint Sebastian as Lenckhardt’s earliest known work, setting it aside from the main body of his oeuvre. But these differences in style also account for the curiosity that several authors from Born to Theuerkauff have hypothesized that Agnesius might have been influential upon Lenckhardt, or the latter’s teacher, and yet referred exclusively to the Liechtenstein Saint Sebastian for comparison. The simple truth is that this figure has nothing to do at all with Lenckhardt, but it is an autograph work by Agnesius.Agnesius looks at the human body with an anatomist’s eye, and exploits the landscape of bones and muscles in order to achieve a maximum of expression. Lenckhardt, however, is very much interested in the surface of the skin. Lenckhardt has a particular penchant for rendering the fine creases of the worn-out skin at the base of the neck, and at the junctures of the arms and legs, as it is masterfully demonstrated by his Neptune at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and by his Saint Jerome at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Artus Quellinus, Mercurius (1650), Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia

The differences between Agnesius and Lenckhardt are even more pronounced in the way the hair and beards are sculpted. In works by Lenkhardt, the extremely fine, virtually individual rendering of each hair showcases his talent in microcarving; by contrast, Agnesius sculpts the hair in a much broader and more gestural way. In the drapery of his figures, Lenckhardt loves to alternate smooth surfaces with deeply undercut folds, and to enliven convex wads with series of grooves applied in a staccato-like fashion, whereas Agnesius prefers textiles which are tightly wrapped around his figures’ bodies and are defined by energetically engraved, often parallel lines. Finally, as the perhaps most distinctive feature that sets Agnesius aside not only from Lenckhardt, but from all other ivory sculptors of his time, the sculptor does not limit his search for extreme expression to the anatomy, the pathognomy of the suffering face, and the speedy linear texturing of the fabrics. On the contrary, he invents unique, highly strained and twisted poses for his figures, putting their bodies into unprecedented tension, and offering astonishing and unexpected views from all conceivable sides and angles.

Even in terms of technique, the two artists could hardly be more different from each other. Whereas Lenckhardt follows the old ideal to carve his figures and figural groups out of a single tusk wherever possible, for Agnesius size matters very much, and he has no problem carving his figure’s arms separately, for instance, or adding small parts where the tusk was not large enough to allow his artistic conception. The newly discovered Saint Sebastian is principally carved from one piece of ivory, which extends from the figure’s feet up to the middle of his biceps. Agnesius added two separately carved units, one for each arm, to the main segment of ivory.

Ivory statuettes larger than 40 centimeters in height are rare in the history of European art, and most are considerably smaller, whereas the present work is 64 centimeters in height. It is nearly twice as big as what is normally considered large for an ivory sculpture. From the entire Baroque period, only around a dozen works of comparable scale are extant, most of which are crucifixes. These include the Corpus by Georg Petel in the Residenz, Munich (65.5 cm.), and another Corpus by him in Hillerød, Denmark (68 cm.). A notable exception of a different subject matter is the pair of Mercury (56 cm.) and Venus (54 cm.), which has been attributed to Artus Quellinus the Elder, in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg—but these are about 10 centimeters (4 in.) shorter than our sculpture.

Given the rarity and expensiveness of ivory in the seventeenth century, which was imported from Africa and India, it is no surprise that whenever we have information about the original patronage of works on this scale—such as the Munich Corpus made for a member of the Fugger family—all were highly important commissions carried out for the noblest and wealthiest of families. Apart from the value of the material, there is a natural limitation to the size of works carved in ivory, due to the size and shape of the raw elephant tusks, which are curved and, except for the tip, hollow. It is notable how ingeniously Agnesius planned the Saint Sebastian so that the figure would fit within the outlines of the curved piece of ivory from which he carved it.

