Duke Magazine-Gallery-Impost Capital-Selections from DUMA-Jul/Aug 2002


1. Shadow Catching - Selections from the Duke Library
2. Impost Capital -Selections from DUMA

Impost Capital, Italian marble, from the Brummer Collection, circa 8th to 9th century
Impost Capital, Italian marble, from the Brummer Collection, circa 8th to 9th century

Selections from the DUMA
Impost Capital

very year the International Fine Arts Fair is held in New York City at the Seventh Avenue Armory. More than seventy of the leading fine-art dealers from Europe and the United States display the most outstanding paintings, drawings, and sculpture currently on the market. It always attracts large numbers of museum directors, curators, and private collectors from all over the country. And every year independent New York curator Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt creates one small loan exhibition, featuring a U.S. museum outside New York and its environs.

In 2002, Stratton-Pruitt chose the Duke University Museum of Art, focusing on its founding collection, the Brummer Collection of Medieval Art, along with the latest model and renderings of Rafael ViÒoly's plans for the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke. Her curatorial idea was to contrast architectural fragments from medieval buildings with ViÒoly's contemporary museum architecture, which will provide splendid new settings for the collections at Duke.

Ten capitals dating from the tenth through the fifteenth centuries were displayed, with the best example, pictured, dating from the eighth to ninth century. Italian, and made of marble, fine-grained but slightly mealy, this capital is decorated on the long sides with pairs of birds drinking from a chalice. Each of the rounded short sides has a cross with scrolling terminals beneath a striated ridge. The simple symmetrical composition and low relief, two-plane linear carving technique, as well as the decorative motifs, reflect early medieval traditions of church furnishings found throughout much of Italy. However, the iconography--along with the sculptural technique, as well as the handling of the decorative motifs on the bodies of the birds--can be most closely associated with the environs of Rome.

The impost capital's images are typical of early Christian themes of salvation. The pair of doves represents the souls of the faithful, drinking from the Eucharistic vessel or "source of life," and creating an allegorical reminder of Christ's sacrifice re-enacted in the sacrament of Communion. The crosses with their scroll-like tendrils underscore the Christological significance of the bird compositions. These themes occur as early as the fifth century; examples can be seen in the churches of San Basilio and San Saba in Rome.

The scale, material, carving technique, and subject matter of this capital suggest that it once formed part of freestanding interior church furniture. The underside reveals that the supporting element was square in section, much like the vertical members of chancel screens. The Eucharistic iconography would be appropriate for installation near an altar, so the capital may well have once supported the arch of a chancel screen or iconostasis, like the ninth-century example at San Leone in Leprignano.

This capital was part of the original Brummer collection, acquired by Duke in 1966. Ernest Brummer purchased it from a dealer, Pacifici, in August 1937.

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