National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of Reliquary Châsse French 12th Century (artist)
Reliquary Châsse, c. 1175/1180
champlevé enamel on gilded copper with oak core
overall: 19.1 x 26.7 x 11.5 cm (7 1/2 x 10 1/2 x 4 1/2 in.)
Widener Collection
On View
From the Tour: Medieval Metalwork and Enamels
Object 3 of 8

Conservation Notes

Some rubbing to the panels shows at the front (upper edges; on the proper right, at the join with the front; on the proper left (on the saint's face and at the join with the back), and on the back roof piece (edges and proper left, where separation suggests an effort at prying the box open). Several of the pins that hold the châsse together are missing. A dent and damage to the enamel border are found on the proper right end, with some enamel loss; a small chip is missing from the enamel border on the proper right of the Magi panel, and the roof piece appears to have been pried up slightly at the proper right corner. The object is otherwise in excellent condition.

Of the seven pieces of oak that usually form the core of a Limoges châsse, the bottom section is missing.[1] It must once have contained the small door with a lock that provided access to the interior.[2] The wood panels, roughly 10 mm thick, are set, in typical fashion, with the grain running horizontally or vertically according to the orientation of the panel. The proper right end panel, of newer-looking wood, appears to be a replacement.

On the bottom edges of the wood are worn patches of red pigment over a white layer. On the inner surfaces are blobs of fresher-looking red pigment without any layer underneath. X-ray fluorescence analysis indicated that the worn pigments are mercury sulfide (vermilion), which was typically applied over fine plaster as a protective film for the wood of châsses.[3] The fresher blobs apparently contain barium sulphate (barytes), not used as an artist's pigment before the late eighteenth century. Its presence would indicate a restoration of the protective layer, perhaps on the same occasion when a wood panel was replaced.

X-ray fluorescence analysis also indicated that the metal plates are of a gilded, copper-rich alloy The presence of mercury indicates fire-gilding. All the enamel colors contained elemental distributions consistent with medieval production. Each color contains lead, which lowers the melting point of glass, and antimony, which generates a dense white color and hence acts as an opacifier to what would be translucent glazes.

[1] Gauthier 1966, 940-941, and 1987, 7-9. The author is grateful to Mme Gauthier and to Geneviève François for helpful correspondence concerning this and other works in enamel. Mme Gauthier, assisted by Mlle François, is directing a team of scholars in the research and publication of the Corpus des Emaux méridionaux, which aims to catalogue the thousands of surviving enamels made in Limoges and related centers in southern Europe from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. Five volumes are planned; the first is Gauthier 1987. See also Marie-Madeleine Gauthier and Geneviéve François, Medieval Enamels from the Keir Collection, ed. and trans. Neil Stratford [exh. cat., The British Museum] (London, 1981), 9-10.
[2] See the diagram in Gauthier 1987, 9; Gauthier 1987, 144, for the closely related Apt châsse, which opens at the bottom; pl. 202 for illustrations of a châsse with such an opening.
[3] Undated report [early 1985] by Gary W. Carriveau in NGA conservation laboratory files. See also Gauthier 1966, 940.
[4]. Report of I4 August 1986, in NGA conservation laboratory files. On medieval enamel techniques in general see Pamela England, "A Technical Investigation of Medieval Enamels," in Hanns Swarzenski and Nancy Netzer, Catalogue of Medieval Objects in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Enamels and Glass (Boston, 1986), xix-xxvi.

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