Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Allegory of Faith, limewood, 1534, Peter Dell the Elder, 1490-1552
The traditional materials used for sculpture are stone, wood, clay, and bronze. Of these four, stone and wood are sculpted by a subtractive process. When a marble block or a section of tree trunk is carved, chips are removed until a desired form – the sculpture – remains. Because carving wood or stone is time-consuming and sometimes physically demanding, sculptors today often prefer to work in materials that offer less resistance. In the time of Peter Dell the Elder, however, both wood and marble were still very much in use. Dell worked occasionally in stone and bronze but the area for which he is best known is the long standing German tradition of wood carving. After Dell’s death, his son, Peter Dell the Younger, continued the work of his father’s shop in Wurzburg.
Dell’s “Allegory of Faith” is a type of sculpture called bas relief. It is a carved surface that is shallow in depth and like a painting, is to be viewed from one side only. Instead of being created with colors and values as is a painting, however, the subject matter is defined with shapes, textures and depth levels. For this relief, Dell used an even-grained, easily carved, light-colored wood called limewood (neither the name nor the tree is related to citrus). Its pale brown patina is the result of the natural aging process.
Like other art work of this period, Dell’s relief is intended to teach and inspire. The scene of this allegory depicts a young woman representing the human soul journeying through life. She is in a small ship and is being attacked by those who would distract her and set her off course. Death at the upper left side is on a horse; the devil at the upper right-middle is on a lion; and Frau Welt (an allegorical figure in German literature) is on a sea serpent. [From the twelfth century onward in German lore, the world has been represented as a seductress known as Frau Welt (Mrs. World). With her beauty and guile she tempts a person with promises of wealth, happiness, and fulfillment. Instead, if you follow her ways – the ways of the world – your journey is likely to result in sorrow, disease and decay.] Frau Welt is in the water at the right. Each of these adversaries is out to shake the faith of the young woman traveling through life and each has a bow with three arrows aimed toward her. The woman is steadfast, however, and her eyes are focused on the face of God above as she moves away from a city that is aflame. Christ is on the shore pointing the way. To assure that the symbols in this allegory are recognized, Dell has identified some of them; the ship is labeled, “Flesh and Blood.” “The Christian Life” is written on the ship’s rudder; this will keep her journey on course. While traveling the sea of life, her sail and rigging are, “Love and Patience.” She is guided by the “Word of God.” St. Paul, the Defender of the Faith, is standing at the lower left side of this scene holding a sword in his hand. When St. Paul was martyred he was beheaded with a sword and this (the sword) became one of his identifying symbols.
Hovak Najarian © 2013