Enamelled reliquary caskets
Key pieces of the “Opus lemovicense”, that is the “Work of Limoges”, comprising of nearly 700 reliquary caskets, are preserved in the world’s major museums.
In fact, these reliquary caskets are kinds of miniature sarcophagus for the relics of saints. The choice of their decoration amplifies the entire symbolism of the preserved relics.
Their selected themes vigorously match the “fashion” trends at the time and also remind us of the elements of liturgy, developed through the transition of the elevation of relics.
However, from among the very large iconography of these reliquary caskets, by choice, the Work of Limousin goldsmiths reveals three major themes for the caskets that we know of :
Carte des émaux conservés en Limousin in situ
The devotion to Saints existed very early on in the early stages of Christianity and the Crusades in the Holy Land hastened the trade of Relics in the West. The Christianisation of numerous pagan sanctuaries gave rise to devotions (religious fervour) and processions dedicated to local or identfied Saints.
Who said relics means reliquaries…and the trade of the latter proliferates. These enamelled boxes permitted to shelter the Saints’ relics after their translation out of the tomb, and to preserve them in or under the altar. Crypts housing Saints tombs are often too small to accommodate pilgrims. Moreover, the evolution of liturgy corresponds to the proliferation of masses and altars, requiring in turn more relics.
Limoges enamellers generated a significant production of Reliquary Caskets, representing miniature models of the church, last shrines for holy relics.
The seven hundred or so Reliquary Caskets of Limousin preserved to this day, kinds of miniature sarcophagus provided for the relics of saints, constitute a substantial proportion, about a tenth, of all items listed by the “Corpus of Western Enamels”.
Most of them, about one hundred, are a miniature version of well-established funeral mausoleums in the West. For instance, the Reliquary Casket of Malmesbury presents, in the centre, two rectangular panels, decorated with two pictures encapsulating the Christian Faith: the Crucifixion, at the lower level, and above it, the Apocalyptic Lamb, pledge of an Assurance of Salvation through the redeeming sacrifice. On the wings, archways shelter the Council of Twelve Apostles. On the gables, Saint Peter and Saint Paul stand out through their prominent position in the roman hierarchy; the Limoges enamellers respectfully assigned them that position for a century; it goes without saying that the doorway at the endpoint of the small structure, is kept in Saint Peter’s custody, a miniscule image for paradise on earth.
The prominent features of the faces of the Apostles’ two Princes are sketched with a coat of enamel and bear the thumbprint of the distinct and identifiable Byzantine style : the mosaics of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo.
Well before the enamelled Reliquary Caskets are made by the Limousin workshops, the first model of Reliquary Casket known in Limousin is the Merovingian Reliquary Casket (VII or VIII century) preserved in the Church of Saint-Bonnet-Avalouze.
The Reliquary Casket has the shape of a small house with a steep saddleback roof with pitch gables tilting slightly inward. Although the workmanship is quite rough, its old age, in contrast, singles it out as a very rare specimen in Europe.
It is a small embossed and gilded box, nailed onto a wooden oak frame; the decorations feature, on one panel, a cross with even arms encircled by interlaced patterns; on the other side, a large cross of Saint Andrew outlines four sections depicting two haloed Saints and two crosses potent.
Merovingian Reliquary Casket of Saint-Bonnet-Avalouze.
Herebelow a panel of enamelled Reliquary Caskets from Limousin:
Models of studied Reliquary Caskets
Châsse de Saint-Calmine
Reliquary Casket of Saint Calmine
The Reliquary Casket of Saint Calminius is the largest Reliquary Casket in the Work of Limoges (Opus Lemovicence) known to date.
It was created to house the relics of Saint Calminius, who was the founding father of the Abbey in the VIIth century, and previously a roman senator who became, according to tradition, Duke of Aquitaine and the Count of Auvergne and whose relics arrived in Mozac in the IXth century.
The remains of the couple who founded the Abbey, Calminius and Namadia are sheltered in this casket which is the largest Champlevé Enamel Reliquary Casket in the world: 0,81 m × 0,24 × 0,45. The frame is made of wood. On it are fixed fourteen layers of copper plates engraved with fine enamelled indentations.
