Join us and learn about this incredible narrative made by a master enameler

This series of small paintings depicts twenty-six stages of the Passion of Christ. An incisive technique of enamel paint on copper is used to create these small but very detailed renderings. The piece was made in a workshop from the region of Limoges in central France, during the second half of the 16th or first quarter of the 17th century.

These twenty-six plaques belonged to an altar-piece or panel. Unfortunately, we are not sure how many images were in the original narrative as some are most likely missing.

Twenty-four of these plaques are directly inspired from an immensely popular 16th century series - The Small Passion, printed by Albrecht Dürer in Nuermburg in 1511.

What remains of the plaques, show the Passion of Christ, starting with Christ Taking Leave from His Mother as is described in the Meditations on the Passion of Christ by Pseudo-Boaventura (or Fr. João de Caulibus) c. 1308 and  Marienleben by Filipe o Cartuxo c. 1330.

The narrative sequence ends with The Incredulity of Saint Thomas described in verse 20: 24-29 of the Gospel of John.

Dürer´s series starts with The Fall of Man, Adam and Eve Expelled from Eden ending with The Last Judgement all these images missing from this series.

We do not know how this specific narrative started and ended, nevertheless it is the most complete set of its kind to come from this workshop.

The plaques are neither signed nor dated. Recent research has shown authorship to belong to the Master of the Small Passion who worked closely with the renowned enameler Pierre Reymond (1513-1584).

A similar piece showing a rendering of The Small Passion attributed to the same author can be found in the Wallace Collection, Hermitage Museum Saint Petersburg and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris amongst others.

In all the artworks a particular technique unseen by the naked eye is used, consisting in the use of three layers of enamel: the first, white opaque glass upon which the drawing is rendered; the second, coloured transparent glass through which the underlying rendering can be seen; the third, white opaque translucent glass applied atop the other colors, visible in some of the landscapes and depictions of flesh.

In addition to this there are other techniques that are a hallmark of this studio, namely the fine and incisive quality of the rendering of hands and feet.

This peculiar rendering of flesh is created using overlapping layers of white of varying thickness and small amounts of red and black pigment.

Another feature that distinguishes the works by the "Master of The Small Passion" from others, is his use of gold (used in the final layer given that it is the metal that melts at the lowest temperature).

Gold is used abundantly, tonalities are created using small points and lines.

Gold is also used to create details like hair, stars, halos, etc.

The method used is of such a high technical quality that the gold used in all the artworks from this workshop remain intact.

The abundant used of gold, combined with the deep and intense colours, which have remained unaltered over the centuries, give the work an aura of magnificence.

The use of colours in enamelling, has made it so that almost every plaque has partially altered the original engraving.

The colours were chosen entirely by the enameler.

The dark-blue background has made it so that all the scenes are nocturnal, the Passion of Christ is presented at under a starry night sky.

The Passion of Christ was an extremely popular theme in 14th and 15th century Germany and theatrically rendered.

Published shortly after the invention of the printing press, the series depicting The Passion was distributed throughout the whole of Europe.
As a result, many enamel workshops created renderings of Dürer's Small Passion.

Curiously very few of these renderings show Dürer's interpretation of Flagellation of Christ. This scene was regularly replaced by scenes inspired through prints created by Martin Schongauer which contrary to Dürer's piece depict Christ facing the viewer.

The depiction of The Lamentation is also different to Dürer's. Using an unknown work for inspiration the Master of the Small Passion decided to create a scene where the Virgin Mary is depicted in the center of the composition as whereas Dürer placed her on the side of the composition.

In this series the Master of the Small Passion gave wings to his imagination, creating his personal interpretation of Dürer's series where amongst other things introducing renaissance head-ware.

And introduced fabrics made with elaborate patterns and textiles for garments.

He also created richly decorated and furnished interiors.

...and decorated the furniture with decorative engravings.

These features alter the visual dynamic of Dürer's series by introducing decorative elements that were fashionable during the time of the enameler(s).

All that is known about these plaques is that in 1752 they hung in the Mosteiro de Santa Cruz in Coimbra, where they were an object adoration and devotion. In the Monastery's opulent baroque environment, the plaques could be found in the reliquary room.

In 1834 with the dissolution of Portugal's religious orders the plaques became part of the inaugural collection of the Museu Portuense (later to become the Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis) created that very year.

Credits: Story

Curator: Ana Cristina Almeida
Content: Ana Paula Santos
Support: Mafalda Macedo (volunteer)
Digital Production: Luis Ramos Pinto (DGPC)
Translation: Luis Ramos Pinto (DGPC)

Credits: All media
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