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on scroll held by angel: AVE GRACIA PLENA DO...NVS;on base of setting: AVE MARIA GRATIA PLENA.DNS TECV


Émile Molinier, Paris (?), "said to have come from a church in Florence";[1] purchased by Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, by 1918?[2], as Italian, fifteenth century; inheritance from the Estate of Peter A. B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, after purchase by funds of the Estate, 1942.

Technical Summary

The translucent enameled flowers in the frame just above and below the shell have suffered some damage, and the whole object shows evidence of at least one restoration. The shell may be a helmet shell, such as cassis madagascarensis.[1] It is repaired with wax at the upper edges of the arch. Several cracks between Mary and the angel are also repaired, and there is a translucent fill about 1.6 cm long between the figures. Traces of gilding or gold paint remain in the lettering, in the rays extending toward Mary, and around God the Father and the Angel. The surface of the shell is speckled with tiny black spots. There are traces of a dark color that may be on the back (visible through the shell), perhaps the same darkening agent applied to the reverses of other Renaissance shell cameos to make the relief portions stand out.[2]

The repoussé silver border varies from section to section in style and alloy composition, suggesting repairs, perhaps on several occasions.[3] The center-left piece, with a content of only about 8 percent silver, looks to be a summarily engraved facsimile of other sections of the border. The piece below it also appears different from the others and shows yet another alloy. The degree of subtler compositional variation among the remaining sections prevents any confident division into groups. The four tiny holes in the left section are thus far inexplicable.

The border of rings around the shell is a gilded copper alloy with impurities of zinc, lead, antimony, and tin in significant amounts. The back of the pax is almost pure gilded copper, containing only small amounts of tin and antimony, thus differing from the alloys on the front. The pure alloy and relatively crude style suggest that the back is modern. The pax reportedly has a wooden core.[4]

[1] Richard Houbrick of the Division of Mollusks, National Museum of Natural History, who examined the shell on 5 November 1985, noted that the carving had not left enough surface to permit a certain identification, but that what remained was consistent with a shell of this kind, found in the Red Sea and along the east coast of Africa. He observed that such shells often came to Europe as ballast in the holds of Dutch and Portuguese trading ships.[2] On this substance, possibly pitch, see Martha A. McCrory, "Renaissance Shell Cameos from the Carrand Collection of the Museo Nazionale del Bargello," BurlM 130 (1988), 412-413. See also Rudolf Berliner, "Französische Muschelschnitte, zugleich ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Säkularisarisation in Bayern," MunchJb neue folge 1 (1924), 38-39.[3] Barbara A. Miller, conservation scientist, reported (21 January 1983), based on X-ray fluorescence analysis, that the three sections of silver inlay along the right side, the section on the upper left, and the left section at the bottom are of the same composition, while the other pieces are silver-copper alloys of widely varying compositions. The plinth with the inscription is mercury-gilded, making it impossible to compare its silver alloy with those of the other sections.[4] Widener 1935, 33.

Inventory of the Objects d'Art at Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, The Estate of the Late P.A.B. Widener. Philadelphia, 1935: 33.
Works of Art from the Widener Collection. Foreword by David Finley and John Walker. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 10, as Italian 15th Century, Pax, carved on a shell.
Wilson, Carolyn C. Renaissance Small Bronze Sculpture and Associated Decorative Arts at the National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1983: 213, no. 1, as Franco-Flemish, fifteenth century, in a later, possibly Italian setting.
Distelberger, Rudolf, Alison Luchs, Philippe Verdier, and Timonthy H. Wilson. Western Decorative Arts, Part I: Medieval, Renaissance, and Historicizing Styles including Metalwork, Enamels, and Ceramics. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1993: 67-71, repro. 68.
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