By Alice Isabella Sullivan | University of Michigan
The treasury at Putna Monastery in Romania preserves a wooden sacristy chest, measuring 23-2/5 x 80-7/10 x 24-1/4 in (59.5 X 205 X 61.5 cm), with a central decorative scheme on its front panel that displays a crowded scene of the Crucifixion centred on the body of Christ on the central cross and those of the two thieves to either side of him. In the image, the Virgin Mary mourns her son’s death, Mary Magdalen hugs the foot of Christ’s cross, which rises over the “place of the skull” (Adam’s burial), while a multitude of figures look in amazement at the events unfolding before their eyes. Lancets and flags pierce the starry sky and angels descend onto the scene.
Six vignettes showing moment from the Passion of Christ surround the central Crucifixion image on the Putna chest. Furthermore, a decorative border frames on three sides the central image and its adjacent scenes. Here, undulating vegetal forms encircle human and angelic figures, as well as real and fantastical creatures, such as lions and griffins, in addition to several coat of arms. The latter would have once displayed painted motifs that would have helped identify the patron of the object. Moreover, the scenes are carved in low relief, stamped, and punched onto cypress wood, with elements drawn in ink, using a technique called pyrografata.
The wooden sacristy chest from Putna was likely produced during the 15th century. The idiosyncratic iconography of this object has roots in Italian and Cretan images of the second half of the 14th century. The crowded and complex scenes of the Crucifixion on the Putna chest derives from earlier visual sources, including the rich iconography of such image types that developed at the crossroads of Byzantium and the West. For instance, on the left of the composition, the church with a distinct rose window and open gallery below, as well as a belfry in the back, recalls similar buildings incorporated into Crucifixion scenes on Cretan icons. In addition, a now-lost wall fresco in San Felice Chapel in the Basilica of San Antonio in Padua, executed by Altichiero (active ca. 1369–ca. 1384), offers an intriguing precedent for the development of this image type that circulated in both the Italian and Cretan cultural contexts from at least the second half of the 14th century onward.
The execution and layout of the composition of the Putna chest also resemble altar frontals, or antependia. Examples from Castille—such as the Geri Lapi’s Crucifixion from the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria, Manresa (Catalonia)—display a central scene, usually showing Christ in a mandorla or an image of the Crucifixion with marginal scenes from Christ’s life to either side. Such examples reinforce the hypothesis that embroiderers and woodcarvers, as well as icon painters, worked from similar models in creating their compositions.
Wooden chests decorated in the pyrografata technique—using a hot needle to incise the design and accentuate select details using verdigris and vermillion pigments—were produced in Italian workshops and exported throughout Europe during the pre-modern period, including the regions of the Balkan Peninsula and the Carpathian Mountains. They were used in both secular and ecclesiastical contexts. Their materiality, technique, and iconography reveal aspects of their origins and functions. Examples decorated in the same technique and displaying similar compositional schemes as those found on the Putna chest survive in European and North American collections, such as the Fountain of Love Cassone from ca. 1460 now in the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin, and the wooden panel displaying the Crucifixion, now in the collection of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met; 1980.519). Given the materials, technique of production, and iconography of the main panel of the Putna chest, it is possible that it hails from a north Italian workshop. The Christological imagery suggests the spiritual dimension of the commission, but also that perhaps the chest may have been used to hold religious objects, such as textiles, icons, and manuscripts.
The wooden chest typically functioned as a household piece of furniture, but it could have been equally well suited for an ecclesiastical context, especially if its imagery was drawn from Christological, Mariological, or hagiographical subjects. In the case of the wooden sacristy chest from Putna, several arguments have been put forth. One suggestion is that the chest was used to hold the relics of one of Moldavia’s patron saint, St. John the New (d. ca. 1330); another explanation refers to the chest’s Italian origin and proposes that it likely arrived in Moldavia filled with rich textiles as a courtly gift; yet another hypothesis puts forth the idea that the chest was used to transport religious textiles, icons, and manuscripts, and possibly arrived in Moldavia via Serbia and Wallachia in 1473 when Maria Despina and her daughter Maria Voichița came to the Moldavian court. Given its prominent Christian imagery on the exterior in particular, the wooden sacristy chest from Putna was likely designed to store religious items or those with spiritual value for the patron, although its functions changed over time due to its new contexts of use and display.
Bacci, Michele. “Modèles italiens dans la peinture d’icônes au Moyen Âge tardif: la Crucifixion crétoise du Musée National de Stockholm.” In Mélanges offerts à Fabienne Joubert: Faire et bien faire: Commande et création artistiques au Moyen Âge, edited by Denise Borlée and Laurence Rivière Ciavaldini, 249–261. Florence: Olschki, 2018.
This article discusses several Cretan icons whose compositions and iconographies, rooted in Paduan works, resemble those found on the wooden chest from Putna.
Markham Schulz, Anne. Woodcarving and Woodcarvers in Venice, 1350–1550. Florence: Centro Di, 2011.
The book brings to light archival sources and figurative works of sculpture that offer insight into the work of about 600 woodcarvers (intagliatori) active in Venice between 1350 and 1550.
Sullivan, Alice Isabella. “The Crucifixion Panel of a Wooden Chest from the Perspective of Technique, Form, and Function.” Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages, Object Case Study. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. Web.
This brief entry focuses on the iconography, technique, and possible functions of a wooden panel displaying the scene of the Crucifixion preserved in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met; 1980.519). The Met panel displays a composition strikingly similar to the main scene on the front of the Putna chest, suggesting that perhaps the two carvings were created in the same workshop or from the same models.
van Fossen, David. “A Fourteenth-Century Embroidered Florentine Antependium.” The Art Bulletin 50, no. 2 (1968): 141–152.
This article analyses a series of twelve embroidered scenes from the life of Christ (the so-called Iklé series) that once formed an antependium. Their preparatory drawings, the author concludes, likely originated in the workshop of Spinello Aretino around 1385–1390. The images share visual parallels with the scenes on the Putna chest. In addition, the author discusses Geri Lapi’s Crucifixion antependium from the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria, Manresa (Catalonia), which is particularly striking in its visual idiom (fig. 3).
Yorke, James. “Engraved Decoration on Early Fifteenth-Century Italian Furniture.” Apollo 129, no. 328 (June, 1989): 389–392.
This short essay explores the technique, iconography, and function of a wooden chest acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (then South Kensington Museum) in 1864. The pirografata technique used for its decoration is akin to that employed on the Putna chest.