Imbued with extreme pathos and vivacity, Jacobus Agnesius’ masterpiece The Flagellation of Christ shown here, is undoubtedly one of the largest and most remarkable ivory groups to have come to the market. Hidden in a private collection in Chile since the mid-17th century, this group has facilitated a new understanding of the extraordinary capabilities of a sculptor long obscured from view, whom few could rival in Baroque Europe.
One of the scenes from the Passion of Christ, the Flagellation of Christ preceded the Crowning of Christ with Thorns and, ultimately, the Crucifixion. Christ is slumped to the floor, struggling and bound to a low column, as his two tormentors unleash a barrage of heavy strokes to his bare skin with whips. One of the two soldiers grabs the back of Christ’s hair, as Christ rolls his eyes and looks upwards in a scene of deep emotional and physical suffering.
The artist responsible for the Christ at the Column has, for centuries, been completely anonymous. It is only very recently, most notably through Dr. Eike Schmidt’s article on Agnesius’ Saint Sebastian published in 2011, that our limited knowledge of Agnesius’ oeuvre has been pieced together (E. Schmidt, Beauty Bound and Power Unleashed: Jacobus Agnesius and the Quest for Expression in Baroque Ivory Sculpture, New York, 2011).
Schmidt identified eight ivory figures or groups, five of them depicting Saint Sebastian, that bear the distinctive handling of Agnesius. Since the article was published at least three more have come to light, including the present Flagellation. We now know of three ivory groups signed by the artist. The first, the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, in the collection of the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi, is inscribed in ink: 1638 / Jacobus Agnesius / Caluensis. Sculp. The second, a Cristo Vivo inscribed to the reverse of Christ’s perizonium IACO…S. A…S … VENS… was sold at Sotheby’s, London, 9 July 2015, lot 167.
These two inscriptions give us a name, a date, and some information as to the origin of this elusive figure. It had previously been proposed that ‘Caluensis’ refered to the Swabian city of Calw, rather than any of the Italian or French towns named Calvi. Schmidt noted that the artist’s signature on the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew is not in the Korrent or Fraktur script used in Central Europe in the seventeenth century, but rather in Antiqua-based letters, as was more the norm for Italy and France. Philippe Malgouyres has subsequently discovered a third signed work, a Crucifix inscribed ‘Jacobus A. S’ (Jacobus Agnesius Sculpsit), in the church of Sainte-Marie- Majeure in Calvi (Malgouyres, 2013, loc. cit.), which seemingly confirms Schmidt’s belief that the artist originated from this small Corsican town.
In addition to the present group and the three signed works, there are a number of ivory groups that can be firmly placed within Agnesius’ small oeuvre. The subject of Schmidt’s article was the discovery of a Saint Sebastian which came on the art market in late 2011. In addition to the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew in Albi, there is a second ivory group of the same subject in a private collection. Besides the above-mentioned Saint Sebastian which was sold in 2012 and the Saint Sebastian in the Liechtenstein Collections, there is now a second ivory of Saint Sebastian in the Liechtenstein Collections which was acquired in 2007. There is a fourth ivory of Saint Sebastian in the Louvre Museum (inv. Thiers 158) attributed to Agnesius by Malgouyres (loc. cit.). A fifth depiction of Saint Sebastian, undoubtedly a favourite subject of the artist and his patrons, was recorded in the Convent of Saint Clare in Estella, Navarra. Schmidt also lists another depiction of the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian in a private collection.
Of particular importance for the Bravo de Saravia Flagellation, there is also a single carved ivory figure of Christ which remains in a private South American collection. This figure was also part of a flagellation group, although Christ is depicted standing whereas he has collapsed in the present group. These two figures of Christ are near identical, with the same elongated physiognomy and exaggerated and contorted musculature – from the deep folds in the flesh of their stomachs to their carefully delineated vertebrae. The hair on their heads, with their wispy tendrils on their foreheads and curling locks on their shoulders, together with the distinctive tightly-coiled curls of their moustaches and beards, further emphasise Agensius’s unique ability to achieve deeply emotional depictions of physical suffering through his mastery of the chisel.
