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Work "Eleanor" crystal vase

Department of Decorative Arts: Middle Ages

"Eleanor" crystal vase

© 1990 RMN / Daniel Arnaudet

Decorative Arts
Middle Ages

Author(s):
Barbier Muriel

The treasury of the abbey of Saint-Denis contained a collection created by Abbot Suger in the 12th century consisting of several hardstone monted vases. Among them was the rock crystal vase known as the "Eleanor" vase. This Sasanian crystal vase is decorated with a filigree gold mount that was probably made in a Saint-Denis workshop. The work reveals the artistry of both the Sasanian crystal carvers of the 6th and 7th centuries and the goldsmiths working for Abbot Suger.

The treasury of the abbey of Saint-Denis

Suger, abbot of Saint-Denis from 1122 to 1151 and adviser to Louis VI ad Louis VII, made Saint Denis "special patron of the king and protector of the kingdom." He began rebuilding his abbey, adding superb stained-glass windows and precious objects. His plan to enrich and embellish the building was based on the Neoplatonic notion that sumptuous and precious objects help people to transcend the material and come closer to the immaterial. The objectsin the treasury are known thanks to the engravings of Félibien, the writings of Blaise de Montesquiou-Fezensac, and the inventory carried out in 1634. Only four of the decorated vases commissioned by Suger survive, one in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the other three in the Louvre. The "Eleanor" vase was given to Suger by Louis VII. Louis had been given the vase as a gift by his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had inherited it from her grandfather, William IX of Aquitaine. Suger decided to make an offering of it to the holy martyrs. These successive donations are mentioned in the inscription on its foot and in a text by Suger entitled De administratione.

A Sasanian rock crystal vase

The pear-shaped body of the vase is topped by a neck two centimeters long, hidden by the setting. The vase was in perfect condition until the 18th century, but has since been cracked and chipped. The whole body is carved with a honeycomb pattern formed by twenty-two or twenty-three rows of small hollowed-out hexagons. A similar pattern is found on a blood jasper vase in the collection of Louis XIV's grandson (now in the Prado, Madrid). The honeycombed pattern is also found in Roman gold and silverware and glassware, from where it spread to influence Sasanian, Islamic, and even Byzantine glassware. The "Eleanor" vase could well date from the Sasanian (6th or 7th century) or post-Sasanian (9th or 10th century) era.

A filigree mount

The mount is made of gilded silver. The base is divided into four separate bands, consisting of, from the bottom up: an inscription in niello; filigree set with precious stones; decoration with fleurons and filigree work; and finally, a smooth, plain surface. The neck is likewise formed of different strips, bulbous or cylindrical, smooth or decorated with filigree and precious stones. The latter are set simply in bezels with milled edges. On the base, the precious stones alternate with pearls. The filigree work around the stones is unusually large with prominent beading, forming compact areas within a smooth, shiny background. Similar filigree work is found on the other vases made for Suger, particularly the chalice now in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the sardonyx ewer (MR 127). This style of filigree was probably influenced by Ottonian and Byzantine pieces. It was probably made in a local workshop by goldsmiths working for the king or the monastery.

Bibliography

Le Trésor de Saint-Denis, Paris, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1991, p. 168-172.

Technical description

  • "Eleanor" crystal vase

    Crystal: 6th or 7th centuryMount: before 1147, 13th and 14th centuries

    Treasury of the abbey of Saint-Denis, France

    Rock crystal: Sasanian artSetting: Saint-Denis

  • Rock crystal, gilded and filigree silver, niello, gemstones, champlevé enamel

    H. 33.7 cm; D. 15.6 cm

  • Acquired by the museum in 1793

    MR 340

  • Decorative Arts

    Richelieu wing
    1st floor
    Suger
    Room 2

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