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reliquary-of-saint-oswald

Gosh, we have looked at a lot of crowns, haven’t we?  You would think that, after all of these posts, we would have started to run out of royal headwear, but we haven’t even remotely begun to get to the back of history’s vast royal treasury.  Nothing seems to interest humans quite so much as status, and nothing says status like a gold hat which proclaims “I am better than than those around me”.  Today’s crown however is not meant for a human head: it is a votive crown which is devoted to the idea that there are  aspects of status which fundamentally transcend even our sad status-driven lives.  This idea is maybe at the heart of religion–which is an even more naked manifestation of the human need for hierarchical status and tribal belonging than politics and kingship (although they are all knit together in a disturbing way).

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Enough philosophizing…above is the crown of of Saint Oswald made of gold, silver, pearls, shell, and gemstones.  It seems to date from the late 12th century AD but may be of earlier construction.  Elements of the crown, such as the Roman cameo and the intaglios are definitely ancient pieces which have been repurposed into the saint’s crown (the whole piece may have been donated by a king or prince as a devotional act, but the history is unclear).  The crown is kept at Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany on top of a reliquary statue of Saint Oswald made of gilded wood with disturbing niello eyes.

Oswald is a good illustration of the fungible nature of political and religious power.  He was a 7th century Saxon king who converted to Christianity and annealed the thrones of Bernicia and Deira together into the powerful Kingdom of Northumbria which was a high point in England’s dark age history (this business of putting kingdoms together out of disparate preexisting elements is reflected somewhat in the bricolage nature of  this saint’s crown from 500 years later).  Oswald was a warlord who died in battle, yet he was also a uniter, a spiritual leader, and a saintly king (at least in Bede’s estimation).  He became the focus of a particular cult later in the Middle Ages and there are at least 4 skulls attributed to him in continental Europe alone.

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Happy Epiphany!  When I was growing up, my family always celebrated the twelve days of Christmas which started on Christmas proper (December 25th) and lasted until until January 6th (“Epiphany”, “Little Christmas”, or “the Feast of Three Kings”) which is also, my father’s birthday.  Happy birthday, Dad!  The liturgical explanation of Epiphany was that Jesus was born on December 25th (just like Mithras, secret Persian god of the late Roman military! quite a coincidence) and then adored for 12 days until the Magi showed up with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Thereafter the holiday was finished: Jesus had to run hide out in Egypt and my family had to take down the decorations and deal with the grim realities of winter, unleavened by colorful Yuletide fantasy.  Come to think of it, Epiphany also involved some business about the bapism of Jesus, the appearance of the holy spirit, and the revelation of Jesus’ divine nature, but all of this was mixed up in the disastrous sectarianism of different forms of Christianity, so you will have to run ask your favorite bishop about the full niceties.

At any rate, the three kings were always great favorites of mine.  I recall playing Melchior in the Christmas pageant dressed in shimmery polyester 1970s curtain fabric and holding the Chinese jewelry box which my mother used to keep on her dresser.  “We Three Kings of Orient Are” was always my favorite Christmas song (since it hints at the broader themes of Christ’s life in a way that lesser, newer Christmas songs do not).  Also, the inclusion of the three kings allowed for camels, royal finery, and orientalism in Christmas decorations which was a real aesthetic plus.

To celebrate the holiday I have included two Medieval representations of the three kings:  the one at the top is an enameled reliquary made in Limoges, France in the late 12th century.  The journey of the three kings is portrayed on the top (sadly lacking the camel) and the adoration of the Christ child is shown on the side.  The gothic gilded box probably contained some ghastly mortal fragment of a medieval saint (or a lump of quotidian matter which was labeled as such), but it is exquisitely beautiful and would be perfect in a Christmas pageant, if it weren’t enshined in the Musée de Cluny in Paris.

