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Holy Thorn Reliquary

Holy Thorn Reliquary

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The Holy Thorn Reliquary was probably created in the 1390s in Paris for John, Duke of Berry
John, Duke of Berry
John of Valois or John the Magnificent was Duke of Berry and Auvergne and Count of Poitiers and Montpensier. He was the third son of King John II of France and Bonne of Luxemburg; his brothers were King Charles V of France, Duke Louis I of Anjou and Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy...

, to house a relic
Relic
In religion, a relic is a part of the body of a saint or a venerated person, or else another type of ancient religious object, carefully preserved for purposes of veneration or as a tangible memorial...

 of the Crown of Thorns
Crown of Thorns
In Christianity, the Crown of Thorns, one of the instruments of the Passion, was woven of thorn branches and placed on Jesus Christ before his crucifixion...

. The reliquary
Reliquary
A reliquary is a container for relics. These may be the physical remains of saints, such as bones, pieces of clothing, or some object associated with saints or other religious figures...

 was bequeathed to the British Museum
British Museum
The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture in London. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are amongst the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its...

 in 1898 by Ferdinand de Rothschild
Ferdinand James von Rothschild
Ferdinand James Anselm Freiherr von Rothschild was an English art collector, and a member of the prominent Rothschild family of bankers...

 as part of the Waddesdon Bequest. It is one of a small number of major goldsmiths' works or joyaux that survive from the extravagant world of the courts of the Valois royal family around 1400. It is made of gold, lavishly decorated with jewels and pearls, and uses the technique of enamelling
Vitreous enamel
Vitreous enamel, also porcelain enamel in U.S. English, is a material made by fusing powdered glass to a substrate by firing, usually between 750 and 850 °C...

 en ronde bosse, or "in the round", to create a total of 28 three-dimensional figures, mostly in white enamel, which had been recently developed when the reliquary was made.

Except at its base the reliquary is slim, with two faces; the front view shows the end of the world and the Last Judgement, with the Trinity
Trinity
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity defines God as three divine persons : the Father, the Son , and the Holy Spirit. The three persons are distinct yet coexist in unity, and are co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial . Put another way, the three persons of the Trinity are of one being...

 and saints above and the resurrection of the dead
Resurrection of the dead
Resurrection of the Dead is a belief found in a number of eschatologies, most commonly in Christian, Islamic, Jewish and Zoroastrian. In general, the phrase refers to a specific event in the future; multiple prophesies in the histories of these religions assert that the dead will be brought back to...

 below, and the relic of a single long thorn believed to come from the crown of thorns worn by Jesus when he was crucified
Crucifixion of Jesus
The crucifixion of Jesus and his ensuing death is an event that occurred during the 1st century AD. Jesus, who Christians believe is the Son of God as well as the Messiah, was arrested, tried, and sentenced by Pontius Pilate to be scourged, and finally executed on a cross...

. The rear view has less extravagant decoration, mostly in plain gold in low relief
Relief
Relief is a sculptural technique. The term relief is from the Latin verb levo, to raise. To create a sculpture in relief is thus to give the impression that the sculpted material has been raised above the background plane...

, and has doors that opened to display a flat object, now missing, which was presumably another relic.

The reliquary was in the Habsburg
Habsburg
The House of Habsburg , also found as Hapsburg, and also known as House of Austria is one of the most important royal houses of Europe and is best known for being an origin of all of the formally elected Holy Roman Emperors between 1438 and 1740, as well as rulers of the Austrian Empire and...

 collections from at least the 16th century until the 1860s, when it was replaced by a forgery during a restoration by an art dealer, Salomon Weininger. The fraud remained undetected until well after the original reliquary came to the British Museum. The reliquary was featured in the BBC's A History of the World in 100 Objects
A History of the World in 100 Objects
A History of the World in 100 Objects was a joint project of BBC Radio 4 and the British Museum, comprising a 100-part radio series written and presented by British Museum director Neil MacGregor...

, in which Neil MacGregor
Neil MacGregor
Robert Neil MacGregor, OM, FSA is an art historian and museum director. He was the Editor of the Burlington Magazine from 1981 to 1987, the Director of the National Gallery, London, from 1987 to 2002, and was appointed Director of the British Museum in 2002...

 described it as "without question one of the supreme achievements of medieval European metalwork", and is a highlight of the exhibition Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe at the British Museum from June 23 to October 2011.

