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Exhibition The Treasury of the Abbey of Saint Maurice d’Agaune
from March 14, 2014 to June 16, 2014
This exhibition enjoys the generous support of the Fondation Gandur pour l'Art, Geneva, Switzerland and of Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council
The Abbey of Saint-Maurice d’Agaune (Agaunum) in the Swiss canton of Valais will be celebrating its 1,500 years of existence in September 2014. To mark this special anniversary, while renovation work is underway on the abbey’s treasury, the chapter has agreed to allow the Louvre to display major pieces from a treasury that has miraculously withstood ordeals and centuries.
The exhibition charts the history of the abbey and the establishment of its treasury, referring to the Roman history of Agaunum and its Christianization. In the early Middle Ages the abbey enjoyed the protection of very high-ranking figures. Masterpieces of Merovingian and Carolingian gold and silverwork, including the magnificent sardonyx vase ascribed to Saint Martin, the reliquary casket of Theuderic the priest, or the ewer “of Charlemagne”, unparalleled in France, commemorate Saint Maurice, who was martyred along with his Theban Legion in Agaunum. Venerated by the House of Savoy, as is evidenced by the reliquary head of Saint Candidus, Saint Maurice and his companions were also revered by Saint Louis. Reliquaries, precious fabrics, manuscripts, and archives evoke the spiritual wealth of a community whose continued presence on the site for 1,500 years makes it the oldest of its kind in the West.
Élisabeth Antoine-König, for the Musée du Louvre; Pierre Alain Mariaux, University of Neuchâtel, for the Abbey of Saint Maurice
Because of the impact he could make on our racial problems, it would be a moral failure of irredeemable proportions if we did not take advantage of the almost unbelievable coincidence that the commemoration of the Jubilee Year of the most politically powerful and influential black saint in the history of Christendom take place during the first US Presidency of an African American.
Besides any number of historical vicissitudes, there is a far more historically scandalous reason why this saint is still virtually unknown today. With the involvement of most European nations in the slave trade, which of them would have tolerated, much less encouraged, colonial familiarity with a black saint who had been nothing less than the personification of the military might and the religious ambitions of once the greatest world power in Western history.
St. Maurice, a soldier saint like England's St. George, had been the patron of the Holy Roman Empire, that political alliance forged by Charlemagne but which Napoleon brought to an end in 1806.
During pre-Christian Rome's occupation of Switzerland in the third century, St. Moritz, a commander from the upper reaches of the Nile, along with an entire legion comprising 6,666 of his African compatriots, had chosen death rather than participate in the persecutions promulgated there by the Emperor, Maximian. So large a number to win the martyr's palm together, the Theban Legion fired the imagination of the early Church. Along with the idea of universality represented by their colour, the mystical significance of their number as infinite is what undoubtedly made them so ideal a metaphor for the Church Militant - the living faithful who, once conscripted by Baptism, must wage war ceaselessly with the forces of evil.
With the elevation of their cult to national status in the 10th century, the Altar of St. Mauritius in the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome became the setting of the Papal coronation of the Holy Roman Emperors at which each bore the Saint’s lance as his scepter. Just how important a place this exemplary act of self-sacrifice was accorded in the hagiography of the early church can be gathered from the age old tradition that wired into the point of this particular article of the Imperial Regalia, which also include the Saint's sword and spurs, is one of the most sacred relics of Christianity; a nail from the Crucifixion. To this day confusion still persists as to whether the lance itself might not have been the one that pierced the Saviour's side on Calvary.
At a political level, his geographical origins made St. Moritz especially suited as patron of the proselytization that was such an essential objective in the growth and expansion of the Holy Roman Empire. It could even be argued, for instance, that his image became an apocalyptic or millennial one, his colour and the symbolically innumerable size of his "Celestial Legion" a prophecy of the end times when all mankind would finally come to know the Lord.
Because of the large contingents of both Sudanese and Senegalese troops in the Islamic armies of the 11th 12th and 13th centuries, it is not difficult to understand why the figure of St. Moritz would become such a dominant one during the Crusades. The myth of Prester John, the Christian Priest and King who ruled a land of milk and honey in Ethiopia and who, therefore, posed a threat to the rear flank of Islamic military power can be traced to this black soldier saint, too. His cult became the basis from which the Age of Chivalry sprang. To it can also be attributed the source for the various black heroes and heroines of the great medieval romances especially the Grail cycle the objective of which was to translate into a more secular idiom, the Imperial dream of Christian world supremacy.
True, such an apolitical approach to the problem of race has never been considered before. But it is this very unorthodoxy, I strongly suggest, that could imbue the celebration of this Jubilee Year with a sense of both contemporary relevance and urgency making it, in turn, a profoundly healing and an unforgettably revolutionary one. It is also true that this is precisely the kind of tactic that most political pundits would be all too quick to dismiss as simply symbolic. What I would like to suggest however, is that because this symbolism is so spiritually or psychologically powerful, it could prove far more potent than a great many of the government funded social programs attempted thus far.
Considering that 22,000 young black males have met violent deaths during the President's first term alone, I can hardly believe what appears to be such a divinely providential intervention, myself.
Sancte Mauriti cum omnibus sociis tuis, ora pro nobis!
From March 14 to June 16, 2014
Richelieu wing, lower ground floor
Every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., except Tuesday.
Night opening until 9:45 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Included in the museum ticket: €12
+33 (0)1 40 20 53 17