Ambitiously conceived and virtuosically carved, the present relief is a small masterpiece of Baroque sculpture. To the right we see the Agony in the Garden, with Christ praying and his apostles sleeping at his feet, while to the left Judas is advancing with the Roman troops, foreshadowing Christ's imminent arrest. The figures' broad, muscular physique and compressed, grimacing faces find a compelling comparison in reliefs that have been attributed to the so-called Master of the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, an anonymous ivory carver who is thought to have been active in Salzburg and Vienna during the third quarter of the 17th century. Central to this group is the large-scale ivory relief showing the eponymous subject in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (inv. no. KK 3654), dated 1655, whose extraordinary quality and level of detail is arguably not matched by the present relief. However other reliefs in ivory that have been associated with the Master show such close stylistic resemblance to the present work as to suggest that they could be by the same hand. These are notably the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian
in the Oberösterreichisches Landesmuseum in Linz, and the Judgment of Solomon
in the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt; the latter may have been executed by a sculptor from the Master's immediate circle, (see Bückling, op. cit.
, p. 74). All three reliefs are marked by a busy composition with a high level of emotion and naturalistic detail, populated by stocky figures with tightly assembled, parallel folds of drapery. Particularly convincing comparisons can be made between the background figures in the Solomon
relief and the soldiers in the Agony
, and between the faces of the archers in the Saint Sebastian
relief and that of the torchbearer in the present relief. While works attributed to the Master are almost exclusively in ivory, the existence of a pearwood version of the Metropolitan Museum’s ivory Hercules and Achelous
group in the Waddesdon Bequest (British Museum, inv. no. WB.262) indicates that the sculptor also excelled in the medium of wood.
The proposition by some scholars that the Master of the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian may be identified with Johann Caspar Schenck, a member of the famous Konstanz dynasty of sculptors, is not convincing based on a comparison with his signed works. However, the present relief exhibits some close similarities to carvings by his slightly younger and better known relative, Christoph Daniel Schenck, who frequently worked in wood. In particular, his pair of limewood reliefs with Saints Peter and Paul (Konstanz, op. cit., fig. 36) share many of the Agony relief's stylistic traits. Although Schenck's carvings are on the whole more stylised, with a leaner figural type, the relation of his work to the present relief would seem to provide further indication of an artistic exchange between the Lake Konstanz sculptors and the Master at court in Austria.
E. v. Philippovich, 'Hauptwerke des Elfenbeinkünstlers Johann Caspar Schenck', Kunst in Hessen und am Mittelrhein, vol. 13, 1973, pp. 47-51; Christoph Daniel Schenck, 1633-1691, exh. cat. Rosgartenmuseum Konstanz (et al.), Sigmaringen, 1996; M. Bückling and S. Haag (eds.), Elfenbein: Barocke Pracht am Wiener Hof, exh. cat. Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main, 2011, pp. 59-74