History


King Louis IX of France
Louis IX of France
Louis IX , commonly Saint Louis, was King of France from 1226 until his death. He was also styled Louis II, Count of Artois from 1226 to 1237. Born at Poissy, near Paris, he was an eighth-generation descendant of Hugh Capet, and thus a member of the House of Capet, and the son of Louis VIII and...

 bought what he believed to be the authentic Crown of Thorns in Constantinople
Constantinople
Constantinople was the capital of the Roman, Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city.-Names:...

 in 1239, and individual thorns were distributed as gifts by subsequent French kings. John, Duke of Berry (1340–1416), brother of King Charles V of France
Charles V of France
Charles V , called the Wise, was King of France from 1364 to his death in 1380 and a member of the House of Valois...

, had this reliquary made to house a single thorn; it was probably made a few years before he commissioned his famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry or simply the Très Riches Heures is a richly decorated book of hours commissioned by John, Duke of Berry, around 1410...

, and some years after he commissioned the Royal Gold Cup
Royal Gold Cup
The Royal Gold Cup or Saint Agnes Cup is a solid gold covered cup lavishly decorated with enamel and pearls. It was made for the French royal family at the end of the 14th century, and later belonged to several English monarchs before spending nearly 300 years in Spain...

, also in the British Museum. Previously dated between 1401 and 1410, from evidence in John Cherry's book of 2010 the reliquary is now thought to have been made before 1397; based on the heraldic forms used, the museum now dates it to 1390–97. The Holy Thorn Reliquary was later thought to have been in the possession of Louis I, Duke of Orléans, but all recent writers prefer his brother, the Duke of Berry.

Its location is unknown until an inventory of 1544, when it belonged to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, perhaps as an inheritance from his ancestors the Valois Dukes of Burgundy. It presumably passed to the Austrian branch of the Habsburg
Habsburg
The House of Habsburg , also found as Hapsburg, and also known as House of Austria is one of the most important royal houses of Europe and is best known for being an origin of all of the formally elected Holy Roman Emperors between 1438 and 1740, as well as rulers of the Austrian Empire and...

s on Charles V's death, as it is listed in several inventories of the Imperial Schatzkammer
Schatzkammer (Vienna)
The Imperial Treasury in Vienna, Austria is located in the Hofburg with its entrance at the Schweizerhof , the oldest part of the palace rebuilt in a Renaissance style under Emperor Ferdinand I...

 ("treasure chamber") in Vienna
Vienna
Vienna is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Austria and one of the nine states of Austria. Vienna is Austria's primary city, with a population of about 1.723 million , and is by far the largest city in Austria, as well as its cultural, economic, and political centre...

 from 1677 onwards. It remained in Vienna until after 1860, when it appeared in an exhibition. Some time after this it was sent to be restored by Salomon Weininger, an art dealer with access to skilled craftsmen, who secretly made a number of copies. He was later convicted of other forgeries, and died in prison in 1879, but it was still not realised that he had returned one of his copies of the reliquary to the Imperial collections instead of the original. The Viennese Rothschild family
Rothschild family
The Rothschild family , known as The House of Rothschild, or more simply as the Rothschilds, is a Jewish-German family that established European banking and finance houses starting in the late 18th century...

 bought the original reliquary by 1872, in ignorance of its provenance
Provenance
Provenance, from the French provenir, "to come from", refers to the chronology of the ownership or location of an historical object. The term was originally mostly used for works of art, but is now used in similar senses in a wide range of fields, including science and computing...

; it was inherited by Ferdinand de Rothschild, who moved to England, and built Waddesdon Manor
Waddesdon Manor
Waddesdon Manor is a country house in the village of Waddesdon, in Buckinghamshire, England. The house was built in the Neo-Renaissance style of a French château between 1874 and 1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild . Since this was the preferred style of the Rothschilds it became also known as...

 in Buckinghamshire
Buckinghamshire
Buckinghamshire is a ceremonial and non-metropolitan home county in South East England. The county town is Aylesbury, the largest town in the ceremonial county is Milton Keynes and largest town in the non-metropolitan county is High Wycombe....

. One of the copies remained in the Ecclesiastical Treasury
Schatzkammer
Schatzkammer is a German word which translates as Treasure Room, and is a term also used in English for the collection of treasures, especially those in precious metals and jewels, of a ruler or other collector, kept in a secure room, often in the basement of a palace or castle...

 of the Imperial Habsburg Court in Vienna
Vienna
Vienna is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Austria and one of the nine states of Austria. Vienna is Austria's primary city, with a population of about 1.723 million , and is by far the largest city in Austria, as well as its cultural, economic, and political centre...

, where the deception remained undetected for several decades.

