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Medieval Metalworks and Enamels


Each of the object types on this tour originally served sacred purposes. The Chalice of Abbot Suger, the Spanish ciborium, and the dove-shaped pyx were each associated with the celebration of the liturgy; the reliquary châsse formed a miniature "tomb" for the relic of a saint; the morse was a fastener for ecclesiastical garb; and the crucifix served as an object of devotion that could be inserted into a staff for processional use. The two aquamanile, or pitchers in animal or human forms, were used for either liturgical or secular handwashing.

Mosan 13th Century or North French 13th Century, Aquamanile in the Form of a Lion, c. 1200, bronze with traces of gilding, 13.8 x 17.5 x 7 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.281

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A cup carved from stone is mounted in gold fittings to create a jeweled chalice with handles that curl up each side and a tall, flaring foot below. The stone of the cup is swirled with shell pink and rust brown, and carved to create vertical ridges. The gold rim around the lip flares outward and is set with a band of alternating pairs of small, white pearls and mostly garnet-red stones, though one stone to our right is a muted blue. In this photograph, the handles curve up each side from the base of the stone cup to the gold lip, where the handle divides into two scrolling tendrils on either side of a teardrop shaped center, like curling petals. The base and foot are as tall as the stone cup and gold lip. A knob-like form just below the stone cup is set with deep red and jade green stones around its center, and rows of small pearls around the narrow top and bottom of the knob. The knob is chased to create a pattern of scrolling vines, like tracery. The flaring foot below is also chased with the same pattern, surrounding gold, oval medallions set at regular intervals in the foot. In our view, the medallion to the left shows a bunch of grapes and the center is a portrait of a bearded man with a halo, holding his right hand up with his first two fingers raised. The details on the medallion to our right are difficult to make out but it could be a sheaf of wheat. Small, round jewels are set above and below each medallion, and between each one.

This chalice, a vessel to hold wine for Mass, is one of the most splendid treasures from the Middle Ages. Acquired by Abbot Suger for the French royal abbey of Saint-Denis, near Paris, the stone cup was set in gold and probably used in the consecration ceremony for the new altar chapels of the church on 11 June 1144.

Suger, abbot of Saint-Denis from 1122 to 1151, was not only a Benedictine monk but also a brilliant administrator who served as regent of France during the Second Crusade. With objects such as this chalice and the abbey's new Gothic architecture, he aimed to create a vision of paradise on earth that would awe beholders. In his writings, Suger equated Divine Light with the real light shimmering through stained glass and glistening from gems.

The cup incorporated in Abbot Suger's chalice was carved from sardonyx, probably in Alexandria, Egypt during the second to first centuries B.C. Suger's goldsmiths mounted the cup in a gold and silver setting with delicate gold-wire filigree and adorned it with gems. On the foot, a medallion depicts the haloed Christ, flanked by the Greek letters signifying: "I am the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End."

French 12th Century (cup Alexandrian 2nd/1st Century B.C.), Chalice of the Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, 2nd/1st century B.C. (cup), 1137-1140 (mounting), sardonyx cup with heavily gilded silver mounting, adorned with filigrees set with stones, pearls, glass insets, and opaque white glass pearls, 18.4 x 12.4 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.277

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Rhenish 12th Century or Mosan 12th Century, Crucifix, c. 1150/1175, gilded copper alloy with champlevé enamel, one jasper stone, and glass, 28.9 x 20.8 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.282

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A free-standing, gold, enameled, rectangular box has a triangular top like the roof of a house, and the box rests on a short, square foot in each corner. In this photograph, we look onto one long side and the short side to our right is angled toward us, so we see the panel there, too. Along the long side, five people are shown from the waist up in the upper, roof-like panel and six more line up on the panel below. The skin of every person is gold, and all wear robes and garments in lapis or sky blue, spring green, yellow, and white. The area around the people is also gold, and each panel is encased by a royal-blue band dotted with stylized stars at regular intervals. Each panel is then lined with small, button-like rounded bosses around its edges. In the upper panel, all of the men except the second from the right have beards, and all have halos with wavy bands of blue, green, yellow, and white. The man to our left holds a book and his neighbor a skeleton key the length of his arm. The man at the center holds up a book with his left hand, on our right, and raises the index and middle fingers of his other hand, held up at shoulder height. The two men to our right also hold books. In the panel below, three horses’ heads peek in from the left edge, creating a vertical band, and three crowned men line up, holding gold vessels and looking toward a woman seated in a throne with a child on her lap. The woman has a halo made with a wavy pattern of blue, yellow, green, black, and white. Her throne is flanked by columns, and the area around it is edged with bands of white, light, and dark blue. The baby wears gold, has a halo, holds a book in his lap with his left hand, and raises the first two fingers of his other hand toward the three men. The final person in this panel wears a hat, holds a scepter topped with a fleur-de-lis, and gestures at the woman and baby. The head and shoulders of a haloed person is visible along the short side of the box, which is angled sharply away from us. The gold between all the people and bordering each panel is intricately carved with tiny flowing organic lines and swirls.

French 12th Century, Reliquary Châsse, c. 1175/1180, champlevé enamel on gilded copper with oak core, 19.1 x 26.7 x 11.5 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.278

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Mosan 13th Century or North French 13th Century, Aquamanile in the Form of a Lion, c. 1200, bronze with traces of gilding, 13.8 x 17.5 x 7 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.281

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This free-standing bronze sculpture shows the rounded, stylized forms of a person with long limbs riding astride a horse with noticeably short legs. The horse and rider are angled to our right in this photograph. The dark brown bronze gleams white where the light catches the smooth surfaces, and some areas are a burnished gold color. The horse looks ahead with large eyes. It has short ears, and its mouth is parted. The person riding the horse holds the reins with the right hand, closer to us. The reins wrap halfway around the horse’s neck and are then broken off. The cleanshaven rider has a heavy brow ridge and a long, straight nose. He wears a flat-topped cap and a robe that reaches to his ankles. The pointed toes of his shoe pokes through the small stirrup we can see. A rounded handle connects the rider’s upper back to the back of the horse. The background is taupe-gray behind the sculpture and darkens at the upper corners.

English 13th Century or Scandinavian 13th Century, Aquamanile in the Form of a Horseman, 13th century, bronze, overall: 28.5 x 35.5 x 15.3 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.280

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French 13th Century, Pyx in the Form of a Dove, c. 1220/1230, gilded copper with enamel, 18.2 x 22.6 x 19.1 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.284

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Spanish 14th Century, Ciborium, c. 1330/1350, gilded copper and champlevé enamel, 36.1 x 17.7 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.279

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French 15th Century (setting western European late 19th Century), Morse with the Trinity, c. 1400/1410 (Trinity and Angels), 1884/1897 (setting), gold, enamel, and pearls, 12.6 x 5.9 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.287

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