Casket with Bone Reliefs
1st Half of 15th Century., wood, intarsia, bone, 35 x 54 x 27,5 cm
ZD P 1997061, Castle Brdo near Kranj, Brdo
The scenes relate to a story from a mediaeval French romance connected with the Lohengrin cycle (Le chevalier au Cygne) and with Gottfried von Bouillon’s story Hélias. The story was very widespread, also in Italy, in particular with the folk tale about Queen Stella and Mattabruna.
In the presence of her husband, King Euriante of Ilefort, and of her mother-in-law, Mattabruna, Queen Beatrix, on catching sight of a poor woman with twins, rashly said that no woman can give birth to two children at a time without having had relations with two men. The Queen’s thoughtlessness was punished – she gave birth to septuplets. Her wicked mother-in-law sent word to the King that his wife had given birth to seven dogs. In the Italian version of the folk story, as in our case, Mattabruna replaced the children with seven puppies while the Queen slept. The new-born babes were given to a servant, who was ordered to kill them, but instead he exposed them on the bank of a river, and there, after a revelation, they were found by a hermit. He bade a hind to suckle them and brought them up himself. He dressed them in clothing made of leaves, taught them and took the oldest to the royal court. Here the boy was given a knight’s education, but when he learned about Mattabruna’s conspiracy, he killed her attendant and presented his head to the King. In the presence of the King and Queen the wicked Mattabruna was burned, while her fellow conspirator – the servant who had exposed the children – was blinded.
On the front side of the casket we see from left to right Three Young Men; King Euriante and Queen Beatrix; The Poor Woman with a Little Boy and the Twins; Queen Beatrix in Childbed; A Servant Woman Bringing Seven Puppies; Three Figures; The King with Two Figures (the message that his wife has given birth to seven dogs), A Female Figure with Seven Puppies; Two Female Figures; A Woman Standing by as Mattabruna gives the Septuplets to the Servant; Mattabruna at the Stake and the Figures of Two Adolescents (Mattabruna, who has been Condemned to Death, The Servant Before he is Blinded?).
On the right side of the casket: The Hermit Following an Invisible Intimation and Finding the Septuplets in a Basket at the Riverside; The Hermit Carrying the Septuplets Home; The Hermit Bidding a Hind to Suckle a Child; The Hermit Teaching the Septuplets, who are dressed in clothing made of leaves.
On the back of the casket: The Septuplets in the Woods; The Septuplets – one of them with a bow – Shooting at a Doe; A Male Figure; The Servant Setting the Basket with the Septuplets Down on the Riverbank; A Young Man with a Wreath (or with the empty basket?); Ducks in the Water; A Man with Three Children; The Hermit Taking the Oldest Child to the Royal Court; Mattabruna and a Conspirator(?); The Hermit Presenting the Oldest Child at Court; The King Receiving the Child.
On the left side of the casket: A Young Knight (the eldest son?) in Chivalrous Battle with a Wounded Adversary; The King with Three Figures, a Child and a Child in a Leaf Robe; The Hermit and Two Children at the Edge of the Water with Ducks.
The inlaid lid of the casket is decorated with a bone frieze of nude genii. The central two on the front side are holding two heart-shaped shields* (Herzschild), which were characteristic of 15th century Italy. The coats of arms and the inscriptions were obviously carved later, that is around the year 1694, when on 24 May 1604 Anna Margherita Tizzone (Ticione)-Biandrate, daughter of Carlo Giuseppe Count Desana and Eleonora di San Martino, Marquise of Brozzano and Parella married Prince Michael Esterhazy (1671–1721). The top of the left coat of arms, that of the Esterhazy family, is decorated with a prince’s coronet and the capital letter L, in the centre are the symbols of this family (a griffon, a lion rampant with a crown and three roses) and at the edge of the shield the inscription: ESTERHAZY. 1694. FR. MICH. PRINC. The right coat of arms is that of the Counts of Desana who held property in Vercelli in northern Italy: at the top is a count’s (?) coronet, on the escutcheon are the symbols of the family: an eagle with wings spread, a chessboard and an ibex rampant. At the edge of the heart-shaped shield is the inscription: BL. COM. DEC. AM. MARCA. On the back of the lid two nude genii are holding the coat of arms of the Desana family with the inscription COM. DEC. 1452. ANT. MARRI. TIT.
As wedding caskets go this is one of the richest and most luxurious. It is in an excellent state of preservation, with the exception of the round legs and the coats of arms which were added later. Some of the relief panels were probably moved.
It would appear that the bone reliefs with the coats of arms and the dates were added in the 17th century.
It could be that the coats of arms were carved at the time the casket was made, and that they were later changed, or the shields could even have been left empty – blind – which was often the case. Sometimes the coats of arms were only painted on the blank shields. The coats of arms which we see today were certainly carved later than the other reliefs.
The casket very probably comes from the Venetian area; we date it to the first half of the 15th century.
* For help with the identification of the coats of arms we are indebted to Ulrike Kaspar-Müller, Vienna, Andreas Cornaro, Vienna, and Božo Otorepec, Ljubljana.
Preservation: Good, although there are traces of later repairs.
Provenance: Unknown. It was kept in President Tito’s residence at Brdo Castle near Kranj: perhaps purchased around 8 March 1976, when a commission was set up to assess the value of the art works (the record of this was still at the castle on 30 March 1992); 1986 transferred to the Narodna galerija, Ljubljana, but unfortunately the casket had to be returned to Brdo Castle in 1997.
(Painting is for the time being no longer exhibited.)