The original reliquary reached the British Museum as part of the Waddesdon Bequest in 1899, by which time its origins had been "completely lost" and it was described as "Spanish, 16th Century". Thus its history had to be reconstructed through scholarship; the meaning of the heraldic plaques on the castle base had by now been lost in both London and Vienna. The first publication to assert that the London reliquary was the one recorded in earlier Viennese inventories was an article by Joseph Destrée in 1927; the matter was not finally settled until 1959 when the Viennese version was brought to London to enable close comparison. The assembled experts from the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum
Victoria and Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum , set in the Brompton district of The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London, England, is the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design, housing a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects...

 and Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
The Kunsthistorisches Museum is an art museum in Vienna, Austria. Housed in its festive palatial building on Ringstraße, it is crowned with an octagonal dome...

 in Vienna agreed that the London reliquary was the original. Under the terms of the Waddesdon Bequest the reliquary cannot leave the museum; in 2011 it was omitted from the Cleveland and Baltimore
Baltimore
Baltimore is the largest independent city in the United States and the largest city and cultural center of the US state of Maryland. The city is located in central Maryland along the tidal portion of the Patapsco River, an arm of the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore is sometimes referred to as Baltimore...

 legs of the exhibition Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe. Normally it is on display in Room 45, the dedicated Waddesdon Bequest Room, as specified in the terms of the bequest.

Description



The Holy Thorn Reliquary is made of gold, enamel
Vitreous enamel
Vitreous enamel, also porcelain enamel in U.S. English, is a material made by fusing powdered glass to a substrate by firing, usually between 750 and 850 °C...

, rock crystal
Hardstone carving
Hardstone carving is a general term in art history and archaeology for the carving for artistic purposes of semi-precious stones, also known as gemstones, such as jade, rock crystal , agate, onyx, jasper, serpentine or carnelian, and for an object made in this way. Normally the objects are small,...

, pearls, rubies and sapphires. It is just over 30 centimetres (11.8 in) high and weighs 1.4 kilograms (3.1 lb). There are some areas of damage (including what appears to be deliberate removal of enamel in the 19th century), and small losses and repairs; but generally the reliquary is in good condition. The central front compartment holding the relic is protected by a thin pane of rock crystal, which has kept it in perfect condition. The enamel is mostly in ronde bosse technique, applied to three-dimensional figures, with white as the dominant colour. White enamel using lead
Lead
Lead is a main-group element in the carbon group with the symbol Pb and atomic number 82. Lead is a soft, malleable poor metal. It is also counted as one of the heavy metals. Metallic lead has a bluish-white color after being freshly cut, but it soon tarnishes to a dull grayish color when exposed...

 was only recently developed, and very fashionable, dominating many contemporary ronde bosse works. There is also red, green, blue, pink and black enamel. Pure gold is used throughout, which is rare even in royal commissions of such pieces at this period; most use cheaper silver-gilt
Silver-gilt
Silver-gilt or gilded/gilt silver, sometimes known in American English by the French term vermeil, is silver gilded with gold. Most large objects made in goldsmithing that appear to be gold are actually silver-gilt; for example most sporting trophies, medals , and many crown jewels...

 for the structural framework.

The jewels, which would have been keenly appreciated by contemporary viewers, include two large sapphires, one above God the Father
God the Father in Western art
For about a thousand years, in obedience to interpretations of specific Bible passages, pictorial representations of God the Father in Western art had been avoided by Christian painters. At first only the Hand of God, often emerging from a cloud, was portrayed...

 at the very top of the reliquary, where it may have represented heaven, and the other below Christ, on which the thorn is mounted. The gold elements framing God the Father and the central compartment with Christ and the thorn are decorated with alternating rubies and pearls, totalling fourteen of each. All the gemstones have the smooth and polished cabochon
Cabochon
A cabochon , from the Middle French caboche , is a gemstone which has been shaped and polished as opposed to faceted. The resulting form is usually a convex top with a flat bottom. Cutting en cabochon is usually applied to opaque gems, while faceting is usually applied to transparent stones...

 cut normal in medieval jewellery, and though they are set in the reliquary with gold "claws", all are drilled through as though for threading on a necklace, suggesting that they are re-used from another piece. There may have been other jewels now lost, for example mounted in two holes on either side of the door of the castle-like base.

Front face


The design of the front face is based on the general resurrection of the dead
Resurrection of the dead
Resurrection of the Dead is a belief found in a number of eschatologies, most commonly in Christian, Islamic, Jewish and Zoroastrian. In general, the phrase refers to a specific event in the future; multiple prophesies in the histories of these religions assert that the dead will be brought back to...

 following the Last Judgment
Last Judgment
The Last Judgment, Final Judgment, Day of Judgment, Judgment Day, or The Day of the Lord in Christian theology, is the final and eternal judgment by God of every nation. The concept is found in all the Canonical gospels, particularly the Gospel of Matthew. It will purportedly take place after the...

