Medieval, around AD
From Hildesheim, Lower Saxony, Germany
With relics of Christian saints
The altar is made from a combination of metalwork, ivory carving and miniature painting that was highly favoured by artists of Lower Saxony in the eleventh century. The altar-stone, once thought to be porphyry, is more likely to be a variety of Purbeck marble. It is mounted in gilt copper which is engraved with the four symbols of the Evangelists and Saints Peter, Andrew, Stephen and Lawrence. Above the stone there is an ivory of the Crucifixion and below it the Virgin and Child enthroned with two bishop saints. To either side is placed a painted miniature on vellum under crystal, of Saints Godehard (right) and Bernard (left), both bishops of Hildesheim.
Beneath the ivory of the Virgin and Child is an inscription THIDERICVS. ABBAS. III. DEDIT, which reveals the identity of the patron as Theodoric, the third abbot of his name. This would seem to signify Abbot Theodoric who was abbot at Godehardiklosters, Hildesheim, between 1181 and 1204.
The reverse of the altar is inscribed with the names of forty saints in whose honour it was dedicated. In a cavity beneath the stone slab are relics of these saints, wrapped in textiles and labelled. Analysis has shown that the oldest textiles are likely to date from the ninth or tenth century, whereas the most recent may date from as late as the nineteenth. The relics themselves have been examined and consist mainly of bone but with hair (labelled as coming from St John the Evangelist) and semi-precious stones (associated with St Christopher).
M. Brandt (ed.), Stadt im Wandel - Kunst und Ku (Hildesheim, 1985)
J. Robinson, Masterpieces: Medieval Art (London, British Museum Press, 2008)
Height: 35.400 cm
Width: 25.100 cm
Height: 35.400 cm