Once the misattribution of the Liechtenstein Saint Sebastian has been discarded, Agnesius’s oeuvre emerges as a very homogenous and highly distinctive group of works. The two figures of Saint Sebastian with raised arms in the Louvre and in the Liechtenstein collection are similar enough to be considered autograph variations, whereas a somewhat simplified and smaller version, which was auctioned more than thirty years ago (Christie’s, London, June 23, 1982, lot 63), is probably a nineteenth-century copy after the version in the Louvre, since the rendering of the hair and drapery folds are somewhat clumsy, and it shows the very same tree trunk and shape of the base as those added by Adolphe Thiers in the nineteenth century to the ivory now in the Louvre.

Diego Velazquez, Christ after the Flagellation Contemplated by the Christian Soul (1628-29), Nat’l Gall. London

The present prince of Liechtenstein, Hans Adam II, acquired another ivory statuette of Saint Sebastian in 2007. In that version the saint, whose body is again appended from his long, raised arms, has fallen onto his knees—reminding the beholder of Velazquez’s famous painting of the Flagellation of Christ, where the Savior has broken down and fallen onto his knees. In consequence of the attribution to Lenckhardt of the Liechtenstein’s Saint Sebastian, the second statuette has also been attributed to this master in the Liechtenstein Museum’s catalogue of recent acquisitions. But there can be no doubt that, like the other, it is actually a work by Agnesius as well.

With the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew in Albi, another work of the same subject in a private collection may be associated. The composition is compressed into a much narrower perimeter, and one of the executioners kneels below the saint, who is as usual shown hanging from his stretched arms. A similar stretching of the arms can also be seen in a group of Saint Sebastian with two angels climbing on a tree in the convent of Saint Clare in Estella (Navarra), which Maria Margerita Estella Marcos related to the Saint Sebastian in the Louvre. Thematically, Agnesius evidently chose to interpret a very limited range of subjects that would be particularly conducive to his artistic thrust. But, with the exception of the close replication of the figures of Saint Sebastian in Vienna and Paris, Agnesius always succeeded in thrashing out highly diverse versions of the same theme in a most inventive way.

Map of Swabia, Southern Germany (1572)

All works by Agnesius stand out for their impressive size. For example, the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew in Albi is 38 centimeters high, the Louvre Saint Sebastian is 42.4 centimeters high, and the Liechtenstein examples measure 43.5 centimeters and 32 centimeters. The Saint Sebastian presented here is by far the largest of all. Furthermore, compared to his other four ivories of this subject, it shows the most dynamic and complex pose.

With a consistent core of Agnesius’s work established, it is possible to return to the question of his stylistic stance and his artistic influences, in order to better place him both geographically and within the artistic movements of the seventeenth century. An initial clue is given by the inscription—although not actually by what is probably a toponymic, “Caluensis,” which in the past had been argued would refer to the Swabian city of Calw rather than any of the Italian and French towns named Calvi. But this remains highly hypothetical as long as no such artist is otherwise documented. So far in the discussions about the sculptor’s origins no attention has been paid to the fact that the artist’s ink signature on the Saint Bartholomew in Albi is not written in Korrent or Fraktur script, which were employed in Germany at the time, but in Antiqua-based letters, as it was customary for inscriptions in Italy (and France). Naturally, the inscription’s romance characters, which are also consistent with the Latin language in which the artist signed, would not exclude that the sculptor might have been a German artist active in Italy. Indeed, the caricatural rendering of the two torturers is reminiscent of late Gothic depictions of the Flagellation of Christ, which a sculptor from Germany would have known from the churches of his home country. But a sculptor from Northern Italy or France would have been equally familiar with late-Gothic physiognomic exaggerations of the evil characters within sacred histories.

Michelangelo Buonarotti, Punishment of Haman, Sistine Chapel detail (1508-1512)

What is virtually certain is that Agnesius must have been intimately familiar with the art on view in Rome from the Classical, Renaissance and Baroque eras. The allusions of his works to the monuments there are so strong that they do not seem to have been diluted by intermediary sources such as prints or drawings, but instead must appear to be the result of extended personal study of the monuments themselves. For example, the two figures of Saint Sebastian hanging from their wrists, which are tied together above vertically stretched arms (Louvre and Liechtenstein collection), are indeed reminiscent of the ancient marbles of Marsyas being flayed by Apollo, of which two famous examples in the Medici collections in Rome and Florence would have been on every artist’s and grand tourist’s not-to-be-missed-list.