. At the top sits God the Father, above two angels. A small hole at the level of their knees shows where a dove representing the Holy Spirit
Holy Spirit
Holy Spirit is a term introduced in English translations of the Hebrew Bible, but understood differently in the main Abrahamic religions.While the general concept of a "Spirit" that permeates the cosmos has been used in various religions Holy Spirit is a term introduced in English translations of...

 was originally attached; with Christ below, all three persons of the Trinity
Trinity
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity defines God as three divine persons : the Father, the Son , and the Holy Spirit. The three persons are distinct yet coexist in unity, and are co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial . Put another way, the three persons of the Trinity are of one being...

 were therefore represented. A round-topped compartment protected by a rock-crystal "window" holds the relic itself and the group around Christ. Christ in Judgment is shown seated displaying the wounds of his crucifixion
Holy Wounds
The Five Holy Wounds or Five Sacred Wounds refer to what are believed to be the five piercing wounds that was suffered during the crucifixion of Jesus....

, with his feet resting on the globe of the world, and making a blessing gesture. As with all the enamelled figures that are still extant, the hair is in gold, the main robe is in white, and the flesh is in white with coloured eyes and lips, a touch of pink on the cheeks. Behind Christ the celestial spheres
Celestial spheres
The celestial spheres, or celestial orbs, were the fundamental entities of the cosmological models developed by Plato, Eudoxus, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus and others...

 are represented like a rainbow, and above him fly two angels holding Instruments of the Passion, including the crown of thorns
Crown of Thorns
In Christianity, the Crown of Thorns, one of the instruments of the Passion, was woven of thorn branches and placed on Jesus Christ before his crucifixion...

 over his head; behind him a cross in shallow relief emerges from the curved gold background. The thorn relic rises below and in front of him, mounted on a "monstrously large sapphire".

To the left and right of Christ are shown John the Baptist
John the Baptist
John the Baptist was an itinerant preacher and a major religious figure mentioned in the Canonical gospels. He is described in the Gospel of Luke as a relative of Jesus, who led a movement of baptism at the Jordan River...

 and the Virgin Mary in supplicant poses, a traditional grouping
Deesis
In Byzantine art, and later Eastern Orthodox art generally, the Deësis or Deisis , is a traditional iconic representation of Christ in Majesty or Christ Pantocrator: enthroned, carrying a book, and flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist, and sometimes other saints and angels...

; John was also one of the Duke's patron saint
Patron saint
A patron saint is a saint who is regarded as the intercessor and advocate in heaven of a nation, place, craft, activity, class, clan, family, or person...

s. Around the central scene small figures of the twelve Apostles carrying their identifying attributes
Emblem
An emblem is a pictorial image, abstract or representational, that epitomizes a concept — e.g., a moral truth, or an allegory — or that represents a person, such as a king or saint.-Distinction: emblem and symbol:...

 emerge from the foliage border of oak leaves and tendrils; the uppermost heads on each side are replacements, probably by Weininger in the 1860s.
Below this upper section there is a gold scroll label with the Latin inscription ("This is a thorn from the crown / Of Our Lord Jesus Christ") in black enamel filling the engraved letters. Below the inscription is a scene showing the mass resurrection of naked people rising from their graves on the Day of Judgement. On a green enamel mound like a hillside are four naked figures, two men and two women, emerging from tiny gold coffins whose lids have been upturned on the ground; the women wear white caps. Four angels blowing horns sound the "Last Trump" of the Book of Revelation
Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation is the final book of the New Testament. The title came into usage from the first word of the book in Koine Greek: apokalupsis, meaning "unveiling" or "revelation"...

, standing on the turrets of a tiny castle which serves as the base of the reliquary.

The Last Judgement was an especially appropriate subject for setting a relic from the Crown of Thorns. Some thought that the crown was held by the French kings on loan, and would be reclaimed by Christ on the Day of Judgement—a belief expressed in the antiphon
Antiphon
An antiphon in Christian music and ritual, is a "responsory" by a choir or congregation, usually in Gregorian chant, to a psalm or other text in a religious service or musical work....

 sung at Sens Cathedral in 1239 to celebrate the arrival of the main relic.