Agnesius in Rome
The palpable influence of the art of Rome on Agensius’ work, from the ancient Laocoon, to the works of Michelangelo and Bernini, appear to be the result of extended personal study of the monuments themselves, and indicate that Agnesius had a sojourn in Rome at some point in his career by the 1630s (ibid, p. 37). Agnesius developed his own unique style, characterised by figures formed in twisting, highly strained poses, their anatomy rendered with astonishing precision, tightly wrapped in drapery, and juxtaposed in scenes of high drama, offering views in the round from all conceivable angles. Schmidt wrote of one Saint Sebastian figure, which is equally relevant to the present group:
‘There is almost no comparison for such precise rendering of human anatomy in ivory; and even in bronze statuettes, there are few works that show such careful observation and articulation…Agnesius looks at the human body with an anatomist’s eye, and exploits the landscape of bones and muscles in order to achieve a maximum of expression.’ (ibid, pp. 28-32).
The size of Agnesius’s ivories sets him apart from other seventeenth century sculptors. Ivory was an expensive commodity and the present group must have been a major commission. Christ and the two soldiers are among the largest ivory figures ever made. One flagellator, with both his hands raised in the air, is an enormous 60 cm. high, measuring from his left foot to the hand of the raised left arm. In 1646 Adam Lechhardt charged the Liechtenstein court more than 118 gulden for an unworked elephant tusk weighing 73 pounds, which works out at several hundred times the average labourer’s daily salary (Trusted, op. cit., xxxv). While contemporary sculptors tried to contain their figures within a single tusk, Agnesius was apparently under no such financial constraints. Throughout the entire seventeenth century only around a dozen works of comparable scale are extant.
From Spain to the New World
Almost nothing is known of the early history of Agnesius’s ivories. The present ivory is an exceptional case as it was recorded in the Bravo de Saravia collection close to the years when Agnesius is known to have been working in the mid-17th century and has remained in the same family ever since. It may even have been a direct commission from the artist. Its early appearance in South America also provides an important example of the strong links between the fortunes and collections of the Old and the New World. In the Bravo de Saravia family archives a letter dated May 20, 1654 from Padre Pedro de Salina, an administrator at the great family castle of Almenar de Soria, in Spain, is a description of the interior of the castle:
…through the center courtyard we penetrate the guards room which is on the west side, and from there, crossing an entrance hall, we enter the SALA DEL SANTO CRISTO DE LA FLAGELACIÓN, as well as the rooms of the señores de Río…
It is very likely that the ‘sala del santo cristo de la flagelación’ mentioned is the oratory or chapel of the castle and that it was named after the spectacular ivory displayed within this space. At this time the castle was owned by Francisco Bravo de Saravia y Ovalle. Francisco was the great-grandson of Melchor Bravo de Saravia y Sotomayor (1512-1577), a Spanish Conquistador who arrived in the New World in 1549, served in Lima as the Viceroy of Peru from 1552-1556, and was later named Governor of Chile by King Philip II of Spain in 1567.
The group was probably given as a gift to Francisco by his uncle Alonso de Ovalle (1603-1651), who had served as the family lawyer during his drawn out inheritance. De Ovalle, a Jesuit priest, was a man of sophisticated taste and an important historian of the period, and it is probable he had the Christ at the Column removed from the castle of Almenar and shipped to his nephew who was living in Chile. The object is then found repeatedly in family documentation throughout the ensuing centuries (see Provenance).
The photograph depicted here shows the group in the salon of the family palace in Santiago in the early 20th century (see comparative image). By this date the ivory was enclosed in an impressive ormolu-mounted ebonised wood stand, commissioned in 1909 from the celebrated Parisian firm of Barbedienne.