The twisted pose of the newly discovered Saint Sebastian recalls Michelangelo’s fresco of the Punishment of Haman on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The basic subject is the same—a man bound to a tree—and the pose of the two figures is extremely similar; indeed, the placement of the legs, with the weight on the right foot and the left foot back is identical, and the the arcing of the torso and the head is also very alike.

Peter Paul Rubens, Laocoon, drawing after Vatican sculpture (1601-2)

A major source for Michelangelo in the Punishment of Haman was the Laocoon , and Agnesius, too, drew inspiration from that sculpture, one of the most famous of all works of classical art. Beginning in the late sixteenth and continuing throughout the seventeenth century, the Laocoon was often spoken of by both artists and critics as an exemplum doloris—a model of noble suffering—perfect for imitating in images of scenes from the passion of Jesus or the martyrdom of saints. Agnesius surely had this model in mind when carving his statue of Saint Sebeastian: the heroic canon of the body, the strong swell and thrust of the torso, the turn of the head, and even the features of the face, with the eyebrows drawn tightly together in pain, but the mouth opened only barely, not screaming loudly in pain but moaning in dignity—all have their ultimate source in the classical sculpture.

It is striking to compare Agnesius’s statue with the most famous copies after the Laocoon made by a northern Baroque artist, Peter Paul Rubens’s series of luminous drawings of the sculpture. The norm in copying the monument had been to record its composition from a vantage sufficiently distant to permit taking in the whole sculpture. But instead Rubens drew his studies from unexpected angles and from vantages set quite close to the sculpture, thereby permitting him to capture more fully the intensity and pathos of the marble. If one compares Agnesius’s statue with some of Rubens’s views, one sees that Agnesius, too, sought to emulate not only the composition, but also the exalted power and drama of the marble. Few Renaissance or Baroque sculptures are so successful in their recreation of the force and passion of the classical monument.

G. L. Bernini, Ecstacy of St. Theresa, marble (1645-52), Cornaro Chapel, Rome

The sculpture of Bernini would appear to have been another important stimulus for Agnesius. This can be seen, for example, by comparison of the ivory with Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, where the combination of raised arms and turned head makes for a similar effect. Bernini’s fascination with showing a figure in extremis, and giving the delirium of anguish or death a nearly sexual charge, also seem to have interested Agnesius. It is enough to examine the ivory in relation to such works of Bernini as his marble statues of Saint Sebastian and Saint Lawrence; it can also be usefully compared to some later works by the artist, such as the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa and the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni.

According to legend Saint Sebastian was a middle-aged man, but in art he was regularly depicted as youth of ideal beauty. The sensuality, even the forthright sexual appeal, of such images was commented on throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods. In his life of Fra Bartolomeo, Vasari tells of a painting of Saint Sebastian by the artist that for its “melting beauty” inspired lust in the women who saw it. Similarly, a contemporary of Agnesius, the Spanish author Pedro Calderon wrote, “the ephebe Saint Sebastian covered in arrows is the Heavenly Cupid for women today.” The traditional emphasis on the physical beauty of Saint Sebastian was very much alive in the seventeenth century. For instance, this can be seen in Bernini’s sculpture, notably inspired in part by the Barberini Faun, or in Anthony van Dyck’s and Guido Reni’s pictures of the subject. And it is clear in Agnesius’s statue as well.

