Tempera, gilding, and glazed silver leaf on poplar wood
92 1/4 x 42 1/4 x 21 1/4 in. (234.3 x 107.3 x 54 cm)
Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Museum purchase, The Meadows Foundation Fund, MM.96.01
Hear a reading of the object label (1:38 minutes)
This cabinet is a rare kind of sacred furniture and Eucharistic container, or tabernacle, which was used to store the reserve host for use within the Catholic Mass. Cabinets such as this were made in the Catalan region of Rosselló (now the French Roussillon) in the last third of the fourteenth century and were, as the images attest, at once practical and sacred. The cabinet’s iconography makes reference to its function by inspiring the viewer to meditate on the body and blood of Christ that, in the form of the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist, would have been stored within. On the upper register of the doors the Archangel Gabriel (left) and the Virgin Mary (right) appear in The Annunciation, the moment of Christ’s conception in his mother’s womb, which refers to the transubstantiation of the host during the Mass. On the back panel of the cabinet, the Crucifixion includes Eucharistic symbols such as the angels who gather Christ’s blood into liturgical chalices. Atop the cross, a pelican piercing its breast to feed its young is a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice of himself for the salvation of others.
Although the cabinet has been somewhat altered by restoration, as is common with wooden objects of such antiquity, its most important painted elements remain well preserved. The gilded interlace design on the exterior of the doors is inspired by Islamic ornament and references the stylistic diversity characteristic of medieval Spain.
Listen to Joseph Salvatore Ackley, assistant professor of art history at Wesleyan University discuss this work (2:52 minutes)
Catalan Liturgical Cabinet, c. 1375–1400
by Joseph Salvatore Ackley, assistant professor of art history at Wesleyan University
This liturgical cabinet is such an exciting and rare survival from the Middle Ages. I want to draw our attention to the door interiors and the four large figures that we see painted there.
At upper left, we have the Archangel Gabriel. He is kneeling, he is dressed as a deacon, he is gesticulating and holding white lilies, and he is calling over to the Virgin at upper right. She looks out at us, but notice that she's also clutching her cloak. It's almost as if she is shrinking from this news. And this is indeed the Annunciation, the moment when the Archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin that she is going to be the mother of God. Below the Virgin, we have a standing female saint, unidentified, but we do know that she is a martyr because she is holding a palm and a palm branch was an attribute of martyrdom. At lower left, we have a standing male figure. This is going to be John, one of the four gospel writers. He is holding an inkwell and a quill, and he is writing the text of his gospel in that open book. And I want to look even more closely at the books and the texts that we see in these figures. The texts themselves are legible. They are written in Latin. They are intentionally and carefully chosen quotations from the New Testament, from the gospels.
In the lectern in front of the Virgin upper right, for example, we begin with Luke 1:38, which reads, in Latin, “ecce ancilla Domini fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.” “I am the handmaiden of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.” This is followed by a quotation from John, John 1:14, “Verbum caro factum est et habitavit”: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt,” and then the quotation continues, “and dwelt among us”. The book that the Virgin holds in her lap has the opening words of a hymn, which is commonly referred to as the Magnificat. This begins in Luke 1:46, “magnificat anima mea Dominum” (“and may soul enhance or magnify the Lord”). And then, finally, in the lower-left, the figure of John. John isn't labeled. We know that he is John, however, because the words that he is writing, which are the opening words of the gospel of John, “in principio erat Verbum” (“In the beginning there was the Word”). We can see “in principio erat,” and then we just have the “V” with a little abbreviation mark for “Verbum.”
For these texts, when writing in Latin, sometimes they use abbreviations. So sometimes you have all of the Latin letters that are included and sometimes you have little marks that signal where certain words have been abbreviated. Again, these texts are carefully chosen and they enhance the meaning and significance of this liturgical cabinet, its iconography, and its function.