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Exiled Navarrese heritage (11). On the trail of some medieval ivory boxes from Estella


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Diario de Navarra

Ricardo Fernández Gracia

Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art

In introducing this series dedicated to the exiled and, therefore, decontextualized heritage of Navarre, we insist on the importance of having photographs of those pieces that are no longer in these lands. Their existence has made it possible to identify no less than the pyx of San Pedro de la Rúa in Estella and the ivory Virgin of the Poor Clares of the same city, which are now exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the Britihs Museum in London. It is no small thing.

Photographs, inventory and cataloguing of heritage, yesterday and today, are fundamental for the preservation of cultural heritage and even for its recovery in the case of theft, even if it takes a long time. The lack of photographs makes everything difficult. Think of the great robbery in Estella in 1979, in which no less than twenty-six objects were stolen, most of which have not been recovered, partly because they were not photographed.

On the trail of the boxes with a picture of Laurent

In the same photograph of the aforementioned Estellese pyx -studied by E. Quintanilla-, whose negative is preserved in the high school of Spanish Cultural Heritage in Madrid, three other boxes appear, the object of this partnership. The snapshot belongs to the Laurent house, which launched a series of reports of monuments and objects from various Spanish provinces, under the direction of Alfonso Roswag and Catalina M. Dosch, after the retirement of Jean Laurent in 1881. The photo appears in the commercial catalog of the Laurent house published in 1896. In that context, it must have been a magnet for antique dealers and collectors. 

The boxes, together with the pyx, must have left Estella in 1902, judging by various data published by Goñi Gazbambide, in the same circumstances of the attempted sale of the crozier of San Pedro de la Rúa and the sale of the ivory Virgin of the Poor Clares, under the episcopate of Fray José López y Mendoza, with Tomás Larumbe y Lander as parish priest. The first one is known for his dealings with antique dealers and notorious alienations. The second one, attacked by the "evil of the stone", in expression of Don José Goñi Gaztambide, was distinguished by numerous works in the parish, not always justified and with contested accounts.

To purpose of the alienation of the enamel crozier in 1901, the protests ended with its return to the parish by the bishop. However, in June 1902, Víctor Martínez de Eguía, neighbor of Estella, gives us the core topic of the departure of some objects, among them the ivory boxes, which contained relics from time immemorial. In 1582, date of the first parish inventory, "four small round boxes with many relics of saints" are listed (including the pyx). In subsequent inventories, the boxes are always located on the altar of St. Andrew. 

At the end of the 19th century, those in charge of the parish reported the legend that those vessels and the "very artistic ivory one with images", undoubtedly the pyx, had been brought by the bishop of Patras. All of them contained various relics, including thread spun by the Virgin herself.

In a written request addressed to the City Council of Estella by the aforementioned Martínez de Eguía, he asked where some of the jewels of patron saint san Andrés, which had been removed from their place, were located, if they had left Spain and who had bought them. The bishop did not answer the questions, believing them to be "depressive of his authority", limiting himself to refund the most significant piece, the crozier, in August 1902.

Ivory boxes

The ivory boxes ended up in the Arenaza collection in Bilbao, where they were known to José Ferrandis, who published their records in the second volume of his monograph on Arab ivories from the West (Madrid, 1940). The text notes the Estellan provenance of three circular ones and another oval one.

The track of the pieces was lost until 2014, when the three cylindrical ones were auctioned, figuring as siculo-arabic boats of the XIII-XIV centuries. The one with the smallest height was acquired by the Museum of Decorative Arts in Madrid, where Félix García Díez made a conscientious record, dating it to the 13th century. The dimensions, description and Laurent's photograph are enlightening and attest to the Estellan provenance of the auctioned pieces.

The characteristics of these works are typical of the Sicilian ivory container works of the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries and are linked to the Hispano-Muslim tradition of the Umayyad caliphate. Most of these pieces have been preserved in cathedral and monastic treasuries, from where they left in the 19th century to enter the art market. Many of them are exhibited in Spanish collections such as the Lázaro Galdiano or the high school Valencia de don Juan and in numerous international museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, or the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin.

The one acquired by the Museo de Artes Decorativas has, like the other two larger ones, smooth drop-shaped hardware on the lid and base. Remains of gilt and black decoration with figurative, animal and vegetal motifs are preserved on its surfaces, as well as the remains of a pseudo-epigraphic registration on the rim of the lid. It has handles and a lock with a rectangular plate and espagnolette. It also preserves the original interior lining, made of a red silk and paper fabric.