View Full Version : Unbelievable (but true)
Hi everyone out there in pearl orbit. Check this out. It's the shell of a Pinctada Maxima (Australian South Sea pearls) that was carved over 800 years ago! It belongs to a friend of mine who is a marine biologist here in Tahiti. He bought it from a collector in France many years ago and recently brought it to Tahiti. It will soon take up residence in Robert Wan's pearl museum. It was used to baptise kings and is appropriately deeply concave. It was appraised at about a million dollars US but this pearl pundit guesses much more. The position of the legs of the people give away the age as well as the chip marks of the chisel which can be seen by a microscope only. For some perspective the pearl resting on top is a 12mm (A grade drop).
09-13-2007, 04:39 PM
Wow! What a remarkable piece! Can you help me out with the carvings?
I see the Nativity at 6:00. The Magi at 5:00? Creation at 12:00? The 3:00 and 9:00 positions I can't tell. Possibly the conception at 7:00?
It really is remarkable.
09-13-2007, 04:41 PM
Thanks for thinking of us. That is a real treasure!
09-13-2007, 06:09 PM
Wow, thanks for posting, Josh!
Looks to me like the following:
12:00: Baptism of Jesus
9:00: Ministry of John
5:00: Adoration of the Magi
09-13-2007, 06:46 PM
I think you're probably right. Except, why do you say John's ministry instead of Jesus'? I mean, it could be either, couldn't it? Just curious. I'm actually fascinated by the carvings.
09-13-2007, 07:13 PM
Yes! I thought about that possibility, but I went with John mostly for artistic reasons:
(1) The focal point clearly is the 12:00 image (appropriate for a baptismal shell!), so one might guess the smaller ones are in the past relative to the Baptism. That would make John a better fit.
(2) The 12:00 image features Jesus and John. Since John is closely associated with the Baptism ("the Baptist"), it would have made sense to include some important images from his life also. His ministry (9:00) across from the Visitation (when John leaps in Elizabeth's womb), balance very nicely. They "frame" the central images of Jesus (12:00 across from 7:00, 6:00, and 5:00 - all relating to Jesus).
Just my $.02.
09-13-2007, 08:18 PM
I should have mentioned also that the staff (in John's hand in the 12:00 image) seems to be carried over to the 9:00 image - the staff is common in the iconography of John.
09-13-2007, 08:29 PM
I can't see the staff. But yes, I think you're probably right. I've never even heard of a Baptismal Shell before so this is all new to me. Still, the craftsmanship is marvelous.
09-14-2007, 07:40 PM
Indeed it is. I wonder how this PM shell got all the way to France 800 years ago (if it was made there - maybe it just ended up there?). Maybe from China via the Silk Road? What a story that would be!
09-14-2007, 07:57 PM
The range of pinctada maxima may provide a number of possible sources.
How a pinctada maxima shell gets to France must be quite a a story though I think the trading of seashells must go back further than we can imagine. Another thread describes shells that bore marks of human hands in the making of holes, were found in inland Afriica that dated back 95,000 years, more or less.
The study of shells under a microscope can tell what kind of tools made the carving by the character of the marks left on the shell by the tool. Josh gave some tantalizing clues, but I wasn't sure if it was carved in France. I hope we will learn.
But wait, there's more. I'm impressed with what you guys can make out on it. My friend rattled off what they all were but most was lost on me. The pearls they are on is a lot of second graft baroque and circled pearls.http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r106/joshhumbert/max4.jpghttp://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r106/joshhumbert/max3.jpg<a href="http://photobucket.com" target="_blank"><img src="http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r106/joshhumbert/max2.jpg" border="0" alt="Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket"></a>http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r106/joshhumbert/max2.jpg
09-14-2007, 08:35 PM
The leg positioning of the central figure reminds me quite a bit of the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, painted during the late 1400's. Definitely a French Renaissance period piece of work; they were highly infuenced by the Italians at that time...
...I'd also like to add that the lack of natural perspective as well as having the figures all positioned in the foreground are all indicative of that period in art.
