Two Types of Provenance & Two medieval sculptures at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

by Christine E. Brennan

Provenance is defined as the place of origin or the earliest known history of an object. More broadly, it is the record of ownership over a period of time of an object considered to be antique. When people think about provenance today, it is often focused on the latter definition. News headlines describing artworks stolen during World War II and restituted to the heirs of their rightful owners are a potent example of this. More than one hundred and fifty years earlier, however, thousands of artworks and monuments associated with the monarchy, nobility, and religious institutions in eighteenth-century France were damaged, destroyed, or removed from their place of origin in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Museums now care for many objects like these which have two types of provenance, a place of origin and a record of ownership.

The collection of medieval art housed at the Met’s Fifth Avenue location and at The Met Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, contains a number of works with significant original provenances that were damaged and dispersed in the wake of the French Revolution. Two sculptures exhibited together in the Medieval Sculpture Hall at The Met Fifth Avenue are a marble bust (41.100.132) and an architectural canopy (2007.540). They were removed from the Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis, the burial church for the kings and queens of France and their families, located just outside Paris.

fig. 1: Jean de Liège (Franco-Netherlandish, active about 1361, died 1381), Tomb Effigy Bust of Marie de France, Marble with lead inlays, French, Paris, from the chapel of Notre-Dame-la-Blanche, Royal Abbey of Saint Denis, Carved about 1381. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George Blumenthal, 1941 (acc. no. 41.100.132)

The Bust of Marie de France comes from her tomb originally located in the chapel of Notre-Dame-la-Blanche at the abbey (fig. 1). It formed part of the tomb effigy of the princess Marie de France (1326–1341) and her sister Blanche de France (1328–1393). Although Marie died very young, her effigy was not carved until about 1381 by the court sculptor, Jean de Liège (active about 1361, died 1381). We know how the completed tomb looked from a drawing made in 1715, which showed the head of the bust originally rested upon a stone pillow and wore a metal crown. It is believed that the bust was removed from the abbey sometime around 1793. More than one hundred years later, however, the bust was in the collection of the banker, philanthropist, and collector, George Blumenthal, who maintained a residence in Paris for many years. He bequeathed it to The Met in 1941 along with a distinguished collection of medieval art he had assembled.

An architectural canopy (fig. 2), originally part of the tomb of Philip III, son of Louis IX–also known as Saint Louis–also comes from the royal abbey. Commissioned by his son, Philip IV, the Fair (1268–1314), the tomb was carved in black and white marble by the master sculptor, Jean d’Arras (active 1297–1307) more than ten years after Philip III’s death in 1285 while on crusade. Reminiscent of gothic architecture of the period, its detailed carving includes vaults, tracery decoration, finials, and even a grotesque face on its interior (figs. 2, 3). Although both the canopy and the effigy of the king were removed from the abbey in 1796, the effigy was later returned. The canopy, however, fell into private hands and later surfaced in the renowned early twentieth-century art collections of Parisian architect-decorator-collector, Georges Hoentschel, and later that of New York banker, J. Pierpont Morgan.

Cultural institutions around the world house sculptural fragments and artworks, originally made for royal churches, monasteries, and residences, with both types of provenance. These two sculptures from different royal tombs at the Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis, are now displayed together at The Met where they provide some idea of their original placement and context (fig. 4). They also bear silent witness to the vandalism and appropriation of art that marked a tumultuous period in French history.

#fig. 4: Bust of Marie de France and Canopy of Philip III on view at The Met

Christine E. Brennan is Senior Researcher and Collections Manager in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters at The Met. Among other responsibilities, she conducts provenance research on the collection. She is also a specialist in the history of collecting medieval art in the nineteenth and twentieth century in Europe and America.


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