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Work Reliquary of St. Francis of Assisi

Department of Decorative Arts: Middle Ages

Reliquary of Saint Francis of Assisi

© 1995 RMN / Daniel Arnaudet

Decorative Arts
Middle Ages

Author(s):
Barbier Muriel

This reliquary, which housed the relics of St. Francis of Assisi, is relatively well dated because it was probably made after the saint was canonized in 1228. The four-lobed shape is found in other reliquaries from this period. However, some of the ornamental motifs and the stiffness of their treatment are closer to twelfth-century models. The reliquary of St. Francis is representative of the stylistic developments in Limoges in the early thirteenth century.

An original design in Limoges

The four-lobed reliquary is made of a thick wooden core covered with copper. Five openings in the shape of a Greek cross have been cut in the first layer of gilded copper above the compartments made to hold the relics. The second sheet includes five rock crystal cabochons through which the relics can be seen. The back of the reliquary is covered with a single sheet of enameled copper. The circular base, which is also enameled, is ornamented with a ribbed knot. This form of multi-lobed reliquary resting on a single base, unusual in Limoges, was known since the twelfth century in the Holy Roman Empire and northern France, as is shown by the reliquary of St. Henry, also in the Louvre. This reliquary differs from similar, older works in the absence of feet supporting the circular base and the addition of the ribbed knot.

A new type of iconography

The champlevé enamel design covering the copper plate on the back of the reliquary represents the stigmatization of St. Francis. It is one of the earliest representations of this saint, who died in 1226 and was canonized in 1228. He is shown with a halo, in a natural setting of trees and plants, looking up at a seraph. His hands and feet bear the stigmata of the crucifixion. This representation is very close to the first acount of the miracle written by Thomas de Celano in 1229 and is also found on a four-lobed plaque, in the Musée de Cluny, which comes from a similar reliquary. Reliquaries dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi were an original feature in Limoges. This can be explained by the fact that the Minorites established communities in the Limousin region very early on and the saint's relics were taken to monasteries there not long after his canonization.

An archaic looking style

This original shape and new iconography were countered by the choice of enameling and a style which are similar to earlier models. The facing peacocks with their colorful tails decorating the base are similar to twelfth-century models. The face and flesh of St. Francis and the seraph are enameled, which is rare before the twelfth century. Lastly, the plant decor is not unlike the leafy friezes found in Limoges work in the thirteenth century. Although it is on the fringe of the innovative early Gothic style, this work enjoyed a certain posterity in Limousin workshops.

Bibliography

L'Oeuvre de Limoges. Émaux limousins du Moyen Âge, exposition au Louvre, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1995.

Technical description

  • Limoges (after 1228)

    Reliquary of Saint Francis of Assisi

  • Gilded copper, champlevé enamel on gilded copper, crystals

  • Former Boy collection; acquired in 1899 , 1899

    OA 4083

  • Decorative Arts

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