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Enamel and Limousin goldsmithery

Throughout the Middle-Ages, Limousin witnessed a goldsmithery activity which would take the region to the forefront of a production distributed all over 13th century Europe.


Enjoying a strategic location at the trading crossroads of Europe and for the sponsorship of prestigious patrons, the workshops of Limousin will promote their know-how and their skills through enamel craft with more than 120 000  pieces spread far and wide  . Today more than 12 000 of these pieces are on display in the world’s largest museums and in Limousin.

Limoges enamels
Limoges enamels

This production of goldsmithery is unparalleled in the entire history  of medieval Europe. In fact, the Work of Limoges, together with Hispanic great projects, produced ten times more pieces than the combined products of Meuse, Rhineland, Saxony, England and Scandinavia’s workshops.



The production is unique due to the quantity of articles created and also to the nature of the pieces.



The Work comprises of Reliquary caskets, Christian liturgical pieces (crosses, candle holders, cruets, enamelled basins….), plates for liturgical garments (pinafore gown panels fastened with a large brooch, decorated with mitre, gloves, crosier…) as well as plates for objects of secular and heraldic use (small receptacles, candlesticks, ceremonial chairs, cups, bottles, fibulae, sword pommels, chamfrons, bridles, harnesses, stirrups, hunting breastplates,  ointment pots,  fibulae for perfume…)


Limoges enamels



The first  text to mention the Works of Limoges, written in 1167-69, relates to a “book cover” from Saint-Victor Abbey in Paris, mentioned by a cleric from Thomas Becket’s entourage. This text was soon followed by others: book covers are further mentioned, this time in the South of Italy, in Santa-Maria de Veglia, in 1197, “Limoges Crosses” turned up next to much different goods, in the Bapaume Tariff of Tolls in 1202, some “Limoges Basilicas” are offered around 1215 to Saints-Sergius-and-Bacchus of Rome by Pope Innocent III, the very Pope who authorized the Works of Limoges.


Some “coffros Lemovinceres” are bequeathed to the church of the Chapelle en Brie by the Bishop of Paris Peter of Nemours. In 1295, the pontifical inventories listed candlesticks and chests from Limoges.

Limoges enamels
Limoges enamels



The exact location and organization of the Limousin enamellers workshops remain unknowned. The great consistency for most of the productionsuggests a very concentrated activity, in the same town or even same district of it.

 But pieces of works, outstanding through their technical virtuosity, like the Poitiers Crosier or furthermore, were the Bible of Souvigny’s medallions manufactured in Limoges itself or in other centres?

 In some cases, a strong stylistic uniqueness questions the location of one workshop’s activity, evidently of Limousin schooling: did the artists who executed the Mozac Reliquary Casket work in the Aquitaine city or did they move to Auvergne? The question is even more pertinent for the authors of Orense Works or for the creations meant for Italy.

 Some similarities enable the identification of the artist beyond any doubt, but should one envision a few rigorously well organized or even specialized large establishments or rather small one-master studios? The complexity of the correlation between Works favours the second scenario.


 (Source - Elisabeth TABURET-DELAHAYE / Birth and Evolution of the Work of Limoges)



Assuming then, that the enamellers worshops would have multiplied in Limoges and that a few others would have established themselves in other parts of Limousin, mostly in order to meet local demand, manifestation of a piety originating more specifically from monastic or canonical environments, is not just a bold assumption.


The consequently acquired and granted technical and artistic mastery which atracted a larger demand well beyond the mere local environment and allowed diversification, appears as a logical outcome of this specialization. The cost was significantly cheaper than that of pure goldsmithery while the end product could be most stunning. Besides, Limoges location, notably through Saint-Martial and other Limousin religious establishement such as Uzerche, Tulle or Grandmont, was excellent within Southern Europe communication networks.


Limoges merchants undoubtly understood the full potential of a partnership with Saint-Martial Abbey and of that of an efficient operation of the workshops as well as how such a “niche” would help meeting the most diverse demands.


(Source – Mediéval Limousin,  Temps des créations / Bernadette BARRIERE)

Limoges enamels cross
Limoges enamels Cherves

Tabernacles de Cherves



An important turning point in the evolution of the Work of Limoges occurs around 1240-1250. As in the beginning of the century, the impetus appears to arise essentially from contacts with the art of North of the Loire regions; it was supported by orders from these very regions.


