This beautiful Della Robbia wreath features a roundel of a white Madonna and child protected by six angels and a dove on a blue background encircled by a wreath of pine and pine cones, apples, grapes, lemons, pears and pomegranates. It was donated to Christ Church by David Yudain in 2010 in memory of his parents, Jean and Bernard, who purchased the piece from a Georgetown antiques dealer in the 1960s.
David says, “It hung on an ivy covered brick wall on a covered terrace at our Washington town house, and then hung for 43 years over a glass wall looking out to the lawn and garden in the garden room of our house in Greenwich.” The wreath is Italian pottery, date and artist unknown. It hangs at the foot of the stairs leading from the glass hallway to the chapel.
The process used to create this and other Della Robbia works of art date to 1400 with the birth of Luca Della Robbia. After spending six years in the 1430s carving the ten marble panels of the cantorial that may be seen in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, he sought a process to create sculpture that required less time and was thus more profitable. Adapting the medieval technique of applying a tin oxide glaze over clay – for pottery known as maiolica, majolica, and delftware – Della Robbia developed a method for mixing the white opaque glaze with other powdered metals to produce brilliant colors and a durable surface. Luca favored the colors blue and white in his work.
Glazes were painted onto the terracotta and fired. The glazing technique was a closely guarded family secret passed on to Luca’s nephew, Andrea Della Robbia, a well known Italian Renaissance sculptor, especially in ceramics and multi-colored glazed pieces. Many of the round pieces that Luca created were neatly bordered with seasonal vegetation: flowers, leaves, berries, fruits and pods. Andrea’s style included more details and elaborate, colorful borders framed his sculptures.The sculptures’ humble materials expressed the spiritual value of humility, exalted by a luminous surface, while the skill with which they were fashioned and the visual clarity of the medium made them easy to read and understand. Through pure, expressive color and a refreshing simplicity of means, Della Robbia terracotta illuminates themes of salvation through Christian faith.
All five surviving sons of Andrea and Giovanna di ser Lorenzo became sculptors. Giovanna and Luca the Younger inherited the workshop and kept it in operation until ca.1529, a few years after the elder Luca’s death at 89. Andrea’s youngest son, Girolamo (Jerome), worked in France as an architect and sculptor and maintained the school or style of Della Robbia ceramic sculpture and glazing until his death in 1566.
When the pilgrims arrived in America in 1620, Christmas was not celebrated, but by the late 1830s, many southern states had declared Christmas a holiday, and following the 1843 publication of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and the standardization of the image of Santa Claus created by Thomas Nash in 1863, Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870. Tree decorating was standard in America, but greens and wreaths were left bare until the late 1930s, when the decorator of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, added fruit in the Della Robbia style to the plain evergreen wreaths and swags that embellished the doors and windows of the houses and shops in the historic site. The decorative link to the Della Robbia wreath continues today.
Joanne Bouknight, Photography