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The Barnabas Altarpiece: A Possible Link with Southern France, St. Louis and Cyprus

  • John Fletcher

The provenance and purpose of the Barnabas Altarpiece, acquired in 1971 by the Kimbell Art Museum and exceptional for being a large early gothic retable on panel, has baffled art historians since 1950, when it became better known;it has since been dated to 1250-60. It was catalogued in 1972 on rather slender grounds as being English (a view that has become increasingly suspect) and it was proposed in 1965 that a bishop Barnabas (at that time not identified) was the donor. The panels are of willow, a wood occasionally used in medieval times for large panels in Mediterranean areas around the Gulf of Lyons, but never in northern Europe or Spain. A priest named Barnabas was made bishop of Osma by King Alphonso of Castile to whom he was physician. He held the see until his death in c. 1351 and founded a chaplaincy in the cathedral in 1350. However, neither that date nor the identification of the panels as willow is consistent with the hypothesis that he was the donor. It is here proposed that the panels were made in the south of France and that the inscription—Barnabas: Eps—applied to St. Barnabas, the apostle born in Cyprus and the first of a long line of archbishops; furthermore that this altarpiece was painted by a southern French artist for a church in Cyprus, probably that dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul in the royal complex at Nicosia which included the castle/palace and Dominican monastery. It had been the wish of St. Louis, while making preparations in Cyprus in 1248/9 for his crusade, that a new monastic church should form the royal mausoleum for the Lusignan dynasty.

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1 Kimbell Art Museum catalogue 1972, p. 21.

2 See Appendix for report on the thorough examination at the Swiss Institute of Art Research, Zurich, prior to restoration there in 1968. A doubt, based on misleading hearsay of an X-radiograph made in 1956 in which some, but not all, of the worm-holes were believed to be penetrated by gesso, was completely disproved by examinations in 1968. They included X-radiographs which the writer has seen and discussed with Mr. E. Bosshard, the present Chief Restorer at the Institute.

3 Hartt, F., Italian Renaissance Art (revd. edn., 1980), pp. 47–8.

4 Wormald, F., ‘Paintings in Westminster Abbey’, Proc. Brit. Academy, xxxv (1949), pp. 161–76.

5 Marette, J., Connaissance des primitifs par l'étude du bois (Paris, 1961). This reports the species of wood found for over 1,000 paintings on panel. The general principle was that a suitable local species was almost invariably used by the panel-maker. Fletcher, J. and Tapper, M. C., ‘Hans Holbein the Younger at Antwerp and in England 1526-28’, Apollo (February 1983), pp. 8793, show that the Marette principle is consistent with the paintings by Holbein at Basle, and apply the principle to derive the provenance of some of his paintings on oak: the article includes a map, fig. 3, showing the indigenous species used for sixteenth-century paintings in parts of western Europe.

6 Willow was an inferior substitute for poplar, available in otherwise treeless areas such as the Bouches-du-Rhne. Like poplar, it was capable of providing wide boards. Marette found only two paintings on willow. Both, unlike oak panels, were pulverized by insect attack. One was a retable of c. 1410-15 at Thouzon from the Avignon school; the other was later and believed to be from Florence.

7 Laclotte, M., L'Étcole d'Avignon (Paris, 1960).

8 Enlart, C., Manuel d'archéologie (Paris, 1902).

9 ‘Le triptyque Barnabas, un tableau romano-gothique’, L'Illustration (Paris, December 1948).

10 For that of 1950, see text. Charpentier, Galerie, Cent peintures religieuses (1952), catalogue no 2.

11 ‘A Salisbury Psalter of c. 1250, All Souls College MS.6’: see Morgan, Nigel, Survey of MSS. Illuminated in the British Isles, IV,Early Gothic Painting, pt. 2, 1250-85, forthcoming.

12 Turner, D. H., Early Gothic Illuminated Manuscripts (British Museum, 1965; British Library, 1979).

13 See Kimbell catalogue, 1972, for references to correspondence and also for a detailed description of the painting.

14 Letter from Dr. Nigel Morgan, 20th October 1982, in which he stated that he was not happy that the work was considered to be English and found the stylistic comparisons put forward to support this unconvincing.

15 Letter of 16th January 1969 to Richard Brown, Director, The Kimbell Art Foundation.

16 Post, Chandler, The History of Spanish Painting, I–XIV (19301966).

17 I am grateful to The Revd. Dr. W. M. Oddie for this information. Similarly, St. Paul was described as ‘Paul EPS’ on Malta.

18 Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, VI (Paris, 1932), p. 850.

19 The relevant paragraph (J. Loperraez Corvalan, Description historica del obspado de Osma, I (Madrid, 1788), p. 293, para. 12) records Bishop Barnabas as having accompanied the King when he waged waron the Moors in Andalucia in 1349 and having been killed at Gibraltar in 1350. The account continues with the transfer of the bishop's responsibilities to the young Don Pedro, who succeeded Alphonso, and the founding of the chaplaincy in the same sentence. Barnabas had served the king for twenty-five years. No painted altarpiece or other memorial is mentioned. I wish to thank Mr. F. W. Hodcroft, Lecturer in Spanish at Oxford University, for pointing out the ambiguity of the phrase as given by the Spanish author.

20 Ninety-eight of the 168 Spanish paintings examined by Mme Marette was Catalan, being on poplar or pine, with none on willow. Twenty-three were early, whereas none of the twenty-one Castilian ones examined was dated to before the fourteenth century and none was on willow (seven were on walnut and fourteen on pine).

21 Buchtal, H., Miniature Painting in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Oxford, 1957).

22 Hackett, J., History of the Orthodox Church in Cyprus (London, 1901), pp. 304 and 651.

23 Enlart, C., L'Art gothique et la Renaissance en Chypre, vols. I and II (Paris, 1899).

24 Jeffery, G., Historic Monuments of Cyprus (Nicosia, 1918).

25 di Lusignano, S., Description ou histoire de Chypre (translation fro m Italian) (Paris, 1580).

26 L. de Mas Latrie (various articles, 1845-96), Enlart (op. cit.) and Hackett (op. cit.) listed numerous medieval Latin churche s in Nicosia. Jeffrey, (op. cit., p. 303) used those given by Enlart and Hackett to name thirty-one for the medieval period, but not all of them existed in the thirteenth century.

27 In 1267 Hugh II was buried with his ancestors in the church of St. John of the Hospitallers at Nicosia. This may imply either a wish to be buried wit h ancestors, or that the new royal mausoleum in the Dominican church was not complete. The royal tombs were destroyed by the Venetians in 1574.

28 Enlart, , op. cit., vol. I, pp. 37–8. The details given of Bernard d'Ecotay appear in the section ‘Influencedu midi de la France’. Enlart mentions the privileges of the merchants of Marseilles, of Montpellier, and of Narbonne for making shipments to Cyprus. For having influenced art on the island in the thirteenth century, he names some of the noble families of Provence and others from the Auvergne (the northern part of the gothic school of art of Languedoc). Before going to Cyprus, Bernard d'Ecotay had been treasurer at Notre Dame de Montbrison, described by Enlart as a remarkable example of gothic art in southern France.

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The Antiquaries Journal
  • ISSN: 0003-5815
  • EISSN: 1758-5309
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