Obituary: Marie-Madeleine Gauthier
Thursday 27 August 1998
In the period between the 12th and 14th centuries the metalworkers of Limoges perfected the champleve technique in which powdered enamel was poured into grooves engraved on a metal surface, generally of copper. The enamel was then fired and polished down to the level of the surrounding metal. The vibrant colours of the vitreous enamel, intense blues, greens and yellow, and the near industrial scale of production were to conquer the European market.
Marie-Madeleine Coste was born in Langon in the Gironde in 1920 and studied at the university in Bordeaux. She became a librarian, and it was while she was working in the library at Limoges that her interest in medieval enamels was kindled. In 1947 she married Serge Gauthier, a distinguished bibliophile, who went on to be director of the Manufacture at Sevres and Librarian of the Pompidou Centre.
The great Russian emigre scholar of medieval and Christian art Andre Grabar ran a seminar at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris which exerted a profound intellectual influence on Marie-Madeleine Gauthier early on in her career, and which was characterised by an almost tangible excitement. It was in this context that she published her path-breaking studies of Pope Innocent III's early-13th-century Limoges enamel decoration for the front of the confessio of Old Saint Peter's, the martyr's basilica, in Rome.
These linked papers show all the hallmarks of her finest work - meticulous attention to detail, a profound knowledge of the objects themselves, sympathetic understanding of the makers, and their clients, and a rare capacity to set the works convincingly in a wider art-historical and cultural context. Never previously had the study of Limoges enamels moved so radically from its local and antiquarian roots and taken wing on the European stage.
Besides highly specialised investigations of individual objects Gauthier found time to write a magnificent work of synthesis, Emaux du moyen age occidental (1972). This beautiful book demonstrated her mastery not only of the opaque enamels of Limoges but also of the magical translucent enamels of Italy and France.
Translucent enamels used the basse-taille technique whereby a glaze of transparent enamel is applied to delicate reliefs of gold or silver and the enamel shows its hues most strongly where the relief is most deeply cut. The technique emerged almost simultaneously in the last decades of the 13th century at Siena and Paris. This book remains by far the most authoritative and illuminating general discussion of the subject.
More subjective and perhaps ultimately less persuasive was Les Routes de la Foi, reliques et reliquaires de Jerusalem a Compostelle (1983), which was translated into several languages, including English (as Highways of the Faith: relics and reliquaries from Jerusalem to Compostela, 1987). However, it continues to impress as a deeply felt and imaginative spiritual pilgrimage among the shrines and reliquaries of medieval Europe.
These general works were complementary to the great Corpus of Enamels which will unquestionably be Gauthier's most enduring monument, the Catalogue International de l'Oeuvre de Limoges. The noble first volume was published in 1987, covering the Romanesque period and systematically describing and illustrating more than 330 pieces. The second volume, which is ready for the press, will reach as far as the middle of the 13th century, and two further volumes are in preparation by the devoted team of helpers she gathered around her.
Marie-Madeleine Gauthier had an almost intuitive awareness of new directions in medieval scholarship. In 1978 she published a pioneering paper on the development circa 1230 in the Limousin workshops of folding tabernacles which contributed to the emerging European fashion for altarpieces. It was a reflection of her perennial fascination with the Realien of Christianity, a fascination which could also encompass the diocesan organisation of late-antique Gaul, the narratives of Thomas Becket's martyrdom, or the ravaged effigy of Pope Clement V in his collegiate church at Uzeste, near Bordeaux.
Those who were privileged to count her as a friend will never forget the ardent curiosity and joyous enthusiasm which so marked her. It might appear when examining a masterpiece in Burgos cathedral, or an unknown Limoges enamel in an antique shop at Stow-on-the-Wold, where her pertinacity and exquisite courtesy entranced the proprietor. Her erudition might be worn with captivating lightness, but it was none the less deep and exacting.
Honours rightly came to her in her native country and from abroad. She was a Membre de la Commission Superieure des Monuments Historiques, a member of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, a corresponding Fellow of the British Academy (1983), and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. At Princeton during her year's residence, she came into contact with Erwin Panofsky and Millard Meiss, which was a deeply affecting intellectual experience.
In England the great palaeographer Francis Wormald, at the British Museum, was an inspiration and a lifelong friend, and she began early in the 1950s to rebuild scholarly bridges with Germany. Right to the end she had an enviable capacity to inspire and help others. She worked tirelessly and contributed to the two memorable Council of Europe exhibitions dedicated to the Romanesque and Gothic styles at Barcelona and Paris respectively.
The great double exhibition devoted to Limoges enamels at the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1995/96, was a tribute to her scholarly achievement, and probably her monument. Among her many international obligations she could still devote time to a lecture explique of a colleague's work in a local archaeological periodical and encourage others to write with cheerful sympathy and down-to-earth practical advice. She died suddenly at her home, and her death has only recently been announced in England.
Mimi Gauthier remained close to her roots in Langon, sustained by the love of her husband Serge, and an admiration for the burgeoning achievement of her architect son. It was an entrancing household, cheerful, deeply cultivated and seriously appreciative of food and fine wines, for she was a wine- merchant's daughter.
Marie-Madeleine Coste, librarian and medieval art historian: born Langon, France 25 April 1920; married 1947 Serge Gauthier (one son); died Langon 20 May 1998.
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