Q: My mother purchased a rubbing executed in the 1920s by Jean and Stan Livingston. The original brass was in a Belgium church that was destroyed in World War II. The scene depicts Rebecca De Mornay standing in front of Mary and the baby Jesus. I want to sell this piece but cannot find anyone to handle it.
A: Sometimes the information that filters down to us is just incorrect — and this can be very vexing.
The main problem with the central figure in this beautiful brass rubbing is that she is not Rebecca De Mornay, who is an American television and movie actress, who is best known for her roles in Risky Business (with Tom Cruise) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.
Instead, it is the image of Sister Marguerite de Scornay, who was elected Abbess of Nievelles in 1443. The Abbey itself was founded about 639 AD (or 640 according to one source), with the first abbess being Gertrude, the daughter of Itta and Pippin of Landen. The location was the town of Nievelles, which is located in central Belgium.
Interestingly, the abbess was the ruler of Nievelles and had the right of justice and the making of coinage. The particular image in today’s question is sometimes called Abbess Marguerite (or Margaret) De Scornay and the Dragon, and is the upper third of a large Flemish brass plate that was damaged by bombs in 1940.
This particular image is only a fraction of a much larger original that depicts Marguerite being presented to the Virgin Mary and the Christ child by Saint Margaret, Marguerite’s patron saint. The symbols of the four Evangelists appear in the corners and there is a dragon at Saint Margaret’s feet. Originally, the background of the brass was enameled red and the heraldry was detailed in enamel colors and gilt. Unfortunately, the heat from the bomb blast melted all the enamel.
The picture in today’s question is called a “brass rubbing” and it was done by laying a piece of paper on top of a brass (actually called a “lattern” because of the brass and nickel alloy from which it was made). Once the paper was in place, it was rubbed with graphite, wax or chalk to capture the image in the same way that a piece of paper might be placed on top of a coin and rubbed with a pencil.
The paper typically used was about the same as modern butcher paper and the rubbing was often done with a “heelball” — or a waxy glob of black crayon-like substance that was once used to shine shoes. This hobby was very popular in Victorian times, but today, a heavy-duty black velvety sort of material is used and this is rubbed with silver, gold or some other contrasting colors.
It should be noted that brass rubbing activity is said to have damaged many Gothic, Medieval, and Renaissance brasses and is prohibited in many places (some British churchyards come to mind). If R.P. were to go on the Internet he or she would find that this image is widely available at prices that range from around $65 to around $500.
Indeed, there is very little market for brass rubbings — especially ones that are commonly found on the Internet. Yes, this piece has value but it is largely decorative with little or no resale value. A recent auction offered this image for sale with an estimate of $100 to $250, and it did not sell or receive a bid.