This captivating object, so lavish in its use of coral, mother-of-pearl, lapis lazuli, gilded copper and silver, from the seaport of Trapani in Sicily, is a splendid example of a craft that has its origins in the middle ages. The predominant material, coral, had significant symbolic values in both European and Asian decorative arts and, like amber (formed on land), the ocean-made coral was believed to have tremendous medicinal powers like detecting poison in food and warding off the ‘evil eye’. In China, where coral has been used for over 2000 years in works of art, the material was admired for its color variations & texture, and prized particularly for its association with longevity.
Coral, a calcium-like polyp secreted by marine animals, was a difficult material to extract from the sea and its tree-like formations were sought after by collectors who deemed them a rare commodity and desired them enshrined in elaborate silver mountings, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 12th century, coral objects were produced in Paris, Genoa, Lyon and Barcelona. In the 13th century it was used quite extensively in cutlery. But in Renaissance Trapani, a commercial port on the Mediterranean with extensive coral resources, the city rose to prominence because of its use of this rare material in a variety of ecclesiastical and secular objects, eventually leading to the founding of the coral workers guild, the Arte dei Corallari.
Works of art incorporating coral played an important role in the European princely collection, as it “was considered to be the quintessential kunstkammer material, because, according to the understanding of the time, it united the three realms of nature: mineral, animal, and vegetable”1 Today, magnificent examples can be found in the collections of Schloss Ambras, Austria, and the Galeria Doria-Pamphili, Rome. Mythologically, coral was believed to have been created from the blood of Medusa’s head after being severed by Perseus; in Christianity, it bore an apotropaic value in warding off the evil eye and beads made from it were traditionally worn around the necks of young children.
Related plaques are composed primarily of coral inlaid into a gilt- copper base. This example is magnificent in the variety of materials used, all harmoniously distributed within the design while maintaining the unmistakable characteristics of the Trapani school. It was most likely a special commission, especially because of the generous use of mother of pearl, a not so distant cousin to coral. With the Virgin as the central theme surrounded by stars and under a silver crown, it was an object intended for private devotion. The wonderful condition that it is now in can be attributed to being kept under glass in a later tortoiseshell frame. A related plaque made primarily with coral was exhibited in 1986. 2
1 Dirk Syndram (translated by Daniel Kletke), Renaissance and Baroque Treasury Art, The Green Vault in Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2004, p. 39.
2 Museo Regionale Pepoli, Coralli talismani Sacrie Profani, Catalogo della Mostra, exhibition catalogue, March 1 to June 1 1986, published by Novecento, no. 5.
Luigi Koelliker Collection.