For a college museum, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center boasts an astounding number of exquisite works comprising numerous time periods, styles and mediums. While the Loeb’s collection has always managed to educate and impress, with its latest acquisition, a 13th-century Limoges Eucharistic Dove, the Loeb’s medieval arts collection suddenly feels a bit more dazzling.
For centuries, art has always been used to express the divine, and this liturgical piece is a prime example. In Catholicism, Eucharistic objects are decorative pieces used to house a symbolic piece of the body of Christ, typically a wafer. As an emblem of peace and purity in the New Testament, dove imagery is often used in religious ceremonies to represent the Holy Spirit. The meshing of two thirds of the Trinity makes the piece’s symbolic qualities a useful means for understanding religious practices.
While the majority of Eucharistic Doves are inherently similar in structure and decoration, each piece has its own unique characteristics. A beautiful example of medieval French metalwork, this particular Eucharistic Dove features Champlevé enamel and parcel gilt crafted to give the appearance of layers of feathers, and it sits on a circular base. On the top of the piece sits a hinged lid, which opens to reveal a small compartment used to hold the wafers.
As Associate Professor of Art Andrew Tallon further explained, “Unlike a common reliquary, of which many were produced in Limoges at this time, this object stands an order above because it is designed not as the container of the relics of this or that saint, but as a container for Jesus Christ himself.”
“It functioned as a ciborium, or portable tabernacle,” Tallon continued, “with the exceptional import offered by its iconographical resonance with the dove of the Holy Spirit. This was an object sent on a mission from God above to bear Christ to the altar of Eucharistic sacrifice.”
What makes this acquisition particularly exciting is the rarity of the piece. Crafted during a very short period of time, 1213 to 1235, very few of these birds remain. Currently, only five other museums in the United States have any Eucharistic Doves in their possession, all of which possess extensive art collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston Museum of Fine Art, National Gallery, Walters Art Museum and Denver Art Museum.
Worldwide, only 40 doves are known to still be in existence. The last time a Eucharistic Dove has been on the market was 2007, making this a truly novel purchase.
“Now that we have a Eucharistic Dove, you don’t have to take a trip to the Met to see one,” said the Anne Hendricks Bass Director of the Art Center James Mundy. “Any time you have an object like this, it makes it easier to teach because suddenly it is all very accessible. It makes it easy on yourself.”
According to Mundy, a potential reason for their rarity is the fact that ceremonially they are suspended by a chain high above the altar. Therefore, it is very easy for the bird to be dropped and to lose parts. Mundy points out that the Loeb’s new Eucharistic Dove likely suffered a similar fate, as the stand the bird sits on is a 19th-century addition.
As a case study in craftsmanship, the Eucharistic Dove has great merit from a technical perspective.
“The mode for creating this bird is not an easy thing to master, especially because we are talking about the years 1212-1235,” said Mundy. “There are so many variables which must be controlled which were particularly hard to control back then. To think of all the care that goes into creating a piece like this is remarkable.”
The Eucharistic Dove was crafted by hammering together the two halves of the body and connecting it with pins which run through the material. The wings and tail were then attached, which were filled with enamel. On the wings, small channels were molded. Powdered glass was then heated, turning it to liquid. The channels were then filled with the colored, powdered glass. As it cooled, it solidified.
While the dove is likely to be noticed due to its impressive exterior, Eucharistic Doves also come accompanied by their own bit of mystery. Due to their scarcity and the short period of time during which they were popular, not much is known about the purpose of these objects, which is part of what intrigued Tallon about the piece.
Thinking the Loeb’s procurement would be the great opportunity for research, he reached out to art history student Meg Foster ’18 to see if she would like to focus her senior thesis on the dove, which she agreed to do. Citing the fact that little is known about these objects would make this an interesting research opportunity, Foster is currently in the early stages of finding answers.
“The Eucharistic Doves were produced in such a small pocket,” Foster stated, “that I think the most exciting part of my research is just trying to figure out why people started making them and why they stopped,” said Foster. “I want to know why this form became popular out of the blue and why they stopped using it all of a sudden, and I am excited to see if I can find out.”
The dove will also serve as the centerpiece for a spring seminar course called “Object of Devotion, Object of Display: Exhibiting Sacred Art in Secular Space.” While conducting a study of museum architecture, installation and collection, in this course, students will have the opportunity to participate directly in the creation of an exhibition in May 2018 involving the Eucharistic Dove. Potentially, the exhibit will include other Eucharistic Doves on loan.
“I think it’s a great object for teaching because you have this really engaging, really cute bird, with so many bright colors,” said Mundy. “Yet, this is also a serious object with a serious purpose. By combining these things, this piece is a great way of gaining access to the medieval period.”
An object of great beauty and complexity, it is undeniable that the dove will serve as a valuable asset in the study of art history, medieval studies and religion, both as a conversation starter and a supplemental piece.
Making its home amongst the paintings, statues and other works of artistic merit one can find in the Loeb, this source of gilded eye candy is truly a valuable acquisition. While the Eucharistic Dove has only been on display in the Loeb since this past March, it is clear that it will continue to be a defining piece in the space for years to come.
“This is a wonderful piece because it very much touches on the key components needed to study art and a time period, and I feel that the Loeb and the Vassar community are very lucky to have it,” says Foster. “It truly is a beautiful addition.”