11490 A MOST UNUSUAL DEEP RELIEF CARVED HARDWOOD SCULPTURE OF A NEAR LIFE SIZE SKELETON WITHIN AN INTEGRAL CHEVRON CARVED BEVELED FRAME, SIGNED TWICE ‘D. TRINDADE’ Probably Colonial Portuguese. Second Half of the Nineteenth Century. Measurements: Height: 63 3/4″ (161.9 cm); Width: 22 1/2″ (57 cm); Depth: 4″ (10.1 cm).

Of Cocobolo. The outer panel with beveled and carved chevron pattern integral frame surrounding a central reserve with full length skeleton with head turned sinistra. To the left of the head is incised ‘D. Trindade.’ Flanking the head are two carved symbols probably representing a human vertebra and scapula bone.


Inscribed to the front and back:
D. Trindade

The back also inscribed with the date:
18/11/71 (This date is assumed to refer to the date of acquisition by a previous owner.)

This highly unusual carved relief depicts a near life sized skeleton placed within an integral frame, and was probably made in a colony of Portugal. It is signed to the front and back D. Trindade, likely a Brazilian name of Portuguese origin, meaning “trinity.” It is also the name given to an island off the coast of Brazil, as well as several  neighborhoods in coastal towns like Rio de Janeiro and São Gonçalo. However, the name also appears in Goa, which was at one time a colony of Portugal. Carved on either side of the head of the skeleton are two human bones; a vertebra on the left and a scapula (or shoulder bone) to the right.

The carving may be placed in the genre in art specifically devoted to reminding us of our own mortality. “Memento Mori,” from the Latin “Remember you will die,” is a theme found in painting, sculpture and architecture, which reflects upon the transience of life and ephemeral nature of our earthly possessions. Like Vanitas pictures which also aim to remind the viewer of their own mortality, the most popular symbols found in these works are skeletons or skulls. Extinguished candles, urns of flowers and timepieces, such as clocks and hourglasses, were also used as reminders of our fleeting existence in this physical realm.

The “memento mori” concept has existed for many centuries. For example, a 1st century mosaic table top found in Pompeii, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, depicts a skull suspended from a level by a string. It rests on a butterfly (symbolizing the soul) atop the wheel of fortune, while symbols of wealth and poverty balance on either side. The message to the viewer clearly enforces the precariousness of your worldly position and the role of death as the great equalizer.

Memento mori imagery was used frequently in the middle ages, particularly in association with Christian beliefs about death and dying in religious art and literature. The concern of the medieval church was humanity as a whole, and the purpose of memento mori symbolism was to influence collective morality. This philosophy shifted through the Renaissance and into the Age of Enlightenment, placing the focus on judgment of the individual, and reflection on the temporal nature of one’s own existence served to lend perspective to one’s daily concerns, ambitions and disagreements. Even the sciences could not escape the moral and metaphysical dilemmas of mortality; in the 1779 publication Nouveau recueil d’ostéologie et de myologie dessiné d’après nature par Jacques Gamelin de Carcassonne,…pour l’utilité des sciences et des arts by Jacques Gamelin, studies of the structure and function of the skeleton are captioned with proverbs. The illustration of a recumbent skeleton, for example, is accompanied by the phrase ‘Remember, Man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return’ (figure 1).

The theme has also been explored in different mediums; 16th century German sculptor Hans Leinberger carved a gruesome tattered Figure of Death in boxwood (figure 2), a gold, enamel and diamond memento mori ring, circa 1600, in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, is centered by a skull, and 19th century Austrian painter Antoine Wiertz’s vanitas painting “La Belle Rosine” places a beautiful young girl face to face with the reality of death. By the nineteenth century, society had acquired an altered understanding of life and death, and the memento mori was produced with an element of romanticization.

The present sculpture represents a tour de force of the carvers art, being of unprecedented large scale. The wood is notable according to scientific testing carried out by the eminent AIS Laboratory. It is classified as Cocobolo, native to South America. It is a wood of beautiful grain structure and color somewhat resembling palm wood but of much greater density. It has a high specific gravity of over 1.0 meaning that it will sink in water. (Rosewood, by comparison has s specific gravity of 0.63 and mahogany 0.53). This extreme density of the wood makes the sculpture all the more remarkable as it would require a sculptor of great technical dexterity and artistic skill. The wood is also notable for its high oil content, which prohibits the use of traditional glues. For this reason, the sculpture is formed of three planks, which, upon close inspection, can be seen to be joined by iron bolts, thus indicating that the oily property of the wood was understood by the carver. The wood’s historical uses include fine musical instruments and gun stocks.

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