J.J. Marquet de Vasselot, Les Emaux limousins de la fin du XVe siècle et la première partie du XVIe siècle, Paris, 1921, no. 1;
G. Migeon, 'La collection de M. G. Chalandon', in Les Arts, June 1905, p. 21;
M.M. Gauthier, Les émaux du moyen age, Fribourg, 1972, pp. 420-421, no. 256.
In the Middle ages, predominantly during the 12th and the 13th centuries, Limoges was renowned for the production of champlevé enamels, notably used for religious and liturgical objects. The technique of painted enamel on copper appeared in Limoges in the last quarter of the 15th century, during the reigns of Louis XI (1461-1483) and Henri III (1574-1589). A large production of luxury objects, commissioned for private use to decorate aristocratic interiors including sumptuous panels, large dishes, ewers and cups, prolonged the reputation of Limoges into the 16th and 17th centuries.
Rectangular plaques, such as the present Nativity, illustrating scenes of the Life of Christ, were generally part of house altars for private use.
The Monvaerni master, also called 'Pseudo Monvaerni', was active in Limoges between 1461 and 1485, and is considered to be one of the pioneers of enamel painting in the Renaissance, before Nardon Penicaud (1495-1541) and the famous Aeneid Master. His designation Monvaerni relates to an inscription which can be found on a series of enamels, in particular on Saint Catherine's sword in a triptych in the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati (inv. no. 1931.268). His oeuvre comprises around fifty enamels, all depicting religious subjects, which have been grouped together on the basis of his distinctive style.
This enamel of the Nativity stands out for its quality and rarity: only one other identical plaque is known today, which once belonged to Prince Adam Czartoryski and decorated with his arms, is now in the museum of Warsaw (see fig. 1).
His work displays knowledge of perspective and a preference for painted contours, with a great talent in arranging colours, highlighted with gilding, all features which distinguish this plaque as a work by the Monvaerni Master. It has been suggested that he was originally an illuminator of manuscripts. This composition may be inspired by the Nativity in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry which was then reemployed in Robert Campin's painting of 1425 (Dijon musée des Beaux Arts).
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