This free-standing piece of carved wall decoration was brought to Kansas City by JC Nichols, and placed on the median of Ward Parkway in the 1920s.
The exact origins of the piece are not known. It also appears to be a “married” piece, made up of elements of at least two separate works. Both parts are Istrian limestone, but vary slightly in color and style. The lintel on top of the central relief, and the two capitols appear to have originated together, while the central panel and other elements are stylistically different.
Several experts have studied it, and have reached varying opinions regarding its origin, meaning and age. Some believe that it is Italian, dating from the late 1400s; others think it may be French, carved in the Italian style in the early 1500s; another suggested it may have been created in the 19th century in the style of earlier works. JC Nichols himself wrote that it was from the 1700s, originally from Venice, Italy, though he had purchased it from a New York art dealer who had bought it from the owners of a magnificent home on Fifth Avenue.
The iconography of the sculptures is also uncertain. Though there are numerous symbols typically associated with Christianity, the piece overall does not appear to be exclusively religious. On one column there is a winged lion holding an open book. This is the “lion of St. Mark,” the symbol of the city of Venice, Italy. This symbol has supported the idea that the sculpture originated in Venice. Other symbols seem to refer to mythology. Two circular medallions located in the upper portion of the relief contain portraits of a man and woman in profile. On top of the woman’s head is a mysterious creature. The carving on the central panel includes birds, flowers, leaves, fruit and cherubs in a style similar to, but inconsistent with, typical coats of arms. No known coats of arms matching these designs have been identified.
Experts also have had varying ideas on the original intent of the plaque. One suggestion is that it may have symbolized a marriage, depicting a bride and groom and their lineages. Another theory is that it was a tombstone, a “fine example of high Victorian (19th century) graveyard sculpture.”
The many unanswered questions add to the mystique of this lovely work of art, part of an extraordinary collection which enhances one of the most beautiful parkways in Kansas City.