09-14-2007, 09:45 PM
My wildest guess is that it is of Italian workmanship and given to the designated French royalty by the Pope.
If it was made to baptise royalty then it was possibly a gift for a particular baptism.
This is sheer speculation; I have no source.
(Aren't you glad I don't sell on eBay?)
09-14-2007, 11:28 PM
The popes lived in Avignon in France for just about all of the 14th. century. Pope Innocent 4th. lived in Lyon for sometime during the 13th. century.
So this piece could be French made. Sorry my memory of French history isn't better - I visited Avignon a few years ago and had a look around the papal palace.
09-14-2007, 11:46 PM
Pope Innocent IV was born in the late 12th century. Although he did indeed move to Lyons after he was elected, he never resided in Avignon. As a matter of fact, none of the 7 popes that retained the seat of the papacy in Avignon were in residence after 1387 approximately. There were, however, two anti-popes that retained power after 1400 during the Western Schism of the Catholic Church, however the Council of Constantance resolved the conflict and returned the seat of power to Italy...
I'm sure the papal residence was gorgeous, from what I understand, the French papal line was treated as royalty.
09-14-2007, 11:56 PM
So 800 from 2000 is 1200. 13th century.
I tried looking at a lot of legs. That was about Giotto's time in Italy and I found some stained glass in France. Giotto didn't show much leg and I didn't see that foot placement, but I admit my search was hardly exhaustive. But that foot placement does show up about Botticelli's time. He's early 14th Century right?
Sure would enjoy some more information here.
09-15-2007, 02:12 AM
I dunno, something about it seems Byzantine to me . . . .
09-15-2007, 03:29 AM
This carved shell apparently coincides with the end of the Byzantine period ca. 1200.
Does anyone think it was carved in France? I love speculating but it would be neat to hear something definitive.....
Here is a Italo-Byzantine carving of the Last Judgement from the 12trh Century.
09-15-2007, 03:40 AM
And here is one from Germany. I haven't been able to find any carved MoP shell yet.
09-15-2007, 03:49 AM
This one is French early 13th Century
09-15-2007, 04:58 AM
It would be my guess that the artist is Chinese or Chinese-trained. The Chinese were making carvings like this for hundreds of years. Trade with England on a large scale began in the 1700s. Here's one such example from, again my guess, 1800s. Many of these carvings depict normal daily activities. But what strikes me about this is the feet. They seem to be very much fashioned the same way. I just hope this picture is large enough for you to see the detail.
Josh, thank you for the enhanced photos! That piece just gets more and more amazing!
09-15-2007, 12:44 PM
I would be very interesting to find out the story of the shell's provenance. At least as much as usually let in the open by musems, auctioneers...
Any chance for that?
The use of that species of shell is itself quite something for the time. Where could it be from? The kind of ornamental shells one can buy on eBay for a few cents were only present in haughty cabinets of curiosities (the earliest ones!). Wow!
09-15-2007, 01:30 PM
Ooo, yeah! I was so caught up in the carvings, I FORGOT the shell is from Austrailia!
09-15-2007, 05:27 PM
The feet are great on that one, but the date is wrong.....it will be fun hearing the truth after all our speculation......
I'm working on it... My friend is out of touch.
09-18-2007, 12:23 AM
What a find! I think it's so fun to see everyone chipping in to see how and where this piece came from. As for me, I have NO clue and I wish I could be more helpful :T
09-18-2007, 12:09 PM
Thank you SO Much for sharing this! I am in awe of the talent involved in producing such a piece of art. Just amazing.
I spoke to my friend, the owner of the shell. The Louvre Museum in France thinks that it was most likely carved in France as the chip marks, under close inspection resemble others that were done there. They also are guessing that it was carved between 1140 and 1190, at the end of the Roman Era and the beginning of the Gothic. It was most likely brought from the middle east (China) after the first Crusade by land routes. Apparently sea routes were not yet established by then.
09-23-2007, 04:10 AM
Yeah, very cool huh.
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