Reliquary caskets of Saint Valery

Surveys carried on the Corpus of southern enamels recorded fourteen reliquary caskets or illustrated casket plates of Sainte Valery.

The importance of Saint Valery’s following in the Middle-Ages grows steadily in Limousin and in Aquitaine with the endorsement of the Plantagenêt family.

The drive to promote this worship in the iconography of reliquary caskets was therefore predictable.

 

Thirty three featured or illustrated art pieces of Saint-Valery together with some crosiers and two reliquaries have been listed. The descriptive inventory of these works produced in the Limousin workshops, between the second half of the XII century and mid XIV century, puts forward different dates for each of them.

The illustrated series of Saint Valery‘s reliquary caskets can be divided into three groups corresponding on the one hand to three distinct periods of the Work from Limoges and on the other to the choice of well-defined illustrations.

 

The study of the narrative scenery of the reliquary caskets indicates that the enamellers astutely selected the visually most powerful and most intense scenes among the many episodes of the legendary lives; they were also undoubtedly easier to identify for such diverse worshippers comprising clerics, scholars or more modest onlookers.

 

The first group includes the two oldest reliquary caskets depicting Saint-Valery’s legend; they date back to the years 1170-1180 and are now kept in the British Museum and in the Ermitage.

 

A third casket of the same period and of which the representation relates almost entirely to Saint Martial can be added to the group; it is kept in the Louvre Museum.

 

These reliquary caskets are differentiated by their format, their workmanship and their stylistic treatment. Characters are enamelled in a rich polychromy on gilded backgrounds covered with engraved scrolls.

The following episodes are depicted simultaneously on each of the two reliquary caskets: the condemnation of Saint Valery by the Duke of Etienne, the execution of the Saint and the cephalophory miracle as the body stands to catch the head, the association of the miracle with the Duke of Etienne  through the executioner struck by lightning, the arrival of Valery in the cathedral, who kneels and offers her head to Saint Martial who is officiating at the altar.

 

The second group of enamelled reliquaries depicting Saint Valery, of which the manufacture goes back to the first quarter of the XIII century, is the largest as well, as it includes nearly twenty reliquary caskets. Their dimensions for the most part, are far smaller than those of the first group and they feature also a new method of manufacturing adopted by the Limousin workshops towards the end of the XII century.

 As a matter of fact manufacturing in Limousin turns into mass production. The artwork is produced much faster, the characters particularly, with or without small highlighted heads are henceforth dedicated and gilded on ever blue enamelled grounds and covered with discs, rosettes or multi-coloured asters.

 

The scenery diminishes to a few repetitive characters, despite the fact that beyond their similarity, some details characterize these caskets and avoid confusing them.

 

For Saint Valery, like for Saint Etienne as for Saint Thomas Becket, scenes of the martyrdom , of the burial and of the rising of the soul to heaven were preferred.

 

The cephalophory miracle episode at the altar is invariably depicted on the body of the casket: the two protagonists features at the centre of the composition, Saint Valery kneels on the left and Saint Martial, standing on the right, receives her head with hands reaching out, on the altar ready for mass with a chalice and a candleholder, a third character nearly always features behind the kneeling Saint Valery, who is the executioner armed with a sword, depicted as either struck by lightning or as resurrected.

The beheading scene features a tree as an indication that the event takes place outside, as narrated in the legend.

 

(Source - Valérie & Thomas Becket, de l'influence des princes Plantagenêts dans l'Oeuvre de Limoges / Musée de l'Evêché de Limoges)

 

 

 

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The cessation of production of enamelled reliquary caskets featuring Saint Valery around 1225-1230 seems to coincide with the end of a large dispersion of the Saint‘s relics from the Chambon monastery.

 

Two major non-enamelled items appear to be the link between the second and the third group of reliquary caskets. These are two gilded copper pastoral or episcopal “crosiers”, on whose design of swirls, is featured the traditional cephalophory miracle episode at the altar with Saint Valery and Saint Martial.

