Although few documents survive regarding the life and work of Leonard Limosin, he was perhaps the best known enameller of the French Renaissance. Two signed plaques of identical lozenge format to the present set of ten (now musée municipal de l’Evêché de Limoges, see Notin, loc. cit.) also bear the coat of arms of Jean de Langeac, the Bishop of Limoges, and it is believed that this influential prelate was responsible for introducing Limosin to the French court where his career flourished. He painted numerous enamel portraits of members of the French aristocracy, and in 1545 François I commissioned Limosin to produce a suite of 12 large enamelled plaques of the Apostles which are today at Chartres. In 1548 he was appointed Emailleur du Roi, and in 1553 he received a commission from Henri II for two enamel altarpieces each more than one metre in height representing the Crucifixion and the Resurrection for the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris (Baratte, op. cit., pp. 180-183). These are perhaps his most ambitious and best-known works.
The ten Rothschild Apostles exemplify Limosin’s finest creations in his clear sense of colour and the lively and original compositions. Three of the plaques, of SS Andrew, Bartholomew and Paul are signed ‘LL’. These ten plaques formed part of a larger set of sibyls, prophets and saints that adorned the antependium of an altar and a liturgical lamp that hung above it in the now-lost church of Santa Maria della Celestia in Venice, where they had been since at least the mid-17th century. A watercolour of the antependium by Jan II Grevenbroek (1731-1807) survives in the Correr Museum, showing the original placement of the Rothschild enamels. Grevenbroek's caption for both this drawing and that of the lamp suggest that he was referring to church inventories dated 1653 which include the antependium. The fact that there are only 10 apostles would suggest that there may have been an existing - incomplete - set of enamels that was incorporated into a newly created antependium in the middle of the 17th century.
In 1810, the church, which formed part of a convent, was closed by Napoleon and the antependium and liturgical lamp were both moved to the Benedictine abbey church of Monastier, near Treviso. In 1875 they were sold to the antique dealer Ricchetti and then acquired by Baron Gustave de Rothschild. The ten lozenge-shaped enamels offered here, and twenty rectangular plaques from the antependium and lamp remained in the Rothschild collections, and the rectangular plaques were later sold at auction (Couturier and de Nicolay, Paris, 29 March 2000, lot 95). Of the original set from the Celestia, the twenty plaques in the above-mentioned sale were acquired by the Musée nationale de la Renaissance, Château d’Ecouen, one is in the Correr museum in Venice and at least three are unlocated. Another related set of rectangular plaques depicting sybils and prophets is in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore (see Verdier, loc. cit.).
It is not known how the enamels of the Celestia made their way from France to Venice, but it has been suggested that it may have been at the instigation of Jean de Langeac, Bishop of Limoges (d. 1541). De Langeac was a member of an aristocratic family from the Auvergne region. Born as the second son, he studied in Paris and then entered the church. He accumulated a number of ecclesiastical benefices and became a confidant of François I, being named to the king's Grand Conseil in 1516. He held important positions in the Royal Household and acted as a diplomat on numerous occasions including to Venice in 1530, to Ferrara in 1533 and to Rome in 1540. Although no conclusive evidence has yet surfaced, de Langeac was an important patron himself, and as a representative of the king it is entirely possible that the enamels were a diplomatic gift. Considering the subject matter, it seems likely that they were always intended to go in a religious setting so it is possible that they were given directly to the Catholic church. However it is also possible that they were originally given to a private individual for a private chapel and were donated to the Celestia sometime before 1653.