The renewal is apparent in the style but also in the shapes and the natures of manufactured works. Although some objects such as book cover plates appear to be scarcely produced, others like gemellions are newly favoured. Predominantly, funerary art gains momentum, of which the earliest positively dated example is provided by the tombs of Saint Louis’s children, John (1248) and Blanche (1243).


 The appetite for half-relief medallions in a very plastic style decorating large reliquary caskets and altars, is not without connection with recumbent effigies embossed in copper. The evolution towards a more formidable and simultaneously more robust and more sober processing, captures the stylistic changes seen on the Ile de France worksites around 1240.


 The renewal translates into enmalled decoration. The plant themes live on but distinctly deplete throughout the second half of the XIII century, while heraldic scenery, conceivably initiated by funerary orders, spreads to boxes, gemellions or candlesticks.

 But as per the previous period, the Work of Limoges seems subjected to diverse trends in the second half of XIII century whereas demonstrating a strong commitment to traditions and Modus Operanti favoured in the previous decades.


Lastly non-enamelled sculptural works, like figurines or head reliquaries, appear to achieve lasting success. The later indeed comprises the latest models of the Work of Limoges handed down: the Head Reliquary of Saint Ferreol, preserved in Nexon and manufactured in 1346 by Aymeric Chretien “goldsmith of Limoges Castle”.

The extinction of Limoges workshops is historically imputed to the ransack of the city by the Black Prince troops in 1370,  yet it seems to have progressively evolved throughout the previous decades.


(Source - Elisabeth TABURET-DELAHAYE / Birth and Evolution of the Work of Limoges) 


Limoges enamels medieval



The huge expansion of Limoges workshops during the last three decades of the XII century still remains partly unexplained. Very quickly indeed, the success of the Work of Limoges will be that of a production having accomplished a perfect fit for the needs of a huge european clientele.


There is every reason to believe that the expansion effectively flourished during the third quarter of the XII century and experienced a first international outreach. The actual rise of the Limousin workshops started off with the series of “vermiculated background” works.


The latter display the creative vibrancy of an art in its very beginning. Strikingly lively and coloured narrative sceneries, illustrating the lives of local Saints or of those notably worshipped in Limousin, such as Etienne, Martial and Valery, contrast with “more universal”  and static depictions but nonetheless of great expressive strength,  where the artist obviously was more mindful of the display of divine majesty and transcendence.


Although none of the works with vermiculated background is accurately dated for those manufactured in Limoges in the last two or three decades of the XII century, the canonization date of the depicted Saint, of that of the relics arrival, or of the gouvernement of the sponsor, provide at times valuable chronogical data.


A first group can be compiled around the oldest reliquary caskets of Saint Thomas (1170). The style is still governed by a appetite for lively narration and an important roman stylisation, but enamelling follows a reverse procedure of that observed on previous works, since the images are restricted and engraved on enamelled backgrounds. Furthermore these works display small applied heads more freely.


The study of this first production which experienced a spectacular development provides us with basic caracteristics. First and unquestionably comes its deep roots in the artistic traditions of Aquitain and more specifically of Limousin. A direct and specific link with one or other illumination executed in Saint-Martial of Limoges scriptorium whose brilliant work in the X and XI century has rarely been highlighted.

However Limousin enamellers evidently drew from this tradition as witnessed in the main style orientations and also in the many details such as mounds showered with intertwinings shaped as sparks alluding to the ground, backgrounds inlaid with rosace motifs, orphreys decorated with geometric motifs or clothes sprinkled with dots.


Mentioned in texts as the Work of Limoges or “Opus Lemovicense” since 1169, the Limousin workshops production, whose first testimonials date back to the second quarter of the XII century, spreads around the whole of Europe, promoted through the orders made by Saint-Martial great Abbeys and by the Order of Grandmont and their patrons, the Plantagenêts, as well as through the resolution passed by the Fourth Council of Lateran, in 1215, which permits the use of champlevé enamel for sacred vessels.

The relatively modest price of materials, the vibrant colours, the narrative liveliness, the abundance and the diversity of the manufactured objects have contributed to the success of Limousin enamels. Its eminence will echo throughout the Christian Occident.


It is estimated that close to 120 000 enamelled objects were produced between the XII and XIII century.Today, over 12 000 archetypal items of this unparalleled production in the history of art are preserved in the greatest museums in the world.

