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Work Master Alpais' ciborium
Department of Decorative Arts: Middle Ages
Maître Alpais ciborium
© 2009 RMN / Jean-Gilles Berizzi
An ancient tradition has it that this ciborium was found at Montmajour, near Arles. This provenance cannot be verified for lack of documents. It is one of the most famous works made by the enamelers of Limoges and bears an inscription showing that it was made in Limoges and giving the maker's name, key elements in the history of Limoges enamel. Its technical perfection and style make it a masterpiece of the 1200s.
An abundant iconography
The ciborium consists of two bulging vessels fitting one inside the other and standing on a small conical foot. The latter is decorated with figures and monsters amid a foliated pattern treated in a very gentle manner. The inside of the upper vessel is engraved with the hand of God bestowing a blessing, and a half-length angel surrounds the inscription inside the lower vessel. On the outside, the busts of several angels, the twelve apostles, and four prophets set in diamond-shaped fields are depicted in champlevé enamel. The upper vessel is surmounted by a knob consisting of angels' busts. The decorative feature that has drawn the most comment is the frieze of "pseudo-Kufic" characters running around the lip of the lower vessel. This was a recurrent ornamental feature in Limoges and had long been adopted in Aquitaine.
A turning-point in style
The fairly stylized treatment of the figures on the vessels is seen in many twelfth-century works, especially in Limoges (on the Ambazac reliquary for example. However, these heads stand out from those of other works by the softening of contour and expression, a feature also seen in the figures on the foot and knob. Similarly, the drapery of the busts is still marked by Romanesque linear trends, but the figures on the foot display a degree of animation that heralds the Gothic. The ciborium marks a turning-point, then, showing signs of early Gothic art, while stills bearing traces of the remnants of Romanesque.
A rare example of a signature on a piece of Limoges enamel
The inscription inside the lower vessel reveals that a certain G. Alpais made the ciborium in Limoges and claims its authorship. He is referred to as "Maître" (Master) and appears several times in records in Limoges. Although we have little information about him, the ciborium is proof that Master Alpais was extremely skilled in champlevé enameling. He also used to perfection a broad range of gold and silversmith's techniques.
BibliographyL'Oeuvre de Limoges. Émaux limousins du Moyen Age, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995
Limoges (c. 1200)
Maître Alpais ciborium
Gilded copper, champlevé enamel, glass cabochons
Former Révoil collection; acquired in 1828
Display case 24
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