The image below is from an illuminated book of hours (the so-called “Hours of the Queen of Sweden” according to my source) and shows a delightfully integrated group of kings kneeling before a legitemately beautiful medieval Mary.  Look at the tiny Jerusalem in the background.  Around the sacred image are beautiful still-life images of flowers, seed pods, insects, and birds.  Both of these imags are real artistic masterpieces of the Middle Ages and I hope they help you celebrate Little Christmas, because we have a lot of winter to slog through now (at least here up north…if you are in Aukland, Argentina, or Madagascar or something send us some pictures of your summer revels so we can get through January)…

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Reliquary Crown of Thorns (Cathedral of Saint Aubin in Namur)

Reliquary Crown of Thorns (Cathedral of Saint Aubin in Namur)

Not all crowns are meant to be worn by monarchs and princes. These are reliquary crowns from northern Europe—the opulent gems and precious metals exist purely in a supporting role to add gravity and ornament to the truly important sacred objects allegedly within. These sacred relics were usually pieces of the bones of Saints or splinters of the true cross—somewhat common sacred artifacts in the medieval world where bones and splinters were plentiful and provenance was dodgy. The crown at the top is in St. Aubin Cathedral in Namur, Belgium, and it is said to contain a splinter of the true cross. The very lovely crown below is the reliquary crown of Henry II, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1014 AD until his death in 1024 AD. Henry II worked ceaselessly during his reign as king and later as emperor to minimize the power of greedy nobles by making bishops more influential. The Catholic Church greatly appreciated this support and Henry II was canonized in 1146 AD by Pope Eugene III. Presumably the crown, (which is today kept at the Cathedral of Bamberg in Bavaria) contains some piece of Henry II—although there is an outside chance it was his actual crown. It is worth enlarging the photo of Henry’s reliquary crown to better see all of the strange little details such as the antique cameos, the fleur-de-lis, and the angels standing on acanthus leaves.

Reliquary Crown of Henry II (Bamberg Cathedral)

Reliquary Crown of Henry II (Bamberg Cathedral)

The Iron Crown of Lombardy

I have written about the ancient Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Emperor.  Europe’s other truly ancient crown is the Iron Crown of Lombardy, which doubles as a reliquary containing a nail reputedly used to crucify Jesus.  Myth relates that the nail was originally the property of Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great.  It is said that the sacred nail was later given to Princess Theodelinda of the Lombards in some unfathomable act of Byzantine diplomacy and she then incorporated it into her crown (which was given to her by Pope Gregory the Great in recognition for converting the Lombards to Christianity).

Although the actual age and make of the Iron Crown are unknown and shrouded in myth, laboratory tests performed on bits of wax and caustic from the crown seem to indicate it was made in the middle of the 8th century AD.  It is constructed of six segments of gold and enamel hinged together.  In addition to its famous band of iron, it is decorated with 22 jewels set inside relief forms of flowers and crosses.  The crown is small and may be missing segments (or may have actually been intended for some other use).

An illustration of the Iron Crown of Lombardy

It seems the Iron Crown was a sort of afterthought to the Holy Roman Emperors who traditionally traveled to Rome for their imperial coronations.  On the way back to Central Europe they would stop in Lombardy to be crowned as Kings of Italy. Napoleon followed this tradition and placed the crown on his own head in 1805 in Milan.  He even went so far as to proclaim the ancient ceremonial (grabby) words of coronation which go with the throne of Lombardy, “Dieu me la donne, gare à qui la touche. (God gives it to me, beware whoever touches it.)” Admittedly he said the phrase in French.

Whoever wears the crown is King of Italy (albeit not always a united Italy), but it has not been claimed since 1838 when Emperor Ferdinand I proclaimed himself King of Lombardy and Venetia .  It can still be found in the cathedral of Monza near Milan where it has been for more than a millennium (except for the years when it was kept in Vienna among Ferdinand’s crown jewels).

Monza Cathedral where the Iron Crown is located today

The Iron Crown also has a rich literary tradition and appears in many stories and fables.  My favorite allusion comes in Moby Dick when Ahab watches a sunset and fantasizes that he is wearing the Iron Crown of Lombardy as he contemplates his own madness.

Speaking of craziness, although I have no evidence, I know in my heart that Silvio Berlusconi has found a way to spend some time with the Crown of Lombardy and a mirror.  If you think about the nature of the current Prime Minister of Italy (who is also Italy’s wealthiest private citizen and a Lombard from Milan) you will come to the same conclusion.  The real question is whether he was wearing anything else when he put it on and how many other people were involved.

"Thats-a not nice! What did-a Silvio do to you, eh?"

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