Two panels on the walls of the castle are patterned with the coat of arms
Coat of arms
A coat of arms is a unique heraldic design on a shield or escutcheon or on a surcoat or tabard used to cover and protect armour and to identify the wearer. Thus the term is often stated as "coat-armour", because it was anciently displayed on the front of a coat of cloth...

 of the Duke of Berry, and their form has been crucial for establishing the provenance
Provenance
Provenance, from the French provenir, "to come from", refers to the chronology of the ownership or location of an historical object. The term was originally mostly used for works of art, but is now used in similar senses in a wide range of fields, including science and computing...

 and date of the work. Two of the angels with horns have blue fleurs-de-lis on their robes; the other two, patterns of dots in blue. All the arches of the castle are semicircular, and in fact the whole reliquary lacks any Gothic pointed arches, even among the tracery—a sign of advanced artistic taste at the time. In this respect the Holy Thorn Reliquary contrasts strongly with the Tableau of the Trinity in the Louvre
Louvre
The Musée du Louvre – in English, the Louvre Museum or simply the Louvre – is one of the world's largest museums, the most visited art museum in the world and a historic monument. A central landmark of Paris, it is located on the Right Bank of the Seine in the 1st arrondissement...

 (possibly made in London), whose framework is a forest of crocket
Crocket
A crocket is a hook-shaped decorative element common in Gothic architecture. It is in the form of a stylised carving of curled leaves, buds or flowers which is used at regular intervals to decorate the sloping edges of spires, finials, pinnacles, and wimpergs....

ed Gothic pinnacle
Pinnacle
A pinnacle is an architectural ornament originally forming the cap or crown of a buttress or small turret, but afterwards used on parapets at the corners of towers and in many other situations. The pinnacle looks like a small spire...

s, although estimates of its date cover the same period as the reliquary.

Rear face


The rear face is plainer, with no jewels, but still highly decorated; Cherry speculates that it may originally have been much more simple and not designed for viewing, with most of the other elements added after it was originally made. At the top is a medallion with the face of Christ set in a sunburst
Sunburst
Sunburst is a type of finish for musical instruments such as electric and acoustic guitars and electric basses. At the center of a sunburst-finished surface is an area of lighter color that darkens gradually towards the edges before hitting a dark rim...

. The central round-topped area contains two doors, secured with a small gold pin, containing full-length gold figures in relief
Relief
Relief is a sculptural technique. The term relief is from the Latin verb levo, to raise. To create a sculpture in relief is thus to give the impression that the sculpted material has been raised above the background plane...

, chased
Repoussé and chasing
Repoussé or repoussage is a metalworking technique in which a malleable metal is ornamented or shaped by hammering from the reverse side to create a design in low relief. There are few techniques that offer such diversity of expression while still being relatively economical...

 in gold, a feature unique to this reliquary. On the left door is the archangel
Archangel
An archangel is an angel of high rank. Archangels are found in a number of religious traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Michael and Gabriel are recognized as archangels in Judaism and by most Christians. Michael is the only archangel specifically named in the Protestant Bible...

 Saint Michael, spearing a dragon representing the devil. He was both the patron saint
Patron saint
A patron saint is a saint who is regarded as the intercessor and advocate in heaven of a nation, place, craft, activity, class, clan, family, or person...

 of the French monarchy, and also traditionally the person responsible for supervising the chaotic crowds at the Last Judgement, when he is often shown in art weighing souls in a pair of scales. On the right is Saint Christopher
Saint Christopher
.Saint Christopher is a saint venerated by Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, listed as a martyr killed in the reign of the 3rd century Roman Emperor Decius or alternatively under the Roman Emperor Maximinus II Dacian...

, carrying the Christ child on his shoulders, who raises his hand in blessing. There was a popular belief that sight of an image of Saint Christopher meant that a person would not die on that day without receiving the last rites
Last Rites
The Last Rites are the very last prayers and ministrations given to many Christians before death. The last rites go by various names and include different practices in different Christian traditions...

, which may well explain his presence here.

In the fake in Vienna, the figures of both saints are enamelled; flesh is white, Michael and the Christ child have red robes, and Christopher blue, and the saints stand on a brownish dragon and blue water respectively, with green grass below both of these. Some scholars have thought it unlikely that the forger invented this scheme, and therefore presumed that he copied enamel on the original that has been removed in the 19th century, probably because it was damaged—sections of enamel cannot be patched up, but must be removed completely and redone. However John Cherry believes this and other changes in the enamel of the Vienna version are elaborations by Weininger and his craftsmen; for example in Vienna the wings of the trumpeting angels are coloured. The two figures are in a sophisticated "soft and flowing" International Gothic
International Gothic
International Gothic is a phase of Gothic art which developed in Burgundy, Bohemia, France and northern Italy in the late 14th century and early 15th century...

 style executed with great virtuosity; Michael's staff is detached from the background over most of its length and is one of a number of elements that extend outside the frame of the door. If there was once enamel on the two figures it would have been at least mainly in more fragile translucent enamels, as the very fine working of many details of them was clearly intended to be seen. The rougher working of the surfaces at the bottom of the doors: the dragon below St Michael, the water below St Christopher, and the ground below both of these, suggests that the missing original enamels were opaque in these areas. But all the extra enamel in Vienna is opaque, including the saints' figures, and the effect of the more intense colours is "lurid" and "offends our eyes because of its crudity".

