November 07, 2013
In this month's Ad/Blog we have a beautiful pair of paper rolled reliquaries. A reliquary is a container or shrine for relics. The word relic comes from reliquiae a Latin word meaning "remains" or "something left behind". These can be objects, pieces of clothing, or as in this case bones.
In response to the Protestant Reformation the Catholic Church formed the Council of Trent between 1545 to 1563. They assembled 25 times to reform the Church's teachings in religious orders, spiritual movements, ecclesiastical rituals, politics, and monastic life. Martin Luther had opposed the use of relics and the cult of saints. The last meeting in 1563 the Church looked to reaffirm the veneration of saints and relics.
These mid 18th century paper roll reliquaries were made by a convent of cloistered Carmelite nuns somewhere in the Provence area of southeastern France. They reflect the doctrines put forth by the Council of Trent. These Carmelite nuns were separated from the outside world living very strict regulated lives within papal enclosures. They lived by the doctrine of "ora et labora" or "pray and labor".
I like to picture these paper filigree reliquaries quietly being made by nuns deep in concentration and prayer for hours on end under the warm Mediterranean sun.
This reliquary has a gouache portrait of King Gaspar, an Indian scholar, and one of the three Magi wise men who brought gifts to baby Jesus. He is seen here offering a turned container probably filled with frankincense. Frankincense, an aromatic resin derived from the Boswellia sacra tree, was a valuable gift of honor. It is used as a perfume and for incense. Some scholars also think that frankincense was a medicinal gift used to help treat arthritis.
The other reliquary shows Saint Margaret of Antioch. Olybrius a Roman governor asked Margaret to marry him and to renounce Christianity. She refused and was cruelly tortured and jailed. In jail she battled Satan and was swallowed by him in the form of a dragon. The cross she carried irritated the dragon's stomach and she was soon disgorged.
At her death she prayed that women giving birth would be safe just like she had been safely removed from the dragons belly. She is known as the patron saint of pregnant women.
She is pictured here holding a cross with the writhing dragon at her feet. She is also holding a martyr's palm symbolizing the victory of the spirit over flesh.
The composition of this gouache portrait is similar to a small group of prints that are after paintings designed by Raphael and painted by Giulio Romano c1518 who worked in Raphael's workshop. This group shows the dragon twisted around her feet with its head wrenched upside down. Perhaps these images had some influence on the design of this gouache.
The original frames are carved and gilded wood in the "a la Berain" or Berainesque style. Jean Berain the Elder was a designer, painter, and engraver in Paris from 1663 to 1711. He created light florid Arabesque designs that greatly influenced the burgeoning Regence style.
These devotional creations were probably inspired by the delicate filigree work of goldsmiths. Colored and gilded strips of paper are crimped, rolled, and cajoled into complex patterns and floral bouquets. There are also cut glass gems placed between the relics. Here's a closer look at the paper roll work surrounding King Gaspar.
Here is one of the bone relics placed on a small patch of cotton wool with a hand written label of a saints name. Both of these reliquaries have six relics with St Vincens M written on them. This means Saint Vincent Martyr. To learn more about Saint Vincent look here.
Thank you to Laure Monnier at the Tresors de Ferveur L'Association for sharing their knowledge and photos of reliquaries in their collection. Here are four reliquaries in their collection that are from the same convent as ours are from.
Here is a quote from the book Meraviglie di carta by Bernard Berthod. "The relic did not work as a talisman; its medieval significance was starting to decline. The faithful would no longer ask some marvelous deed of it. The relic of the Saint, and even more that of the martyr, was simply contemplated, inviting one to prayer and to an expression of faith close to that of the Saint himself".
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