 

The oldest “crosier”, dating back 1230-1240 is preserved in the treasure of the Saint-Sauveur de Bruges Cathedral. To date, no one knows how it reached there.

The shape of the second crosier, kept in the United States at the Baltimore Museum of Art and dating back to 1260-1270, is unique in the whole of the Work of Limoges: it depicts actually two designs of swirls each harbouring one of the two protagonists in the scene, at the top of which, in addition, features a small character which could be the archangel Saint Michel. Could it be as it is suggested the cantor staff from Limoges Cathedral ?

 

(Source - Valérie & Thomas Becket, de l'influence des princes Plantagenêts dans l'Oeuvre de Limoges / Musée de l'Evêché de Limoges)

Crosse de sainte Valérie / Musée de Baltimore

The third group of reliquary caskets featuring the theme of Saint Valery is part of a later production of the Limousin enamel workshops dating back to the last decades of the XIII century. Two reliquary caskets of that period are known, to date, to be in public collections, one acquired by the Limoges Museum and the other kept in the United States at the Toledo Museum of Art.

 

However, their structural makeup differs, with the Limoges casket having  a wooden sub-layer while the Toledo casket has a framework made entirely of metal with a roof that can be opened. Although the quality of manufacturing and the stylistic treatment of the characters seem less attractive on both of these reliquary caskets, the scenes portray the same narrative tone and prolificacy of the first vermiculated reliquary caskets.

 

Sainte Valery‘s martyrdom depicts a soldier wielding his sword whose outline could have been used as a reference, true to scale, by the enamellers in order to execute the first reliquary caskets of Saint Thomas Becket, the miracle of the cephalophory features a bishop stepping away from the altar, which could have been similarly “re-used” to depict Thomas Becket.

 

Accordingly, on the oldest caskets of Saint Valery, the tale first progresses from the body of the casket, as demonstrated in the most prevalent illustration on Saint Thomas Becket’s caskets. The depiction of the events is then inversed to that of the first reliquary caskets when the representation of the Saint’s martyrdom unfolds on the roof.

Accordingly, the representation of the martyrdom and the cephalophory can also be seen abridged on the body of the casket, leaving the roof space dedicated to the burial scene of the deceased or to the elevation of the soul, according to the alternate endorsed concept to decorate the roof of Saint Thomas Becket’s reliquary caskets. In this respect, it is not surprising to find caskets featuring both themes which could be fairly assumed to have been created by the same pair of hands.

 

(Source - Valérie & Thomas Becket, de l'influence des princes Plantagenêts dans l'Oeuvre de Limoges / Musée de l'Evêché de Limoges)

 

Châsse de Sainte Valérie - Le Louvre

It so happens that Saint Thomas Becket’s reliquary caskets were dispersed throughout the Christian Middle-East from the very onset, which can be easily explained by the exceptional quality of the relics, which the caskets were intended to house.

 

One might assume that the very local nature of the legend of Saint Valery would have resulted in a restricted distribution of the Saint’s relics and therefore of those reliquary caskets. However, that would mean overlooking the influence of Limoges in the Middle Ages and the implication of the town’s religious institutions and officials, in their numerous and efficient networks.

 

The Plantagenêts, as well, through their multiple family alliances promoted the spreading of the Saint’s cult, to whose revival Eleanor undoubtedly actively contributed.

 

Hence, Saint-Martial’s monks assented in the years after 1160, to gift three canons from Lincoln, with the relics of Saint-Martial and of Saint Valery (sealed in an ivory reliquary casket).Likewise, the existence of Sainte Valérie in several caskets, in North Germany and specifically in the treasure of two cathedrals, Minden and Peterborn, lets us consider that the Saint’s relics would have long been imported into the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. 

 

Source - Valérie & Thomas Becket, de l'influence des princes Plantagenêts dans l'Oeuvre de Limoges / Musée de l'Evêché de Limoges).