Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Holy Grails, Bejeweled Crosses, and Beastly Aquamanilia: European Art in the 13th Century

by Sherry Jones

Medieval artists created their works not to express, but to impress. At a time when standing out in a crowd could earn you an accusation of heresy -- along with possible torture and burning at the stake --  artists used their talents primarily to exalt God -- with exquisite crosses, censers, reliquaries, and other objects used in religious ceremonies as well as colorful stained-glass -- and to bring beauty into the lives of the exalted, via gem-encrusted drinking goblets, engraved platters, jewelry, and curiously shaped water pitchers called "aquamanilia."

As I wandered through the Cloisters museum in New York last March, I imagined the sisters in my novel "Four Sisters, All Queens," and what they might have seen in their splendiferous royal lives. Here's a sampling of what I found. To see more, head to my website's scrapbook page.

Plaque with Censing Angels, Haute-Vienne, Limousin, France, 1170-80. Champleve enamel and copper gilt
Two mournful angels are showing waving censers over what would have been the scene of Christ’s crucifixion. All around them, stylized clouds; behind them; copper gilt in a swirling pattern known as vermicule, in a plaque that must have decorated one of the largest crosses -- at least four feet high -- produced at Limoges.

King Louis IX Carrying the Crown of Thorns ca. 1245-48
As described in FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS, this stained glass depicts French King Louis IX (Saint Louis) carrying the Holy Crown of Thorns after buying them for the kingdom from Baldwin, the Emperor of Constantinople. Here the crown is shown in a golden chalice, but chroniclers wrote of his bearing it in a golden box, barefoot, all the way from Sens to Paris — a walk that would have taken him more than a week to complete.
Front view
Back view

Cross, Suffolk, England, 1150-60, possibly from the abbey at Bury St. Edmunds. Walrus ivory with traces of paint.
This cross is said to be one of the great medieval finds of the 20th century and a masterpiece in ivory carving, featuring more than 100 figures depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

Chalice, Germany, 1230-50. Silver gilt, niello, and jewels
Stunning! The craftsmanship is amazing considering the era. This chalice was used to celebrate the Eucharist, commemorating his sacrifice by eating bread and drinking wine said to be transformed into his flesh and blood during the ceremony. On the base are four Old Testament scenes thought to prefigure New Testament scenes on the knop above: Moses and the Burning Bush (the Annunciation), the flowering of Aaron’s rod (the Nativity), Noah’s Ark (the baptism of Christ), and Moses and the Brazen Serpent (the Crucifixion). The niello decoration on the bowl’s exterior depicts Christ standing with the twelve apostles.

Game piece: Hercules Slaying the Three-Headed Geryon, Cologne, Germany, 1150. Walrus ivory
It wasn't ALL about religion in the Middle Ages. Classical literature, including pagan mythologies, were a part of every "lettered" person's education. This game piece, from a backgammon precursor known as “tables,” depicts Hercules slaying the three-headed monster Geryon, shown slain at the bottom of the scene and with Hercules’s foot on its neck. This tableman contains traces of paint; often pieces for one side in the game were painted while those for the opposing side were left unpainted.

Aquamanilia (aqua=water + manus=hand) were a type of pitcher used for washing the hands. Above, from England, is a glazed ceramic aquamanile in the form of a ram, created sometime between 1250 and 1350. Below are three aquamanilia from North Germany, fashioned in the 13th century: in the form of a lion (left), a dragon (center), and a man on horseback. 

Which all goes to show -- they really don't make them like they used to!
Sherry Jones is the author of "Four Sisters, All Queens" (Simon & Schuster/Gallery), an historical novel about four sisters in 13th-century Provence who became queens of England, France, Germany, and Italy (Sicily), as well as an e-book prequel, "White Heart: A Tale of Blanche de Castille, the White Queen of France." She is now working on a new book, also under contract with Simon & Schuster, about the storied 12th-century lovers Abelard and Heloise.


  1. Thank you for sharing your lovely photos and thoughts, Sherry.

  2. Mitchell, it is my pleasure. :) Thank you for stopping by!


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