In a nod to Hollywood, we are putting the spotlight on a very special mantel.
This Period French Renaissance mantel from the Loire Valley has so much grandeur and history that it is difficult to choose adequate superlatives. Without a doubt, it is one of the finest and most important pieces that we have ever presented. The sheer height and depth of this commanding limestone structure speaks to its centuries’ old provenance in a vast country houseof a wealthy French landowner. A mantel this massive would require a room of considerable size for it to function properly, with a household of servants to tend the fire.
The decorativecarving reveals more of the mantelpiece’s intimate history. We may surmise that itwas created to celebrate a 17th century betrothal, and was commissioned by the intended’s parents to bear portraits of the engaged couple. During this time marriage was not concerned with romantic lovebut with strengthening the wealth and status of the families. Nonetheless, it is impossible to gaze upon the carving without feeling that we have a glimpse into the long-ago lives, (and possible loves!) of a French “Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps it was the bride’s parents who commissioned the
artist, for it is her portrait that draws both the eye and the heart. Our dear Romeo’s depiction is more typical and therefore less inspired. His portrait is a relief profile, easiest to for a carver to execute. Romeo casts a shy downward gaze towards his bride, and wears an elaborate collar and simple cap over abundant curls. For better or worse, Romeo’s profile reveals his prominent Roman nose.
With a coquettish tilt to her head, our Juliet is memorialized in a more elaborate forward-gazing portrait. Plump cheeks and full expressive lips belie her youth as most brides of this period were just past the cusp of childhood. Once married Juliet will be compelled to cover her head, but until that time she coifs her tresses in plaits and adorns them with ribbons and jewels. More adornment can be seen on her person, be it pearls or lace, lockets or buckles, our eyes take us where imagination commands.
Now to the finish with…dogs!
Depicted in grand scale on the lower half of the lintel are a graceful pair of reclining hunting dogs. Among all the dogs of the hunt, thelévrier, a sighthound related to the greyhound, was among those most highly valued. During the Medieval and Renaissance periods these dogs were reserved solely for use by the aristocracy, and were not just “outside dogs.” As richly portrayed in period art, these elegant creatures were equally at home inside by the master’s table as they were in the field. As a member of the landed aristocracy, our young Romeo no doubt spent countless hours attending “la chasse,” and his household likely held a pack of hunting hounds. Perhaps he even had a favorite pair, who indeed could have lounged comfortable by this very hearth, or one just like it. These dogs are evocative of fine country-life sport and leisure.
This mantel’s most charming and unique feature is the prominent inclusion of dogs on this piece of betrothal furnishing. We recognize not only their aesthetic value, but their symbolic one as well. Just as the mantel’s enormous size, the jewels and finery depicted in the portraits attest to the couples’ wealth, so do these fine hunting dogs. The symbolism of the other carvings reveals itself by tradition. The furling ribbon that binds the couple symbolizes the purity of their union, and the bountiful wreaths that surround the portraits symbolize abundance and fruitfulness.
The symbolism of the dogs on this betrothal mantel isobvious and charmingly earthy. Typical to mantels of this periodis a separate piece of limestone between the legs and the lintel called the “corbeau.” Nestled on top of each corbeau is carved the curled form of a sleeping puppy!
The message is clear: be fruitful and multiply! Be like this lovely dog couple, and have a family, and let them nap peacefully by the hearth. Have many babies, preferable not all at once.We would like to imagine that, like most modern girls, Juliet had a sense of humor.Even better, we hope that she really loved puppies.