the caisse crowned by a moulded pediment divided into seven compartments, the upper register surmounted by pierced Gothic arches and choux frisés friezes, each span flanked by vertical appliques in the form of candelabra with figures of the Virgin, Saint John and two bishops, the lower registers of the two lateral spans carved with scrollwork and the profile of a woman in a medallion
The life of Saint Lambert (c. 636-c. 705)
Born into a noble family from Maastricht, seat of the bishopric of a dependent territory of the Merovingian Kingdom (Austrasia), Lambert was probably the son of the Chancellor of Clotaire III. He was baptised by his godfather, Bishop Remaclus, before he was placed under the care of Theodotard, Bishop of Maastricht. At Theodotard’s death, murdered circa 669-675, Lambert took over his bishop’s duties with the support of Childeric II who died in 675. A period of political unrest followed and Lambert was forced to leave his episcopal seat. During his seven-year exile in the Abbey of Stavelot, Lambert spread the Gospel and founded a convent with Saint Landrada, in Munsterblizen. When Pepin II, known as Pepin de Herstal, seized power, he invited Lambert to resume his duties as Bishop of Maastricht.
Although uncertain, the reasons for Lambert's murder were apparently related to dynastic disputes between Merovingians and Carolingians. The origin of his martyrdom goes back to his condemnation of the adulterous affair between Pepin and Alpaïde. By opposing Pepin for having repudiated his virtuous wife, Plectrude, Lambert attracted the wrath of the two lovers. In the early morning hours of 17 September 696 (or 700 or 705), Dodon, Pepin’s domesticus (official in charge of the domains of the State) and Alpaïde’s brother, and his troops arrived in Liège when Lambert was in his home kneeling in prayer. They attacked him by piercing his roof and striking him with a spear. When the attackers left, Lambert’s disciples brought his remains back to Maastricht where he was buried. When Hubert, spiritual pupil of Lambert, succeeded him as Bishop of Maastricht, Hubert had the body of the Saint transported to the place of his death, Liège. A church was built there, attracting innumerable pilgrims. Liège prospered from this new affluence and the church became one of the most important cathedrals in Europe until it was dismantled by the Revolutionary troops in 1794. The relics of Saint Lambert were then transported to the newly built Notre-Dame and Saint-Lambert Cathedral.
The story of the Martinvast altarpiece
On 3 September 1854, John Charles Robinson (1824-1913), a young curator from the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), returned from a trip to Paris and recommended that his director, Henry Cole, visit a dealer named Couvreur (48 rue Notre-Dame des Victoires) to see an outstanding altarpiece with scenes from the Life of the Virgin. Indeed, its acquisition for the museum was confirmed by Cole a week after (inv. no. 1049-1855). In his letter Robinson added that Couvreur "says that the merchant from whom he acquired it had paid 6,000 francs for this one and the same sum for a similar one [the Martinvast altarpiece] in Paris.” (see P. Williamson, op. cit., pp. 24-25). Indeed, both the Martinvast and the V&A altarpieces were sold in 1847 by the Alliance des Arts, a publishing, consulting and auction house run by Théophile Thoré and Paul Lacroix, specializing in the trade of books, prints, coins and works of art from 1842 to 1847 (see. K. Woods, op. cit., p. 145).
The wide availability of Flemish religious sculptures during the first half of the 19th century resulted from the annexation of the Belgian provinces by the Revolutionary troops and the sale of the properties confiscated from the Church. When sold by the Alliance des Arts, the V&A and the Martinvast altarpieces were reputed to come from Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent (see K. Wood, op. cit., p. 145). The Martinvast piece was thought to have been dedicated to the Life of Saint Bavo, but his biography does not correspond with the scenes depicted here.
A lithograph published by Lacroix and Seré, shows the condition of the Martinvast altarpiece when it was sold by the Alliance des Arts (op. cit., pl. 15). The wings were already missing but the altarpiece is shown surmounted by three unidentified figures and with a predella below depicting Christ with the Apostles, both probably later additions. The altarpiece remained unchanged in the 1930s, when it was published in a book entitled Châteaux de Normandie, hanging in the gallery of the Martinvast chateau (op.cit., pl.38). On 14 January 1944, after the British and American bombings on and around Cherbourg, the altarpiece was miraculously saved from the fire that partially destroyed the castle, expept for the predella, the top figures. Slight damage to the altarpiece case and three of the scenes may also have occurred at this time.
The understanding of the two scenes on the right and the scene on the lower left is made more difficult by a few missing elements and the addition of later fragments, though probably originating from the lost predella. Indeed, the figure of Saint Peter on the left of the upper right compartment is recognisable on the lower far right of the lithograph. Again, the bearded man to the right of the lower left scene appears to be the blessing Christ on the centre of the missing predella. Finally, the boy seen from the back on the lithograph, to the centre of the lower right scene, has now disappeared and the kneeled figure beside him is partly missing.
Five out of the seven scenes from the life of Saint Lambert are legible:
- lower centre: perhaps the young Lambert agreeing to accept the office of bishop;
- above: the consecration of Lambert as bishop, comparable to the scene painted on the altarpiece, in Herbais-sous-Pétrain, and to the stained glass window in the collegiate church of Saint-Martin, in Liège;
- lower left: Lambert while in exile, preaching and distributing alms to the poor;
- upper left: the martyrdom of Saint Lambert;
- upper centre: the transposition of the body of Saint Lambert from Maastricht to Liège, under the supervision of Saint Hubert on the left, or, possibly, Lambert’s disciples mourning the body of the Saint-Martyr.
The lithograph made after the altarpiece allows a better understanding of the last two scenes:
- the compartment on the lower right could depict the Miracle of Fire: the young saint (now partly missing) brings hot coals carried in a cloth to Saint Landoald to light the incense during the celebration mass
- the upper right scene could depict Saint Lambert interceding with Pepin (both now missing to the left) in favour of his repudiated wife who is imploring him from the right. Alternatively it may also be the Miracle of Water in which Lambert (now partly missing) makes two springs of water gush from the ground with his stick.
The Martinvast altarpiece was carved at a moment when the story of Saint Lambert was in great favor in the Southern Netherlands. His reliquary bust in the Treasury of Liège was made in 1512, by the goldsmith Hans von Reutlingen and commisioned by Erard de La Marck, prince-bishop of Liège. The organization of this altarpiece divided into several scenes integrated in an architectural background is comparable to the Brussels examples in Boussu-lez-Mons and in the V&A. The integration of decorative elements, such as columns, medallions with profiles of women and scrollwork, together with the Gothic motifs, date this altarpiece to the transitional period between the end of Gothic style and the diffusion of Renaissance models in Flanders. The physical features of the figures are comparable to the Brussels models such as the seven fragments of the Legend of the True Cross in the V&A (inv. no. 114 to 114F-1908).
Despite the dismantling and destruction of churches and their furnishings and the ravages of war, the seven scenes have remained in their original caisse - apart from the three missing elements previously mentioned - which makes this altarpiece a unique surviving example of this kind. Its association in 1847 with the V&A altarpiece, dedicated to the Virgin, could indicate the same provenance for the present altarpiece. If they did indeed originally come from a cathedral, they were both more likely to have been made for the now destroyed Cathedral of Liège, the patron saints of which were both Saint Lambert and the Virgin, rather than the Cathedral of Saint-Bavo in Ghent, as stated in 1847.
We are most grateful to Dr Kim Woods and Mr Philippe George, curator of the Treasure of the Liège Cathedral, for their help in investigating this altarpiece and its iconography.
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