Visual Analysis of a 14th Century Reliquary Pendant

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Photo: The British Museum

Reliquary Pendant of the Holy Thorn

c.1340

Paris, France

Two ovoid halves of amethystine crystal encased in gold make the exterior of this devotional pendant. While the exterior is beautiful enough, the true beauty is within. The pendant opens up to reveal three richly enamelled leaves, with scenes divided into two registers by a golden band. The scenes relay episodes of the life of Christ: the Nativity, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Presentation in the Temple, the Flight into Egypt, the Virgin and Child enthroned, the Crucifixion, and the Descent from the Cross. Each scene is opulently coloured and finely detailed. The technique of enamelling was one that began to be used in the early 14th century – each scene is enamelled using a technique known as basse-taille, in which shallow wells are cut for the enamel, which is then laid in such thin sheets that it is translucent and the metal shines through, differing from the more common champlevé technique where the enamel is opaque.

Naturally such a magnificent item would be possessed only by the nobility or monarchy. The lower register on one of the leaves depicts a barefooted king kneeling with his queen, praying to the Virgin and Child. Conservators at the British Museum speculate that the humble royal couple is Philip VI of France who reigned from 1328 to 1350 with his wife Jeanne de Bourgogne due to the enamelling which was in the fashion of Parisian metalworkers in the early 14th century.[1] Their appearance may hold the key to the pendant’s patronage and ownership. It is not unsurprising that the wealthy would possess such a trinket of devotion, and to more importantly, commission such a piece. Such an action would show humility before God, and more crucially, also instil an image of humility to be carried on through inheritors of the item, thus securing a favourable legacy for the commissioner. Note the Virgin’s gaze meeting the king’s, and the humble positioning of the couple at the Virgin’s feet. However, the pendant is more than an opulent devotional item, it also conceals one of the Middle Ages’ most celebrated relics – that of the Holy Thorn from Christ’s Crown of Thorns which He wore during His Crucifixion.

Interestingly, one side of the central leaf of the item is not enamelled but instead contains a miniature painted on vellum of the Nativity and the Annunciation to the Shepherds. While it is now faded, when freshly painted it would have had the brilliant colour of the enamels. The purpose of this miniature is to conceal a relic compartment which is divided into seven with a central compartment reserved for the relic of the Holy Thorn, which is still in place with a small golden crown placed above it. It is interesting to note that the Thorn faces images of the crucifixion. This is a powerful juxtaposition that would have heightened contemplation.

Perhaps this Thorn came from the Crown of Thorns of Louis IX who built Saint-Chappelle in 1248 to house the relic which he had bought in 1238 from the Latin Emperor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Baldwin II. Louis detached many thorns from the band and gave them as gifts, a practice which continued under successor kings.[2]

Setting aside the item’s obviously myriad political links, its importance to the individual is a vital concept in understanding its very existence and function. Firstly, its crafting

indicates the beauty of the holy within. The care for the detail, the richness of the colour, the value (and beauty) of the gold and amethyst, all contribute in reflecting the mystical magnificence of the relic. Using Plato’s teachings on beauty, it can be seen that the reliquary participates in illuminating the ideal of beauty itself – the physical materials may be a lower manifestation of the ideal, but it helps move one toward understanding the supreme beauty, in this case the Thorn which brings us closer to Christ.[3] Yet the most desired use for such a relic is merely having it close to the person. Proximity to the holy seems to be one of the greatest aims of many a mediaeval person. The praesentia – the physical presence of the holy, whether in the midst of a community or in the possession of an individual was the “greatest blessing that a… Christian could enjoy.”[4] Brown tells the story of a noblewoman, who at the shrine of St. Stephen, beat her body against the grille then pushed her head inside, laying it on the relics and weeping. This is a profound example of the overwhelming ecstasy of the proximity of the holy. Having this pendant at one’s breast would have been both a comfort and an indescribable joy as a relic brings, as Gregory of Nyssa states, “eye, mouth, ear, all the senses into play” and “those who behold them embrace, as it were, the living body in full flower.”[5] These feelings would have been magnified as this pendant possessed an object that touched the Christ. One can envisage the owner participating frequently with the pendant – when opened it would transform from a mere decorative item into a miniature pamphlet of the holy life of Christ. As it hung upside down at the neck, it would have had to been brought up to the face in order to look at. One can only imagine the joy the believer would feel at looking upon such richly coloured scenes then turning the leaves to reveal one of the most prized relics of mediaeval Christendom that was placed on the very head of the central figure of their spiritual universe. The awe would have been magnificent.

[1] Reliquary Pendant of the Holy Thorn, accessed 24 September 2013http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/r/reliquary_pendant,_holy_thorn.aspx

[2] Reliquary Pendant of the Holy Thorn, accessed 24 September 2013http://www.mcah.columbia.edu/treasuresofheaven/relics/Reliquary-Pendant-for-the-Holy-Thorn.php

[3] Richard Harries, Art and the Beauty of God, (London: Continuum, 1993), 31.

[4] Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 88.

[5] Ibid, 11.

Reference this post (Chicago): Veronica Fitzpatrick, “Visual Analysis of a 14th Century Reliquary Pendant.” Veronica Fitzpatrick (blog), March 6, 2016, http://veronicafitzpatrick.com/visual-analysis-of-a-14th-century-reliquary-pendant/

One thought on “Visual Analysis of a 14th Century Reliquary Pendant”

  1. A most interesting insight into the reliquary of the holy thorn. You have helped me realise the integral part these reliquaries played in the life of the medieval person.

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