When the pin is removed and the small doors opened, there is now nothing to see but "a flat layer of plaster, with a sheet of nineteenth-century paper or vellum
Vellum
Vellum is mammal skin prepared for writing or printing on, to produce single pages, scrolls, codices or books. It is generally smooth and durable, although there are great variations depending on preparation, the quality of the skin and the type of animal used...

 in front of it". Whatever was designed to be displayed has now gone; it must have been flat, and was perhaps another relic, probably a textile, or a picture on vellum. The Veil of Veronica
Veil of Veronica
The Veil of Veronica, or Sudarium , often called simply "The Veronica" and known in Italian as the Volto Santo or Holy Face is a Catholic relic, which, according to legend, bears the likeness of the Face of Jesus not made by human hand The Veil of Veronica, or Sudarium (Latin for sweat-cloth),...

, in either form, is a possibility; the face of Christ at the top in a circular setting often represents this. Outside the doors the foliate border of the front is continued, uninterrupted by figures. Below two of the angels with trumpets can be seen, with an unpopulated stretch of the green hillside, and below it the back of the castle base, which has apparently had another arched "leg" in the centre crudely removed, leaving a jagged edge, and also making the reliquary rather less stable.




Goldsmith


The maker of the work is unknown; it is not signed or marked, and goldsmiths of the period rarely did this. There are a number of goldsmiths' names known from accounts and other records, but none of the few surviving works can be attached to a particular maker. Paris was the centre of production for the great numbers of joyaux, secular and religious, produced for the extended Valois royal family and other buyers. Berry and his brothers and nephews had goldsmiths on salaries or retainers for what must have been a continuous flow of commissions, whose results are tersely catalogued in various inventories of the period, but of which there are now only a handful of survivals. Only one item mentioned in the records of the Berry collection might match the reliquary, but this was made after 1401, which conflicts with the date suggested by the heraldry. Another possibility is that the reliquary was made and given as a gift, as many such pieces were, in between inventories.

Techniques


The reliquary exuberantly exploits the ronde bosse or "encrusted" enamelling technique, which involves creating small three-dimensional figures coated in enamel on a metal core, often just gold wire. The technique was a recent innovation which the goldsmiths working for the Valois were pushing to its limits at the end of the 14th century. The main colour of enamel used is a lead-based white, which had also only been developed a decade or two at most before the date of the reliquary, and was evidently very fashionable at the end of the century. White dominates the few surviving large enamels in ronde bosse dated to the period beginning about 1380 and ending about 1410, used as here for both the clothes and flesh of the figures. Gold is used for their hair, and other enamel colours are mostly used at the neck and cuffs to demarcate between white robes and white flesh; "throughout, colour is used in a very considered way"; "a controlled use of red includes the alternation of rubies and pearls", except where "a single sapphire interrupts this rhythm" above God the Father. Blue, an important enamel colour in other works, is almost entirely absent here, perhaps so as not to overshadow the large sapphires.
Other techniques are also used with a great degree of skill; the large figures on the rear are chased, with St Michael's wings being represented on the flat surface of the door in delicate stippled or pointillé
Pointillé
Pointillé is a decorative technique in which patterns are formed on a surface by a means of punched dots. The technique is similar to embossing or engraving but is done manually and does not cut into the surface being decorated. Pointillé was commonly used to decorate arms and armor starting in...

 work using punches
Punch (tool)
A punch is a hard metal rod with a shaped tip at one end and a blunt butt end at the other, which is usually struck by a hammer. Punches are used to drive objects, such as nails, or to form an impression of the tip on a workpiece...

, which is too detailed to see in most photographs, and indeed hard to see on the original. Michael's body is also feathered, stopping at the neck, ankles and wrists, a "most exceptional feature" often referred to as "feather tights
Feather tights
Feather tights is the name usually given by art historians to a form of costume seen on Late Medieval depictions of angels, which shows them as if wearing a body suit with large scale-like overlapping downward-pointing elements representing feathers, as well as having large wings. Other sources...