The decor is not very creative. It is quite repetitive with a background of rosettes and symmetrical patterns. The characters and other inlays were nailed and then gilded with fine gold.
The Reliquary Casket has the shape of a church without transept nor choir. The casket railing on the roof crest consists of a row of about sixty arches.
The main side represents the Twelve Apostes (three per panel: symbol of the Saint Trinity). Their name is inscribed in Latin on a banner crossing at knee level. In the centre, Christ features twice: in full glory enclosed in a mandorla with the Tetramorph (symbols of the four Apostles, above) and crucified in the company of Saint Mary and Saint John (below).
Both roof gables respectively depict the Virgin and Child sitting in Majesty together with Saint Austresmoine, first Bishop and Evangelist of Auvergne, whose relics are also preserved in Mozac since 764 AD or 848 AD.
Saint Etienne Reliquary Casket in Gimel les Cascades
One should not miss this exceptional Reliquary Casket of Saint Etienne in Gimel les Cascades, dating back to the XII century.
On the front panel, two sequences depict the cycle of the Passion of Saint Etienne; on the left of the trunk the Preaching of Saint Etienne, is supported by Christ, while Jews put their fingers in their ears; on the right Etienne, condemned to torment, is taken outside of the city, symbolised by a boundary wall; on the pitched roof, Saül seated, holds the executioners’ cloaks and witnesses the stoning of Etienne.
The rear panel of the casket features four Apostles, among them Saint Peter, portrayed in arcades; on the roof, medallions of the busts of three angels; on the right gable plate is featured an Apostle (Saint Paul?) holding a phylactery and a cross; an angel with its wings spread guards the doorway at the left gable; the copper cladding is decorated with a network of engraved scrolls (patterned with vermiculated background) softened with etching and a fringe of square florets; the openwork on the crest displays seventeen motifs shaped as a key hole and includes three acrotarium.
Reliquary Casket of Bellac
Bellac holds the oldest know Reliquary Casket shaped in a house with a saddleback roof, may be wrongly attributed to Limoges workshops but most probably is of hispanic origin.
The main side is decorated with six domed medallions: Christ is identified through an inscription: IESUS SUTSIPX, the name XPISTUS was inverted by the possibly dyslexic or illiterate goldsmith. He is positionned between the bull and a griffin instead of the eagle, symbolizing the evangelists Luke and John. On the roof pitch, the Pascal Lamb between the angel and the lion, for Mathew and Mark…On the right gable, a representation of the Virgin Mary identified through the inscription SANCTA MARIA MATER D(omi)NI.
Reliquary Casket of Ambazac
The Reliquary Casket of Ambazac was part of the treasure of the Abbey of Grandmont, which included seven of them exhibited in the choir of the building. Its construction mimics that of a two-storey religious structure with three pitched roof transepts.The body comprises of a parallelepiped shaped lower unit resting on four feet topped by a second storey linked to the former by a four-gabled roof decorated with a pattern replicating tiles. This upper part is crowned by a saddleback roof in tune with the transepts.
The whole unit is crowned by a crest with two acroterium at each end and a bird in its middle. The gables display an architectural design exhibiting the same partitions, the left one made of a two hinged door. Enamel is used, on the main side and on the back, as a punctuated decoration of the surfaces of distinct caskets but also to imitate certain materials such as stained glass on the gables of the lateral transepts.
The symbolic master plan is exeedingly simple. The structure evokes the image of an Heavenly Jerusalem. The lower part represents the tombs containing the relics topped by the heavenly tier, dwelling place of the Saint’s soul, overlooked by the picture of the Cross and portraying two angels on applied Champlevé enamelled copper plates. The bird presiding over could symbolize either the Saint’s soul or the Dove of the Holy Spirit, the final stage of this progression. Known through documentation dating back to 1472, this Reliquary Casket, along with six others, was positionned on a level of the main altar of the Superior of the Order of Grandmont. However it is the only Reliquary Casket which survived revolutionary destructions.