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Original scientific paper

Two Polychrome Wood-Carved Altars from the Island of Lopud

Igor Fisković ; Department of History of Art, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Zagreb

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page 177-202

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Three cinquecento polychrome wood-carved altars have been preserved on the island of Lopud near Dubrovnik, the most monumental of which is situated in the parish church of Our Lady of Šunj. Its retable was constructed to resemble a classical aedicule, with an intricately carved frame and a central figural depiction
of the Assumption of the Virgin, complemented by a complex iconographic programme in the symmetrically arranged adjoining scenes. Filling the small cassettes of the predella are reliefs of the Annunciation and Christ as the Man of Sorrows, together with perspectively rendered narrative scenes of the Last Supper and the Washing of the Feet, while in the pediment is a frontal depiction of the Coronation of the Virgin by the Holy Trinity. In the narrow side wings between the columns and pilasters are four bas-reliefs of local patron saints depicted half-turned towards the central image, and thus achieving an overall plastic harmony for a demanding content. In terms of space, the main scene is well-developed through a pronounced sculptural modelling of the figures of the eleven apostles in the round, the most prominent of which is that of St Peter, placed in the foreground and turned to face the nave of the church, while the others are consumed by the miraculous assumption of the Virgin into heaven. She is
followed high up by a pair of small angels and several tiny symbolical cherubim heads, all of which helps to achieve an extremely convincing religious scene. Its attractiveness is significantly heightened by the all’antica realism and pedantic Roman-inspired modelling which highlight the skill of a highly trained and talented master wood carver, which leaves no doubt that this is a special work of art, and indeed, the most beautiful
carved wood retable in the east Adriatic which has survived to date.
In this first complete study of the altar, the author traces historical records in which it is mentioned without the exact year of its creation, origin or carver being cited. He dispels the tradition that the altar was brought from England, supposedly from the Chapel of Henry VIII, and explains this tradition as having been based on the discovery of an alabaster altar, a typical product of late Gothic workshops at Nottingham,
several examples of which exist in Dalmatia. From the
seventeenth-century records, on the other hand, we learn that the altar in the church of the „Madonna del Sugni” (a vernacular Italo-Croatian transformation of the word Assunta) was dedicated in 1572. An examination of comparative material establishes that the altar’s compositional scheme draws upon altarpieces painted by Alvise Vivarini around 1480, while its
morphological features find their closest parallel in the activities and mannerisms of the Venetian workshop of Paolo Campsa, who worked from the 1490s to the early 1550s, and who sold his works in the wide area under the government of La Serenissima. The Republic of Venice profited a great deal from this export, while its urban centre’s innumerable wooden altars disappeared following subsequent changes of fashion. A group of securely attributed works shows that Paolo Campsa frequently borrowed formulas and idioms from Venetian painters of the older generation; analogies with two of Vivarini’s altar paintings confirm that he repeated this technique on the Lopud altar, even though altars as complex as this are not found in the surviving oeuvre of this artist. An overview of the extremely numerous works attributed to this fecund wood carver has not
led to a secure attribution of this scenically developed altar to his hand. However, an analytical observation points to significant similarities with individual figures considered by scholars of Renaissance wooden sculpture to be products of his workshop - more a factory, in fact - or of his circle which, without a doubt, Paolo stamped with his mark. Apart from the assumption
that there are master wood carvers who have not been
identified, or formally and clearly differentiated, who followed his teachings and mannerisms, this paper opens the possibility of locating more exactly the place of the altar’s creation. Since Campsa’s workshop was active even after his death, it can be assumed that the altar was made in the 1560s or 1570s, and that it was transported and assembled on the island of Lopud
for its dedication of 1572. Furthermore, the author observes the meaning of the subsequent addition of the background, which was painted once the altar reached its destination; it shows a summarized depiction of the scenery of Lopud and a tiny settlement with a precisely and proportionately drawn sailing ship docked at the island’s bay. The background reveals that the nature of
the work was votive and, by identifying the layers of local historical circumstance and by combining them with the relevant written sources, it can be connected to the activities of the distinguished ship owner Miho Pracat, the richest citizen of the Republic of Dubrovnik during the cinquecento.
Two more wooden sculptures can be added to Miho Pracat’s donation to his home island: the figures of St Catherine and St Roch which were also made in Venice and which had originally belonged to a small altar of his family in the local church of St Francis, known from archival records. This altar was composed
of an older polychrome triptych, now unfortunately lost, and which, together with a pair of side statues, formed a piece resembling a number of altarpieces from Paolo Campsa’s workshop. Thus, the analysis of these works of art reveals key components of visual culture, and a peculiar mosaic of sixteenth-century artistic production in a peripheral community of the small island of Lopud
under the government of the Republic of Dubrovnik.


polychrome and wood-carved altars, Lopud, Venetian wood-carving workshops, Mannerism, Paolo Campsa, Miho Pracat

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