", that perhaps borrows from the costumes of liturgical drama
Liturgical drama
Liturgical drama or religious drama, in its various Christian contexts, originates from the mass itself, and usually presents a relatively complex ritual that includes theatrical elements...

s. Other elements were cast in small moulds, and most of the visible gold has been burnished to give a smooth and shining appearance.

Patron


Jean, duc de Berry
John, Duke of Berry
John of Valois or John the Magnificent was Duke of Berry and Auvergne and Count of Poitiers and Montpensier. He was the third son of King John II of France and Bonne of Luxemburg; his brothers were King Charles V of France, Duke Louis I of Anjou and Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy...

 (1340–1416), or the "excellent puissant Prince Jehan filz de roy de France Duc de Berry" ("excellent and powerful prince Jean, son of the king of France, Duke of Berry"), as his secretary inscribed one of his manuscripts, was the third of the four sons of King John II of France
John II of France
John II , called John the Good , was the King of France from 1350 until his death. He was the second sovereign of the House of Valois and is perhaps best remembered as the king who was vanquished at the Battle of Poitiers and taken as a captive to England.The son of Philip VI and Joan the Lame,...

Charles V
Charles V of France
Charles V , called the Wise, was King of France from 1364 to his death in 1380 and a member of the House of Valois...

, Louis I, Duke of Anjou (1339–1384), Berry and Philip the Bold
Philip the Bold
Philip the Bold , also Philip II, Duke of Burgundy , was the fourth and youngest son of King John II of France and his wife, Bonne of Luxembourg. By his marriage to Margaret III, Countess of Flanders, he also became Count Philip II of Flanders, Count Philip IV of Artois and Count-Palatine Philip IV...

, Duke of Burgundy
Duke of Burgundy
Duke of Burgundy was a title borne by the rulers of the Duchy of Burgundy, a small portion of traditional lands of Burgundians west of river Saône which in 843 was allotted to Charles the Bald's kingdom of West Franks...

 (1342–1404). All commissioned great numbers of works of art in various media, and in particular spent huge sums on works in gold and silver. Although it is Berry who is especially remembered as a patron, partly because he specialized in illuminated manuscript
Illuminated manuscript
An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders and miniature illustrations...

s which have little value in their materials and so have not been recycled, his brother Louis of Anjou had over 3,000 pieces of plate at one point. These included wholly secular pieces with sculptures in enamel that can only be imagined by comparison as regards technique to the handful of reliquaries, like the Holy Thorn Reliquary, that have survived from the period, and as regards subject matter to tapestries and some secular illuminated manuscripts. There are extremely detailed inventories of Berry's possessions including ones from 1401–1403 and 1413–1416, however none contain an entry whose description matches the reliquary.
Soon after Berry's death in 1416, the bulk of his treasures were seized and melted down by the English, who were occupying much of northern France after their victory at the Battle of Agincourt
Battle of Agincourt
The Battle of Agincourt was a major English victory against a numerically superior French army in the Hundred Years' War. The battle occurred on Friday, 25 October 1415 , near modern-day Azincourt, in northern France...

 the previous year. That the reliquary escaped this fate suggests it may have been given away by Berry, perhaps to his Burgundian cousins, in whose family it is next recorded (the Burgundian heiress Mary of Burgundy
Mary of Burgundy
Mary of Burgundy ruled the Burgundian territories in Low Countries and was suo jure Duchess of Burgundy from 1477 until her death...

 married the Habsburg Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor
Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor
Maximilian I , the son of Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor and Eleanor of Portugal, was King of the Romans from 1486 and Holy Roman Emperor from 1493 until his death, though he was never in fact crowned by the Pope, the journey to Rome always being too risky...

 in 1477). A reliquary that was donated to the church had a better chance of surviving than the similar secular works that are only recorded in inventories, where scenes of courtly pleasure were depicted with portrait figures of the princes and their friends. A work belonging to Berry's elder brother Anjou showed the romance of Tristan and Isolde, with King Mark spying on the lovers from a tree above them, giving himself away when they see "the enamelled reflection of his face in the enamelled brook". One work that survived long enough to be recorded in an 18th-century painting had a very similar gold castle as its base, with a paradisal garden within the walls, in this case with trees bearing pearls and red gems. However the rest of the piece was very different in scale, with a single large white enamel figure of the Archangel Michael impaling Satan
Satan
Satan , "the opposer", is the title of various entities, both human and divine, who challenge the faith of humans in the Hebrew Bible...

 with a lance-like jewelled cross, completely out of scale with the garden in which he stands. This is the St Michael and the Devil Group, which can be reliably dated to before 1397, when it was given to King Charles VI of France
Charles VI of France
Charles VI , called the Beloved and the Mad , was the King of France from 1380 to 1422, as a member of the House of Valois. His bouts with madness, which seem to have begun in 1392, led to quarrels among the French royal family, which were exploited by the neighbouring powers of England and Burgundy...

