In my last post of 13 July 2012, I examined two neoclassical watercolor miniatures which, though they appeared to be mourning in nature, were actually love tokens relating to a specific poetry cycle from ancient Rome.
In this post, I present to you another lovely miniature, dating from 1780-1790, a navette shaped sepia on ivory with a wonderful hair reverse, which I had purchased as a mourning miniature, but which turns out, is not. It too is a love token, and most likely a marriage token.
Let us look at the imagery on the front of the pendant- we have a shepherdess with her staff, two lambs at her feet; she’s sitting next to a tree with overhanging leaves, and clearly inscribing the initials TK in the tree trunk. The lamb as a symbol has references throughout history as a sacrifice, which leads to the association with Christ as the “lamb of God” or the sacrificial lamb. Christ is also associated with the good shepherd who nurtures and protects his flock. In this miniature, we see the two lambs, not only nestled together for love and comfort, but also kept close to the shepherdess for protection.
When I first acquired this piece, I understood these associations, which were popular motifs during the neoclassical era when religious sentiment, though not absent, was toned down and relegated to allegorical representation. I imagined that the shepherdess, like the ubiquitous neoclassical female mourner, here also referred to the keeper of memory and sacred remains, and the inscribing of the initials in the tree trunk related to the inscription on a tombstone, with the initials, TK, being those of the deceased.
Turning the pendant over, we find a lovely example of varying sized seed pearls forming what appear to be again the initials TK, (or perhaps SK), over a ground of hair.
In my many travels through cyberspace looking at art and antiques, I’ve come across a number of items with the same imagery as depicted in this miniature, and here I share with you two- both silk embroideries, dating to the same time period as the pendant. I began to ask myself if these were also mourning images.
Once again, as with the last miniatures I discussed, Dr. Kyle Karnes, a portrait miniature collector, enlightened me to the true story behind these images. What he told me was that the carving of the initials was a visual reference to the lovers in an Italian epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto, entitled Orlando Furioso (The Frenzy of Orlando), published in 1532. In the poem, the two lovers, Orlando and Angelica, in their madness for each other, carve their initials on every rock and tree they can find. So certainly this reference is fitting for an amatory jewel, and given that there are common initials on both the back and the front of the miniature, it could very well be a marriage token.
But why is the woman depicted as a shepherdess? Dr. Karnes informed me that the shepherdess has a somewhat complicated history in European culture. She represents the romantic longing of aristocrats to be free from the complicated social life demanded at court and to return to an earlier, simpler age. The pastoral ideal, especially the English pastoral idea, also equates the countryside with an Arcadian utopia, its tranquil beauty in contrast to the noise and ugliness of the increasingly crowded, dirty cities, especially as the Industrial Revolution progressed. The shepherdess, who embodies these ideals and relates to a simpler, more natural lifestyle, is frequently misinterpreted as a figure in mourning imagery, and not surprisingly, given the associations mentioned above. Again we find images of pastoral beauty in various art forms, including jewelry, during the latter half of the 18th century. These are often seen as a man fishing from a bridge, rowing on a river, or horseback riding, with a great house, trees, and perhaps a church in the background. Here are two examples of such pastoral scenes- one on a English transferware mug showing two gentlemen fishing in a river, with a country estate on the far bank, the other in a spectacular 22K gold ring (which is a mourning piece), also English, showing two figures in a canoe, rowing through the countryside, again with a large estate visible in the background.
My pendant was most certainly commissioned by someone with the wealth to afford a fine 18K gold jewel, with nicely engraved details along the side, a skillfully executed sepia painting, and superior work in seed pearls to the reverse. Perhaps as an amatory gift it expressed both the hope for a new life together amidst tranquil and beautiful surroundings, and the comfort and protection felt in the sphere of a loving relationship.