Altarpiece, ca. 1390–1400
Baldassare degli Embriachi (Italian, active 1390–1409)
Bone framed with intarsia and horn, traces of paint and gilding; Overall (without wooden base) 50 1/2 x 60 1/2 in. (128.3 x 153.7 cm)
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.489)
In the late fourteenth century, the Embriachi workshop shrewdly stepped into a market eager for ivory and ivorylike products. By joining pieces of bone, flattened and carved in low relief, and surrounding the images with elaborate frames of inlaid wood, horn, and hoof, Baldassare Embriachi, the owner of the workshop, and his chief craftsman Giovanni di Jacopo created a product that satisfied contemporary tastes. Although the Embriachi family primarily produced caskets decorated with tales from classical literature and medieval romances, a few lavish altarpieces were commissioned for monastic foundations by prestigious donors. Philip the Bold of Burgundy (1342–1404) initiated the trend when he purchased an Embriachi altarpiece for the Chartreuse de Champmol in 1392. Around the same time, an unknown patron commissioned this altarpiece for the powerful abbey of Cluny. The large triptych depicts the life of Christ on the central panel, while the two immovable wings tell the lives of John the Baptist on the left and John the Evangelist on the right. Curiously, recent scholarship has noticed that although this altarpiece was made for the Benedictine monastery at Cluny, Franciscan friars are depicted at the Crucifixion.