you have been in the antiques business as long as we have, and seen pieces
whose structure, refinement, inventiveness, charm, and utter virtuosity of
execution can take your breath away, it is easy to conclude that no more pieces
like that will ever come onto the market.
So, imagine our surprise and delight when, walking through the cavernous
warehouse of one of our partenaires in Europe whose stock is 99% something
other than Gothic, this magnificent cabinet jarred us out of our
Struck first by the birds at the pinnacle and then by the phantasmagoric figures
outlining the mirror and the endearing figures leaning from mock windows along
the top, there was no curbing our enthusiasm.
Years of ingrained reticence and never letting on to a dealer that we
really, really wanted something, all went out the window as we enthused and
exclaimed over each remarkable detail of this stunning piece. So it is that we offer it, a bit
reluctantly, for sale. But with the
expectation that it will go to a good home and be cherished for generations to
In overall structure, this cabinet might also be considered an armoire, but we
think its original purpose was as a cabinet with pride of place in a special
home or perhaps a castle. An upper part
is comprised of a door whose main panel is in the shape of an ogee arch, the
graceful "S" curve shape that characterized the High Gothic. In keeping with the flamboyant style at the
tail-end of the Middle Ages, the curved arch tapers not to a point but
continues up into a flame or "flamme" from which the style earned its
name. Like so many French pieces in the
19th century revival of the Flamboyant Gothic Style, this flame is a
stylized fleur-de-lys or iris flower affording the sculptor ample opportunity
to display his talents. In a nod to the
"flame" aspect of flamboyant, the flower sits atop the base of a
torch. The flower's foliage morphs into
acanthus leaves whose delicate curves are echoed in other aspects of the
cabinet such as the winged figures on either side, near the top of the
mirror. We note that there is a split
running through the center of the flamboyant top to the arch, clearly visible
in the photo below, but to preserve the integrity of the cabinet as an antique,
we have not repaired it nor does it impair use of the door.
While photos give some sense of the virtuosity of the carving and the refinement of
details rendered in a wood as hard as oak, there is no substitute for admiring
all this in person and marveling at the talent and accomplishment of the
nameless artists who expressed themselves so eloquently. Nevertheless, we will try to describe some
of the aspects that have left us awestruck.
The mirror is clearly the center of the cabinet, drawing the eye to one's
reflection and then outward to the figures surrounding it and the architectural
elements framing it. For the door
panel, the theme is more ogees and tracery (or fenestrage) - four large arches subdivided into ever
smaller ones, to the point of slim lancet arches filled with soufflets, quatrefoils
and stylized flowers. Indeed, this
central door becomes the entryway into the fantastic world inhabited by birds,
knights, serpents, fish, griffins, panthers, and an array of what could be
gossipy neighbors atop the parapets of a city wall.
Along the curved part of the mirror's frame are four figures, two on each side, in place
of the crockets or stylized foliage one might otherwise expect to see on a
Gothic arch. Combining elements from
various members of the animal kingdom, these figures include, on the left side,
a putto atop a crouching dog. Farther
down on the left side is another winged creature but this time much older,
sporting a mustache and beard, as well as claws and a tail. On the right side is an eagle, but with the
face of a dog.
Borrowing from the architectural traditions of the great Gothic cathedrals whose western
doors were framed by tall statutes of saints on pedestals and in niches capped
by canopies, the central part of the cabinet has four figures, each represented
by a different costume. On the far left
is a knight in full armor, holding a lance, the visor of his helmet raised to
reveal the delicate carving of facial features. The hand holding the lance has
been repaired. Next, closer to the mirror, is a figure in an intricately
patterned costume and floppy hat holding a flute, and reminding us of Papageno
(from Mozart's The Magic Flute) in his nonchalant pose and the impish tilt of
his head as he looks off to his left.
On the right of the mirror is another musical figure in similarly
patterned garb, this time playing a drum and gazing off to his right. This figure is especially remarkable for the
detailed carving of the hair, beard, and mustache (like the figure framing the
mirror and perhaps a likeness of the artist?).
The figure at the far right is a bit more of a puzzle. Holding a long stick and a ball in his left
hand, he is either another chivalric figure or an avid sportsman. Just above each of these figures are
wonderfully carved Gothic canopies comprised of arches, quatrefoils, and soufflets topped by
fleurs-de-lys. Above and below the
figures are columns topped by crocketed finials in the flamboyant style.
Between the panels containing the figures, on both sides of the mirror, are tall ogee
arches whose decoration is unique and demonstrates the inventiveness of the
designer along with a thorough knowledge of Gothic style, decoration, and a
penchant for fantasy. The soufflet on
the left is treated as a window, a
figure within it grasping his long beard.
On either side of the arch just above his head are a snail with the head
of a monkey and a serpent with the head of a fish. Atop the flamboyant arch is an elongated dolphin. On the other side of the mirror is a similar
arch and soufflet, but with the figure's hand on the edge of the window. On either side of that arch are a panther
with webbed feet and a rat with giant claws.
Atop the flamboyant arch is an elongated salamander.
Just below the top of the cabinet is a series of openings, as in a city wall or
tower, with tiny heads leaning out and hands holding everything from a bellows to a
hatchet. One figure
is blowing a horn, and
several are gesturing. It is tempting
to contemplate what they symbolize.
Judging by the less refined nature of the carving and the more mundane
nature of the acts in which they are engaged, it is unlikely that they
represent the owner's family unless he meant it as a joke.
At the very top of the cabinet is a series of open tracery or fenestrage panels, each
of which is crowned by a fleur-de-lys.
Four free-standing figures, more like gargoyles, crown this cabinet with
a final, fantasy statement. At each
corner is a winged creature. On the
left corner is a dog sitting on its haunches and looking over its right
shoulder. On the right corner is a
crouched griffin, mouth open, seemingly ready to pounce. On the front at the left is a bird whose
species we have yet to identify. On the
right is another bird, possibly a stork, intricately carved and with a long
beak and a steady gaze, searching out its prey.
Of a distinct style is the lower part of the cabinet comprised of a central door and
panels on either side. Here the style
of carving is more fluid and reminiscent of the curved line and intertwining
vegetation seen in the decoration of Roman sarcophagi. In the center of the door is a creature,
seemingly part horse part goat, with a tail that branches out to comprise most
of the stems, leaves, and thistles that make up the decorative theme of this
central panel and the ones on either side as well. Those, however, have intricately carved birds at the top and
griffins at the bottom.
The sides of the cabinet are also remarkable, in terms of the lavish
decoration. Instead of leaving the
panels plain, or simply repeating the plis-de-serviette pattern used at the
base, the upper 2/3 of the side is made up of yet another example of elaborate
fenestrage or tracery with arches, inside arches, inside more arches and graceful
quatrefoils and mouchettes filling the voids.
As anyone who has read the narrative to this point will recognize, it is hard not
to get carried away in the sheer delight that comes from viewing this
cabinet. We hope that the photos,
below, will help tell the story of this remarkable piece of the French cabinet