Little is known about the sculptor Jacobus Agnesius. Until the recent rediscovery of the present corpus his work was known principally from an ivory group of the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew in the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi (Schmidt, op. cit., p. 23), which is signed and dated: 1638 / Jacobus Agnesius / Caluensis Sculp[sit]. The present corpus, which is the only other known signed work by Agnesius, has a partially legible inscription which appears to follow the same format. Debate has centred on the meaning of the word Caluensis, with scholars suggesting that this could refer to the Swabian city of Calw, or conversely to one of the Italian or French towns named Calvi (Schmidt, op. cit., p. 36). However, Eike Schmidt has noted that the use of an Antiqua script for the Bartholomew group signature would indicate that the sculptor spoke a Romance language, though Schmidt does not exclude the possibility that Agnesius may have been a German sculptor operating in Italy or France. Schmidt has recently pointed out the existence of a family of Corsican sculptors with the surname Agnesi, who were active in Genoa in the second half of the 17th century. He tentatively suggests that Jacobus (or Jacopo) may have been a relation of this family, and he notes similarities with works by Italian ivory carvers such as Domenico Bissoni (Schmidt and Sframeli, op. cit., pp. 190-201, nos. 52, 55, 56).
Schmidt lists a known oeuvre of only six works, all of which are characterized by their unusually large size. These are led by a St. Sebastian measuring 64cm in height, which was with Andrew Butterfield in 2011 and is now in a private collection. This remarkable ivory compares closely with the present figure, exhibiting the same agonized facial expression, with brows drawn together, large elongated oval eyes with crisp lids and eyeballs rolled into the back of the head in pain, and open mouth with upper and lower sets of teeth delineated. These characteristics can be observed again, together with a very similar hairstyle, with central parting and long strands of hair, in two smaller figures of St. Sebastian in the Musée du Louvre (inv. no. TH158) and in the Liechtenstein Princely Collections which both follow the same model and have been attributed to Agnesius (respectively 42.4 and 43.5cm; Schmidt, op. cit., p. 35). Schmidt attributes a second St. Sebastian of a different composition in the Liechtenstein collections to Agnesius (measuring 32cm), and records the existence of another Bartholomew group in a private collection and a figure of St. Sebastian in the convent of St. Claire in Estella (Navarra). A third version of the Louvre/ Liechtenstein St. Sebastian has been deemed to be a 19th-century copy (Schmidt, op. cit., pp. 34, 35).
The present corpus would have been an important commission for Agnesius: this is confirmed by the large size of the figure, carved from an expensive exotic material. Moreover, the sculptor has sought to create a unique composition which conveys an unparalleled sense of pain and anguish. Christ’s head and arms are pinned back, whilst the thorax is thrust forward, seemingly about to be torn apart by the sheer strain of the body weight. The agony of the Passion is exacerbated by the superb physiognomic accuracy, which is of such a high standard as to indicate that Agnesius had direct experience of human dissection. Pulsating veins burst out of the flesh and the skeletal rib cage projects in unnerving detail through the skin. The sense of torturous pain is further heightened by the contorted right arm, which has been ripped from its socket, leaving a sagging cushion of muscles and tendons. Agnesius simultaneously refers to earlier artistic models, chiefly the Laocoön, in which the Trojan priest similarly writhes in pain, his neck thrust backwards, and his arms stretched apart. Schmidt has concluded 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 17th century’ (Schmidt, op. cit., p. 40).
K. Feuchtmayr, Georg Petel, 1601/2-1634, Berlin, 1973, no. 2; P. Malgouyres, Ivoires du musée du Louvre 1480-1850. Une collection inédite, Paris, 2005, pp. 78-81, no. 19; E. Schmidt, Beauty Bound and Power Unleashed: Jacobus Agnesius and the Quest for Expression in Baroque Ivory Sculpture, New York, 2011; E. Schmidt and M. Sframeli (eds.), Diafane passioni. Avori barocchi dalle corti europee, exh. cat. Palazzo Pitti, Museo degli Argenti, Florence, 2013, pp. 190-201, nos. 52, 55, 56
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