The Myrtle's Altar
Bronze with mid-brown, light brown and golden patination
Height: 14 3/4'' (37.5 cm)
Conceived 1899 and cast within the artist's lifetime
Discussing his prerogatives as a sculptor, Lucchesi remarked in 1899: ‘I […] consider the female figure nature’s masterpiece, and the fact that I have so often used it, to endeavour to convey or symbolise a poetic thought, shows how strongly I feel this’. The present piece, The Myrtle’s Altar is indicative of such artistic ideals.
The sculpture depicts a reclining female nude as she sits on a tree stump, with her back and arms supported by its branches. The woman gazes into the distance with piercing eyes without engaging with the viewer. A sword in its scabbard, a crown and a crucifix hang from the tree, while a bag filled with coins spills onto the ground at the back of the tree trunk. The subject of seated female nudes was explored extensively by New Sculpture artists; the most notable of such examples is perhaps Albert Toft’s bronze The Spirit of Contemplation, which was exhibited in 1901 at the Royal Academy.
Like Toft’s celebrated piece, The Myrtle’s Altar is an essay in nude modelling. From a technical point of view, the work also shows the strong influence of Alfred Gilbert, especially in the use of coloured patinas and symbolic accessories of difficult interpretation.
In the Greek tradition, the myrtle plant was sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, while in Jewish mysticism it represented the masculine force of the universe. Therefore, the title already places the viewer in front of a puzzle, for the sculpture can be interpreted within both a ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ framework. Are the crown and sword a symbol of vanquished male power, subjugated by love? Or are they to be seen as symbols of strength and ambition? Is the crucifix a symbol of religious love, or a means through which to seek authority?
Lucchesi exhibited a life-size version of The Myrtle’s Altar at the Royal Academy in 1899 and a bronze example in the following year. Spielmann observed that ‘in pose it reminds one of the Barberini Faun in the Munich Glyptothek, and the figure may be considered Mr. Lucchesi’s best effort’. Other casts of this model are in the collections of the Birmingham City Art Gallery and the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston.