It’s time for ArtSmart, and this will probably be my last one for the next few months with the impending arrival of Baby Art Nerd. We delayed the April posting to accommodate another art-centric post by friends of the late Hasan Niyazi. You can find those posts here.
This month, we’re revisiting the theme of sculpture. I’ve covered a broad range in this topic from fun modern pieces to triumphal Roman arches. Usually, you think of a piece of stone or bronze as a larger-than-life object for sculpture or perhaps you think of busts of noteworthy people. But what about reliquaries? They’re sort of in between as a functional object and a piece of usually delicate metalwork. I’m going to focus on two kinds: portrait-style reliquaries and church-shaped pieces.
What is a reliquary? For this discussion, focusing on medieval European reliquaries, it’s an object used to house the relics (often bones, teeth, clothing, or hair) of a saint. Churches were often consecrated once a relic (generally of the patron saint the church is named after) was installed. Many powerful cathedrals and monasteries used their relics as medieval tourism to gain revenue from visiting pilgrims. Especially if their relic was purported to deliver miracles. So if you had a money-making, miracle-creating relic, you needed a fancy vessel to display it.
The abbey church of Sainte Foy in Conques, France has an excellent example of a portrait-style reliquary. The church is on the way to the Camino de Santiago, and Sainte Foy’s miracle claim to fame was freeing prisoners who prayed for her intercession. The relics were actually stolen from Agen by monks which shows just how important relics were in medieval society. The reliquary is Ste. Foy seated in a chair. The head is actually a different gold from the body, and there is a receptacle in the back holding her skull encased in silver. Some art historians have theorized that the head was the original reliquary that was later added to a body. The crown that she’s wearing denotes that she was a martyr. The body itself is gilded yew wood and the ornamentation has been added to over the centuries. The oldest parts of the reliquary date from the late 10th to early 11th centuries (though the face dates from the 4th century as a late Roman bust), and it measures almost 3 feet tall. You can find the reliquary in the treasury at the church of Ste. Foy in Conques.
The reliquary of St. Eustace is a bust-style featuring just his head and neck resting on a stand. It was made in the 13th century in Basel, Switzerland so this has a late Romanesque look rather than the early Romanesque look of Ste. Foy. It measures about 14 inches tall so it’s much smaller than Ste. Foy. The base is sycamore covered in silver gilt and gems. The inside contains skull fragments, which were assumed to be pieces of St. Eustace’s skull though he was martyred in late 1st/early 2nd century. It’s not clear where the relics came from, but the reliquary stayed in Basel until it was purchased by the British Museum in 1850. It still belongs to the museum today.
The reliquary of St. Taurinus is an example of a church-shaped piece. The life of St. Taurinus is a bit hazy, but he’s generally associated with the 4th or 5th centuries. He is said to have raised several people from the dead in Normandy during his lifetime. An abbey was established in his name in the town of Évreux in Normandy in the 6th century. The reliquary dates from the mid-13th century, and it takes the style of a Gothic church. The reliquary is silver covered in gold leaf and gilded copper with enamel and jewels. It’s over three feet long and over three feet tall, and it weighs and weighs over 150 pounds. You can find it in a side chapel at the abbey church of St. Taurin in Évreux today.
Next time you’re in a museum or church, don’t miss the gilded reliquaries on display. They’re often incredibly detailed pieces of metalwork, and each one tells the story of the saint or church it is associated with. They may not command the room like a giant classical nude or an Egyptian temple guardian guard or a brightly colored Lichtenstein, but they are unique, ornate vessels with stories that you usually don’t hear about.
What is ArtSmart? A couple fellow travel bloggers with an interest in art and I decided to do a roundtable series focused on making our readers “art smart”, e.g. understanding why certain works of art are famous and worth the visit while traveling. At the end of this post are links to the other ArtSmart posts by participating bloggers. Interested in joining the Roundtable? Check out our Facebook page or email me.
This Month’s Fellow ArtSmart Roundtable Articles:
Alexandra of Arttrav: 8 exquisite sculptures at the Archaeological Museum in Florence
Pal and Lydian of ArtWeekenders: Botero’s Voluminous Sculptures Around the World
Lesley of Culturetripper: Francis Bacon & Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty, AGO, Toronto
Christina of Daydream Tourist: Man and Myth: Statues of Abraham Lincoln
Ashley of No Onions Extra Pickles: Rodin’s Thinker
Jenna of This Is My Happiness: A Sense of Place through Sculpture
Murissa of Wanderfull Traveler: The History & Highlights of Peggy Guggenheim’s Sculpture Garden, Venice