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Overview

Ancient and medieval civilizations, natural wonders, and master craftsmanship converge in this chalice, which was created to hold sacramental wine at the abbey church of Saint-Denis near Paris. The sardonyx cup was carved in Alexandria, Egypt, into a fluted (grooved) form that reveals swirling patterns in the stone. Some twelve hundred years later, striving to fill the French royal abbey with heavenly splendor, Abbot Suger had goldsmiths set the cup in gilded silver and adorn it with gems and pearls for use in the Mass. The solemn Christ in a medallion on the foot appears between the letters Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

Provenance

Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, France, from 1137/1140 to 1791;[1] Cabinet National des Médailles et Antiques, Paris, from 30 September 1791 to 16 February 1804;[2] acquired 1804 by Charles Towneley [1737-1805], London; in the Towneley family, London, until possibly 1920. (Harry Harding, London), in 1920; (Goldschmidt Galleries, New York), by 1921; purchased 20 March 1922 by Joseph E. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; inheritance from Estate of Peter A.B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, after purchase by funds of the Estate; gift 1942 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1967
Treasures from Medieval France, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1967, 70-71, color repro.
1979
[Loan in conjunction with symposium on Byzantine Liturgy], Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., 1979. [published incorrectly in Systematic Catalogue as 1978]
1981
The Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis in the Time of Abbot Suger (1125-1151), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1981, 108-111.
1991
Le Trésor de Saint-Denis, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1991, no. 28, repro. 175.
1997
The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era A.D. 843-1261, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997, no. 296, repro.
Bibliography
1625
Doublet, Dom Jacques. Histoire de l'Abbaye Royale de Saint Denys en France. Paris, 1625.
1641
Duchesne, François. Historia Francorum. Vol. 4. Paris, 1641.
1706
Félibien, Michael. Histoire de l'abbaye royale de Saint-Denys en France. 1706. Reprint Paris, 1976, recueil de pièces justificatives, part 2, 172-187.
1867
Lecoy de la Marche, A. Oeuvres complètes de Suger. Paris, 1867.
1877
Bouquet, Martin. Recueil des historiens des Gaules et de la France. Vol. 12. Paris, 1781. 2d ed., Paris, 1877.
1883
Rohault de Fleury, Charles. La Messe. Etudes archéologiques sur ses monuments. 8 vols. Paris, 1883-1889, 4:123-124, pl. 309.
1901
Omont, Henri. Inventaire du trésor de Saint-Denis en 1505 et 1739. Paris, 1901.
1910
Guibert, Joseph. Les dessins du cabinet de Peiresc au Cabinet des Estampes de la Bibliothèque Nationale. Paris, 1910: 27-28, 33-35, 39, 41-43, 46, pl. III.
1915
Conway, Sir W. Martin. "The Abbey of Saint-Denis and its Ancient Treasures." Archaeologia or Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity 66 (1915): 103-158, pl. 16.
1922
Rosenberg, Marc. Der Goldschmiede Merkzeichen. 3d ed. 4 vols. Frankfurt-am-Main, 1922-1928: 4:311-312.
1923
Ricci, Seymour de. "Un calice du trésor de Saint-Denis." Académie des inscriptions et Belles-Lettres: Comptes Rendus des séances de l'année Paris (1923): 335-339.
1926
Rosenberg, Marc. "Ein wiedergefundener Kelch." Festschrift zum sechzigsten Geburtstag von Paul Clemen. Bonn, 1926: 209-217.
1932
Braun, Joseph, S.J. Das Christliche Altargerät in seinem Sein und in seiner Entwicklung. Munich, 1932: 46-47, pl. 3, fig. 8.
1942
Works of Art from the Widener Collection. Foreword by David Finley and John Walker. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 9.
1946
Panofsky, Erwin. Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis and its Art Treasures. Princeton, 1946. 2d ed. Edited by Gerda Panofsky-Soergel. Princeton, 1979.
1949
Seymour, Charles. Masterpieces of Sculpture from the National Gallery of Art. Washington and New York, 1949: 10, 171, note 1, repro. 27.
1951
Pope-Hennessy, John. 'Review: Masterpieces of Sculpture from the National Gallery of Art by Charles Seymour." The Burlington Magazine 93, no. 576 (March 1951): 98.
1952
Christensen, Erwin O. Objects of Medieval Art from the Widener Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1952: 6-7.
1957
Guth, Paul. "Le trésor fabuleux des rois mages." Connaissance des arts 70 (December 1957): 147.
