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A One-of-a-Kind Room Fragrancer from Medieval Europe Finally Gets Its Due

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s ornate table fountain, a 14th-century hydraulic automata, is the focus of a new exhibition on the popular medieval decorative objects.

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Table Fountain (c. 1320–40), gilt-silver, translucent enamel on basse-taille, opaque enamel (all photos courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art unless otherwise noted)

Countless examples of a curious device once stood in many homes of medieval Europe’s elite, representing an early form of entertainment. Table fountains, mechanical objects made of precious material like silver and gold, featured intricate moving parts that spouted water that streamed through carefully engineered systems. Placed in settings such as hallways and reception rooms, these ornamental works served to captivate the attentions of guests; many even functioned like the plug-in air fresheners of today, spilling forth scented rosewater from their spouts.

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Jan Van Eyck, detail of “Madonna at the Fountain” (1439) (© Lukas–Art in Flanders VZW, photo by Hugo Maertens / Bridgeman Images)

The table fountain was a popular object for those who could afford to commission one, as evidenced by centuries-old, handwritten inventories of royalty and aristocrats. King Charles V of France apparently owned three; his brother, the duke of Anjou Louis I, owned 38. Hundreds likely existed; yet, only one remains complete and intact today.

Known as the Gothic Table Fountain, it resembles a tiny Gothic cathedral, decorated with traceried arches, crenelated terraces, pinnacles, and miniature gargoyles ready to spit out water. You’ll find it at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), which has housed the rare object in its collection for 92 years, having acquired it in Paris in 1924, following its emergence from an archaeological excavation. Its prior history remains an intriguing mystery — which has bred many erroneous  assumptions, as CMA’s Curator of Medieval Art Stephen Fliegel told Hyperallergic. So the museum has organized, for the first time, an exhibition dedicated entirely to it. Myth and Mystique: Cleveland’s Gothic Table Fountain features, alongside the gilded showpiece, 15 associated objects that inform visitors on an aspect of the table fountain, from its function to its stylistic devices to its possible patron.

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Installation view of Myth and Mystique: Cleveland’s Gothic Table Fountain at the Cleveland Museum of Art

The features of CMA’s table fountain are distinctly architectural, but these objects existed in all forms. Some others from history are known to have resembled a ship or a tree featuring small, twittering birds. What binds them all are their delicate mechanics.

“The word ‘table fountain’ is something of a misnomer — the word ‘table’ was attached to these objects by modern scholars,” Fliegel told Hyperallergic. “But they would have really been automata; objects of spectacle. They had moving parts, and they were meant to entertain and reflect the high status of their owners. They were also, it seems, very elaborate and expensive room scenters.”

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Detail of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s table fountain (c. 1320–40)

Covered in precious metals, such table fountains would have been incredibly expensive to produce. So why do we have just one today? According to Fliegel, if their mechanisms broke down, their owners likely chose to send them straight back to the goldsmiths’ shops rather than have their complex parts repaired. There, the tradesmen would melt down a broken table fountains and convert the materials into other dazzling objects. The arrival of the French Revolution accelerated this process, as many silver objects at the time were melted and converted into coins for use at the royal mint. Myth and Mystique does exhibit one fragment of a table fountain from Antwerp; the only other trace of these objects from the Middle Ages resides in a Benedictine convent in Santiago de Compostela.

Fliegel believes the CMA’s rare, complete example would have been commissioned by a French monarch, potentially King John II or his father King Philip VI. Its lower terrace features eight shields, each with an eight-pointed star — the symbol of the Order of the Star, the chivalric society established by John II. (The scene of its founding is recorded in an illuminated manuscript from 1378, also on view in the exhibition.) What’s certain, however, is that the table fountain was the work of a master goldsmith.

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Installation view of Myth and Mystique: Cleveland’s Gothic Table Fountain at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Standing just one foot tall and weighing just under six pounds, it is relatively light for table fountains, which are known to have weighed as much as 35 pounds. Yet its maker packed it with ostentatious detail, modeling it after buildings he would have seen around his likely home of Paris — then, Europe’s epicenter of luxury arts. Affixed to the cathedral-like structure are a series of spiked wheels that would turn as water —  hydraulically pumped from an attached cistern — flowed through the structure. Behind each wheel stands a small golden cast figure of a nude man, whose mouth serves as an additional nozzle. Bells would also ring as water moved from one level to the next to create a pleasant tinkling; providing lighthearted visual entertainment are drolleries, rendered in base taille enamel. And many of the table’s elements are in sets of eight — a number that, in the secular sense, likely implied physical renewal and related to the then-prevalent legend of the Fountain of Youth, according to Fliegel.

We may know more about the table fountain had its basin, installed to catch spilling water, survived, but other contemporaneous works offer some clues to the curious family of objects. A small Virgin and Child panel painting by Jan van Eyck, for instance, features a garden fountain on a pedestal; though made of brass and built to withstand outdoor conditions, it is approximately the same scale as CMA’s gold and silver table fountain. That painting, Fliegel said, suggests how plumbing may have worked for the indoor object, too: water would have traveled through subterranean pipes and entered through a pedestal before finally emerging from the top of the object. Today, we may not be able to enjoy first-hand the spectacle of the table fountain’s mechanisms — though a digital rendering of it in action shared with Hyperallergic offers an approximation — its sheer intricacy still impresses, and it is a gleaming testament to the kinds of water systems engineered in medieval times.

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Jean Pucelle, The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux (c. 1325–28) (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art and courtesy Art Resource, NY; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY)
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“The Feast of the Order of the Star,” from the Grandes Chroniques de France (c. 1378–79)
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“Shrine of Thomas Basin” (1320–40) (photo by Graham S. Haber)
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Installation view of Myth and Mystique: Cleveland’s Gothic Table Fountain at the Cleveland Museum of Art
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Installation view of Myth and Mystique: Cleveland’s Gothic Table Fountain at the Cleveland Museum of Art
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Installation view of Myth and Mystique: Cleveland’s Gothic Table Fountain at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Myth and Mystique: Cleveland’s Gothic Table Fountain continues at the Cleveland Museum of Art (11150 East Boulevard, Cleveland, Ohio) through February 26, 2017.

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