Deciphering the Mysteries of a Unique Altarpiece

By Sotheby's
We take a closer look at the history of a rare alterpiece, offered in the upcoming sale Collection Schickler-Pourtalès, Art and Power in the XIXth Century .

O n 14 January 1944, the Martinvast chateau was seriously damaged by the intensive Allied bombings on and around Cherbourg. Thanks to the courage of its inhabitants and the mobilization of the neighborhood, the treasures it housed were saved.

The altarpiece seen in the gallery of the Chateau

The large altarpiece from the main gallery is one of the pieces protected from the fire, although the flames did mark one of the altarpiece’s sides. A few rare elements have disappeared, including the 19th century additions in the Neo-Gothic taste: the predella and the three figures at the top. Three out of its seven scenes were slightly reworked, but the essential was preserved, and the piece is offered in the upcoming Collection Schickler-Pourtalès, Art and Power in the XIXth Century sale in Paris.

More than 70 years later, the altarpiece has now been moved to the new location, at the foot of the great staircase. The horrors of war have since been forgotten and so has its history and iconography, so where does it come from? To which saint is it dedicated?

Out of the seven scenes on the Martinvast altarpiece, the one on the top left holds the key to its mysterious iconography. Of the various and terrible torments suffered by the holy martyrs, Lambert’s death is one of the best described: climbing up on the roof of the hovel where the holy bishop was praying, his assassin would pierce him with a spear.

The mid-19th century lithograph of the altarpiece

The discovery of a lithograph of the altarpiece, dating from the mid-19th century, is the evidence leading to its provenance. It was published by the Alliance des Arts, a consulting and auction house specializing in books and works of art. Two important altarpieces from the same provenance were sold in 1847 by the Alliance des Arts: one was acquired in 1855 by the Victoria and Albert Museum while the other, the Martinvast one, was unidentified for over 150 years.

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