1957
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): 1, pl. 1
1960
Revel, J. F. "Un problème controversé: l'exil des oeuvres d'art." Connaisance des arts 96 (February 1960): 42-43, color pl.
1965
Crosby, Sumner McKnight. "The Creative Environment." Ventures, Magazine of the Yale Graduate School 5, no. 2 (1965): 10-15.
1967
Treasures from Medieval France. Exh. cat. Cleveland Museum of Art, 1967: 70-71, color repro.
1967
Wentzel, Hans. "Abseitige Trouvaillen an Goldschmied." Studien zur Buchmalerei und Goldschmiedekunst des Mittelalters. Fest. K.H. Usener. Marburg-an-der-Lahn, 1967: 65-78, especially 74-75, figs. 14-15.
1969
von Euw, Anton. In Fillitz, Hermann. Das Mittelalter I. Propyläen Kunstgeschichte. Vol. 5. Berlin, 1969: 256.
1971
Frisch, Teresa G. "Gothic Art 1140 -c. 1450." Sources and Documents in the History of Art. Ed. by H. W. Janson. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1971: 11.
1972
Lasko, Peter. Ars Sacra. Pelican History of Art. Baltimore, 1972: 227.
1973
Montesquiou-Fezensac, Blaise de, and Gabrielle Gaborit-Chopin. Le Trésor de Saint-Denis, Inventaire de 1634. Paris, 1973: 38, 57-58, 164-165.
1975
Verdier, Philippe. "Réflexions sur l'esthétique de Suger." Etudes de civilisation médiévale: Mélanges offerts à Edmond-René Labande. Poitiers, 1975: 699-709, 700-702, figs. 1, 2.
1975
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: 36, color repro.
1977
Montesquiou-Fezensac, Blaise de, and Gabrielle Gaborit-Chopin. Le Trésor de Saint-Denis. Document divers. Paris, 1977: 177-181.
1977
Montesquiou-Fezensac, Blaise de, and Gabrielle Gaborit-Chopin. Le Trésor de Saint-Denis. Planches et notices. Paris, 1977: 57-59, pls. 41-43.
1981
The Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis in the Time of Abbot Suger (1125-1151). Exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1981: 108-111.
1982
Alsop, Joseph. The Rare Art Traditions: The History of Art Collecting and Its Linked Phenomena Wherever These Have Appeared. Bollingen series 35, no. 27. New York, 1982: 57.
1983
Brenk, B. "Suger Spolien." Arte Medievale 1 (1983): 107.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 34, color repro. 35.
1990
Verdier, Philippe. "The Chalice of Abbot Suger." Studies in the History of Art 24 (1990): 9-29.
1991
Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 196, color repro.
1991
Le Trésor de Saint-Denis. Exh. cat. Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1991: no. 28, repro. 175.
1992
National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 308, repro.
1993
Distelberger, Rudolf, Alison Luchs, Philippe Verdier, and Timonthy H. Wilson. Western Decorative Arts, Part I: Medieval, Renaissance, and Historicizing Styles including Metalwork, Enamels, and Ceramics. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1993: 4-12, color fig. 4.
1997
Richler, Martha. National Gallery of Art, Washington: A World of Art. London, 1997: 18, color fig. 8.
1998
Pennanen, Valerie Hutchinson. "Communion." In Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art, ed. Helene E. Roberts. 2 vol. Chicago and London, 1998: 1:180-181, 184,186, repro.
2000
National Gallery of Art Special Issue. Connaissance des Arts. Paris, 2000: repro. 59, 62.
2005
Honour, Hugh and John Fleming. A World History of Art. 7th ed. New York, 2005: 377, color fig. 9.37.
2010
Gopnik, Blake. "Oldest Object on Display--National Gallery of Art." The Washington Post (October 3, 2010): R9, repro.
2016
National Gallery of Art. Highlights from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Washington, 2016: 33, repro.
2017
Dickerson III, C.D. "The Sculpture Collection: Shaping a Vision, Expanding a Legacy." National Gallery of Art Bulletin 56 (Spring 2017): 8, repro.
Technical Summary

The domed foot of the sardonyx cup is no longer visible in the modern restoration. It is hidden by the circlet studded with pearls above the knob. Between 1633 and 1706 a lower curl and a loop were added to the curling upper parts of the handles. The faceted stones of the knob are late medieval replacements. Only a few of the original stones meticulously itemized in the 1634 inventory remain today. The modern replacements are mainly glass insets, red or purple, and a number of pearls are imitations in white glass. The lower part of the foot is different from what it was until the French Revolution. It has been straightened out into a narrower and more conical shape. The flat bottom edge has been remade, with the addition of a beaded string and a cable. All the stones and the settings have been changed.