In the XII century, creations are directly influenced by the most important religious centre in Limousin, that is Saint-Martial Abbey of Limoges. The production thereafter channelled itself through secular goldsmiths meeting a growing demand for both sacred and profane objects.


During the Crusades, enamel craft benefits of the profileration of pilgrimages, of the Christanisation of the  rough chivalry world by the Church and of the spiritual and religious renewal (910 founding date of Cluny Monastery, 1095 Preaching of the First Crusade, 1115 founding of Clairvaux by Saint Bernard), of the overwhelming exultation for the worship of relics and of the veneration of a very large number of Saints in Limousin, as well as the expansion of original monastic orders like Grandmont founded by Etienne of Muret in the Hills of Ambazac.


( Source – Elisabeth TABURET-DELAHAYE/ Birth and evolution of the Works of Limoges)





The Work of Limoges did not evolved through easily noticeable divisions or stages. On the contrary, there is a an exceptional continuity in the shapes and  decorative patterns and even at times there were revivals of old processing methods, while neighboring centres new trends were very slowly acknowledged. Hence, the abundant Limousin workshops production at the beginning of the XIII century, only partially captures the “first gothic art” trends then prevalent in the North of the Loire regions. Besides, Limoges artists embraced a simplified version, predominantly typified mostly by the smooth processing of drapery with neat tight folds and full and rounded face shapes while retaining some of the late Western roman art features, primarily the taste for a lively narration and for characters in motion.


Master Alpais’ ciborium fits in this group of works. It is one of the first and finest creation displaying this “opening” towards the relaxation of shapes and a freer approach to sceneries. The characters decorating both cups remain in accordance to roman standards and feature “classic” heads embossed in “ half-relief” style while the depictions of the feet and that of  the angel falls wholly within the “first gothic art”

More often than in the previous period, important variations in the works quality are observed. The fabrication of certain types of objects, subject to an important and less diverse demand, such as book plates or crosiers, shows a nearly systematic use of well established templates whose duplication does not exclude the stereotype.


 During the same period, other artists more openly embrasse new trends  breaking away from Romanesque Art.

However, the fluid and more naturalistic style of the first gothic art essentially features in embossed patterns meant for enamelled altar frontals, tabernacles or reliquary caskets. It can seen in important collections such as the Grandmont main altar and the Tabernacle of Cherves. The large foliated scrolls on the enamelled frame are directly inspired from those encountered at the end of the XII century, but the simplifying and blossoming of the floral pattern bestow a clearly ”gothic” tone on them.


It is therefore during a period when Limousin workshops production  is very diverse that other objects were manufactured outside all stylistic trends, such as crosses, book cover plates or caskets decorated with characters embossed in half-relief with a very stylized enamelled process but where the absence of scenery imparts an induring  nature of which Eucharistic doves are undoubtly the finest example.


 (Source - Elisabeth TABURET-DELAHAYE / Birth and Evolution of the Work of Limoges)


Limoges enamels medieval Grandmont

Plaque de l'autel majeur de Grandmont

Limoges enamels medieval Silos

Plaque de l'autel majeur de Silos



The presence in Aquitaine of Henri II and that of his sons begin to have impact mainly since 1167.


What is striking then is the profound distortion perceived between the granted and sustained interest displayed by Henry II, Henry the Young and Richard the Lionheart for Limousin, for Limoges, for local sanctuaries and notably for Grandmont, with the display of generosity including orders of works of art, on one hand, and between the tense and painful relationships that opposed father and sons, sons amongs themselves, the King and his wife and compelled the inhabitants of Limoges’ two cities to suffer violences, requisitions or reprisals, on the other hand.


Nonetheless, Grandmont, which frequently served as a ground for meetings and peace talks between beligerents and which was on a number of occasions a retreat for Henry II, benefited, at the end of XII century, from such considerable munificence that it undoubtly enabled this priory not only to proceed with constructions, but also to acquire its magnificient altar, a combined implementation of the art goldsmithery and of enamelling,  which creation is thought to concur, more or less, with the celebration in 1189 of Stephen’s canonization in Rome. 


Against this background,  the extensive production of enamelled objects during these troubled times is therefore surprising. It shows that economical activities and commercial exchanges, both upstream and downstream along the product, managed to survive despite the many pitfalls. Politically silenced for many decades, the Castle burghers evidently devoted their time to business.


(Mediéval Limousin,  Temps des créations / Bernadette BARRIERE)


Limoges enamels medieval
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