, Berry's nephew, as a New Year's gift by another uncle, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. It later passed to a church at Ingolstadt
Ingolstadt
Ingolstadt is a city in the Free State of Bavaria, in the Federal Republic of Germany. It is located along the banks of the Danube River, in the center of Bavaria. As at 31 March 2011, Ingolstadt had 125.407 residents...

 in Bavaria
Bavaria
Bavaria, formally the Free State of Bavaria is a state of Germany, located in the southeast of Germany. With an area of , it is the largest state by area, forming almost 20% of the total land area of Germany...

, where it remained until it was destroyed in 1801.

Berry was religious as well as worldly, and collected relics as keenly as other types of objects. By 1397 both of his sons had died, he was in his late fifties, and he had begun to think of his tomb, finally deciding to build a new "Sainte Chapelle" in his capital of Bourges
Bourges
Bourges is a city in central France on the Yèvre river. It is the capital of the department of Cher and also was the capital of the former province of Berry.-History:...

 to house it. His collection of relics included objects claimed to be the wedding ring of the Virgin Mary, a cup used at the Wedding at Cana, a piece of the Burning Bush
Burning bush
The burning bush is an object described by the Book of Exodus as being located on Mount Sinai; according to the narrative, the bush was on fire, but was not consumed by the flames, hence the name...

 and many others. However the provenance
Provenance
Provenance, from the French provenir, "to come from", refers to the chronology of the ownership or location of an historical object. The term was originally mostly used for works of art, but is now used in similar senses in a wide range of fields, including science and computing...

 of the Holy Thorn, as well as its centrality to the Passion of Christ must have given it a special status. The crown from which the thorn came had been bought in 1239 by Louis IX
Louis IX
Louis IX may refer to:* Louis IX of France .* Louis IX, Duke of Bavaria "the Rich" * Louis IX, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt ....

, both a saint and King of France, from the Latin Emperor in Constantinople
Latin Empire
The Latin Empire or Latin Empire of Constantinople is the name given by historians to the feudal Crusader state founded by the leaders of the Fourth Crusade on lands captured from the Byzantine Empire. It was established after the capture of Constantinople in 1204 and lasted until 1261...

, Baldwin II
Baldwin II of Constantinople
Baldwin II of Courtenay was the last emperor of the Latin Empire of Constantinople.He was a younger son of Yolanda of Flanders, sister of the first two emperors, Baldwin I and Henry of Flanders...

, along with a portion of the True Cross
True Cross
The True Cross is the name for physical remnants which, by a Christian tradition, are believed to be from the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.According to post-Nicene historians, Socrates Scholasticus and others, the Empress Helena The True Cross is the name for physical remnants which, by a...

. Both had been in Constantinople
Constantinople
Constantinople was the capital of the Roman, Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city.-Names:...

 since the Muslim Conquest of the Holy Land
Holy Land
The Holy Land is a term which in Judaism refers to the Kingdom of Israel as defined in the Tanakh. For Jews, the Land's identifiction of being Holy is defined in Judaism by its differentiation from other lands by virtue of the practice of Judaism often possible only in the Land of Israel...

 in the 7th century, and may very well be the same relics that Bishop Paulinus of Nola
Paulinus of Nola
Saint Paulinus of Nola, also known as Pontificus Meropius Anicius Paulinus was a Roman senator who converted to a severe monasticism in 394...

 saw in Jerusalem in 409. There are a number of other thorn relics said to have come from the relic in the Paris Sainte Chapelle, including the far smaller Salting Reliquary in the British Museum, a French pendant
Pendant
A pendant is a loose-hanging piece of jewellery, generally attached by a small loop to a necklace, when the ensemble may be known as a "pendant necklace". A pendant earring is an earring with a piece hanging down. In modern French "pendant" is the gerund form of “hanging”...

 of about 1340.

Berry may have kept the reliquary with him on his round of visits to his many castles and palaces, or it may have been kept in a chapel, perhaps the Bourges Sainte Chapelle, built in emulation of the king's Paris Sainte Chapelle, where the Crown of Thorns itself was kept. The reliquary is relatively small and would almost certainly have had a custom-made carrying case like that for the Royal Gold Cup, in which the cup came to the British Museum.

Further reading


Cherry and Tait have longer bibliographies.
  • Bagnoli, Martina et al., Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, 2011, British Museum Press, ISBN 978-0-7141-2330-1

External links