Explore This Work

This chalice is among the great treasures of the Middle Ages now in the United States. It was present at the very birth of Gothic style.

The chalice, an ancient sardonyx cup set in gold mounts in the 12th century, was among the vessels that were used to celebrate a Mass on June 11, 1144, at the abbey church of Saint-Denis, north of Paris. In attendance were French king Louis VII and his queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, 18 bishops and archbishops, including the archbishop of Canterbury, and delegates from royal courts across Europe. They had come for the consecration of altar chapels in a new ambulatory behind the main altar—a revolutionary structure that is usually recognized as the first expression of Gothic architecture. Built by the abbey’s ambitious abbot, Suger (1081–1151), the ambulatory was released from the downward thrust of older Romanesque spaces by soaring vaults, arches pointing heavenward, and walls made transparent with light. Jewel-like colors streamed to the altar from stained-glass windows to fall on this and other precious liturgical vessels. Like the building itself, the chalice reflects the abbot’s belief that beautiful things were not only fitting and proper in the celebration of God’s glory but that beauty, by its very nature, could transport the souls of men to contemplation of the divine.

The chalice is a subtle blend of old and new, East and West. The cup’s material, style, and refinement suggest that it was probably carved in Egypt during the 2nd or 1st century BCE; it arrived in France centuries later perhaps via Jewish merchants or traders. It is made from a single piece of sardonyx. Inside, the bowl is smooth, but on the exterior deep, elegant flutes open the stone's folded bands of color. Suger’s reuse of an ancient vessel reflected his appreciation for the lofty reputation of Byzantium, where, over centuries, emperors had amassed masterworks of Greek and Roman art and rededicated them to Christian purposes. It also signaled his desire to rival Byzantium’s opulence. The gold and gem-studded mounting was made at Suger’s behest. It was probably fashioned in France, possibly in a workshop in the Île-de-France, along with mounts for some of the other objects Suger dedicated at Saint-Denis. The stones seen today are paste replacements of the original rubies and sapphires, and parts of the mounting have also been modified. The chalice is, however, immediately recognizable in a watercolor made in the 1600s and in a series of engravings documenting the abbey treasury, published in 1706. Only one of the original discs on the base survives. It is an iconic Byzantine image of Christ Pantokrator (the all powerful) but incorporates the Alpha-Omega formula that was used in the West. Other, now-lost roundels probably depicted Saint Denis and his companions. Their modern replacements are decorated with grain and grapes, symbolic of the Eucharistic bread and wine.

Saint Denis was the original apostle to the Gauls and a patron saint of France. According to legend he was decapitated for his faith but carried his own severed head miles to the abbey site, where he died; the head had continued to preach along the entire way. The saint and the abbey had been associated with the French royal family since the very beginnings of the monarchy in the 5th century. Founded by Frankish king Dagobert in the 7th century, the abbey church continued to be the traditional burial place of French kings. Only three kings of France were not buried there. The chapel’s prominence can be gauged by the status of those who attended the rites in 1144, their names all carefully recorded in Suger’s own records.

Suger was not only an energetic church administrator but one of the most powerful men in France. A friend and advisor to two kings, he ruled as regent during Louis VII’s absence during the Second Crusade (1145–1149). His expansive account of the building of Saint-Denis provides a wealth of detail about the institution’s administration and furnishing, and much about Suger’s own activities. It does not name, or even mention, the architect who must have been primarily responsible for the new ambulatory.

Royal patronage made the treasury of Saint-Denis the richest in France, but many objects were lost following the French Revolution in 1789. Parts of the sculptural decoration were also ripped away. Suger’s chalice, along with a number of other treasures, was made part of the French national collection and housed in the Louvre before it was taken to England and eventually made its way into the collection of the National Gallery of Art.