Guido Reni, St. Sebastian (c.1626) Musei di Strada Nuova, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa

The figure of Saint Sebastian was frequently depicted in Renaissance and Baroque art—including ivory sculpture—in order for the artist to disp lay his bravura command in the depiction of the male nude. But Agnesius went far beyond a mere display of technical skill. Emulating some of the most celebrated models of heroic gravitas in Classical, Renaissance and Baroque art, he wanted to achieve the very same level of expressive power and exalted seriousness in ivory sculpture, which artists like Bernini had reached in marble. Even the most skeptical and discerning of critics would need to concede that in the Saint Sebastian presented here, Agnesius achieved just that. Jacobus Agnesius was one of the supreme sculptors in ivory during the Baroque. Like his contemporaries, the Master of the Furies, Leonhard Kern and Georg Petel, Agnesius helped make ivory sculpture one of the most sought-after and emblematic artistic media of the seventeenth century.

By Eike D. Schmidt, Ph.D. © 2011

Eike D. Schmidt is the James Ford Bell Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture and head of the Department of Decorative Arts, Textiles & Sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). In this capacity Schmidt leads one of the MIA’s largest and most diverse curatorial departments, with more than 18,000 works in various mediums from America and Europe, from the Middle Ages to the present. Schmidt comes to the museum from Sotheby’s, London, where he has worked as the Director of the European Sculpture and Works of Art Department. Schmidt comes to this position from Southeby’s, London, where he worked as the director of the European Sculpture and Works of Art Department. Prior to that post, he was with the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, as Associate Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Schmidt also worked at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., as a research associate and a research curator in the Department of Sculpture, and at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, Italy.

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Bibliographic Notes: 

There is no monographic article on Agnesius so far, but his individual works have been published, under different names, in various contexts. A very brief note, which summarizes the hypotheses about the sculptor’s origin, but mentions the group in Albi as his only work, can be found in the Allgemeines Künstler-Lexikon. Die bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker, vol. 1, Leipzig and Munich, 1992, p. 528. Agnesius’ Saint Bartholomew group in Albi was published by P. Frantz Marcou in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 23, 1900, pp. 492–493.

The Saint Sebastian hanging from a tree with both arms raised was first misattributed to Adam Lenckhardt by Edmund Wilhelm Braun, “Der Wiener Elfenbeinbildhauer Adam Lenckhardt,” Kunst und Kunsthandwerk, 16, 1913, pp. 318–320. This was carried over throughout the subsequent literature on the artist, including the most recent catalogue raisonné by Christian Theuerkauff, “Adam Lenckhardt (1610–1661),” Apoll Schindet Marsyas. Über das Schreckliche in der Kunst. Adam Lenckhardts Elfenbeingruppe, ed. by Reinhold Baumstark and Peter Volk, exhibition catalogue, Munich, 1995, pp. 93–139. The inventory of Prince Karl Eusebius von Liechtenstein, in which ivory statuettes by Adam Lenckhardt are mentioned, was published by Victor Fleischer, Fürst Karl Eusebius von Liechtenstein als Bauherr und Kunstsammler (1611–1684), Vienna and Leipzig, 1910, appendix III, pp. 223–229.

For the Louvre’s version of Saint Sebastian, see Philippe Malgouyres, Ivoires de la Renaissance et des Temps modernes. La collection du musée du Louvre, Paris, 2010, no. 11, pp. 34–36.

The kneeling Saint Sebastian acquired in 2007 by the Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna, was published by Johann Kräftner (ed.), Der Fürst als Sammler: Neuerwerbungen unter Hans-Adam II. von und zu Liechtenstein, exhibition catalogue, Vienna, 2010, p. 272.

For the Saint Sebastian in the convent of Saint Clare in Estella, see Maria Margarita Estella Marcos, La escultura barroca de marfil en España: las escuelas europeas y las coloniales, Madrid, 1984, vol. 1, fig. 148, and vol. 2, no. 155, p. 96.

Pedro Calderon’s interpretation of Saint Sebastian is quoted by Richard Spear, The “Divine” Guido: Religion, Sex, Money and Art in the World of Guido Reni, New Haven, 1997, p. 90.

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