H.T. sends me a large 18-inch charger in a style of glaze called faience, which has this motto emblazoned upon it: “Si non est satis mementot paupertatis.”
That translates roughly to “remember, if you do not have enough of poverty …,” and she is wondering what I can tell her about this piece acquired at a thrift store.
I can tell her that it has a wonderful back story — and that it is a great example of an object that offers clues to its history in both message (the Latin), and medium (faience glaze on stoneware).
First, the meaning of the Latin motto, coupled with a Christian female angel and a pinecone over her head — pine cones and pineapples are traditional symbols of hospitality. So, as sleuths, we search for a female-based religious order that focuses on hospitality as well as the relationship between poverty and spirituality.
The poor have long been a concern of religious orders, but perhaps the most remarkable achievement of Catholic Sisters is seen in the Little Sisters of the Poor (Petites Soeure des Pauvres), founded in 1839 by Jeanne Jugan, who was later canonized by Pope Benedict in 2009 as Saint Mary of the Cross, LSP.
As a young girl, she took elderly impoverished women to her small and meagre apartment in Brittany, cared for them, gave them her bed, and begged in the streets to feed and clothe them. Eventually her alms begging — which she practiced over four decades — enabled her to found four places of respite for the elderly women, and the Poor Sisters became an order. From its humble beginnings in Cancale Brittany, the order established homes in England in 1851 and the U.S. in 1868.
Today, the order serves some 13,000 elderly poor in 31 countries and is one of the largest institutes for women in the Catholic Church, with 234 houses for the poor and 2,372 sisters. All this from a lowly start in France.
Why did I make this connection?
Firstly, the pine cone, secondly the motto and female angel, and then a little research, because the Sisters of the Poor have four main tenants to their service: chastity, poverty, obedience and hospitality (the latter, not the norm for all orders).
Hospitality is seen as the bedrock of their service because through everyday acts of hospitality, they are closer to God. And yes, they still carry a begging basket. So, now we know the iconography of H.T.’s charger.
Now we come to the medium, which is faience, which was developed in France, in the late Renaissance (16th century) as a high art form for pottery, inspired by Italian Renaissance maiolica. The style was also developed in Spain and Portugal, called majolica, and made it to England in 1851 —debuting at London’s Great Exhibition.
In fact, the finest faience produced by France is called Palissy ware, and collectors love to find these interesting objet d’art which are sometimes so naturalistic in form (think a life- size pottery fish on its own plate) that they are surreal. Add to this the very bright colors that lead in the glaze can facilitate, and these pieces are joyful.
All types of majolica are distinctive because of the opaque lead glaze that allows for the application of a solid color over the whole surface. None of the stoneware shows through this, and colors can be applied over it and fired in one firing.
So it was both inexpensive to make, and could be applied on cheaper supports so that even terracotta, a soft biscuit, could be made non-porous. And the best of it was made in France.
So now we know both the origins of this piece and the philosophy of this piece!
Now to the value: Condition is an important factor in ceramics, and this one is in great shape.
As to the age: we see that H.T/’s is hanging on a wood wall, and indeed it has two holes in the foot edge to facilitate a wire. That places it in the 20th century when pieces like this were decorative and not used for food service.
Some of the finest Pallisy ware pieces fetch thousands of dollars, and some of the best Italian Majolica wares are seen only in museums and because of the one-stop firing process, can be quite large (double and triple firing of a large vessel could damage a large piece).
The value of the piece is $250, but should H.T. find a collector of religious faience, she could expect more.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s new book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.