Height: 32.000 cm
Room 40: Medieval Europe
Reliquary of St Eustace
Basle, Switzerland, around AD 1210
From the ninth century onwards containers for the relics of saints often assumed an idealized form of the relic within. Here fragments of the skull of St Eustace were housed in a 'head' intended to produce in the worshipper an image of the venerated saint. This particular head has been associated with St Eustace since 1477. According to legend, Eustace was a general under the emperor Trajan (reigned AD 98-117) who was converted to Christianity while hunting, after seeing a vision of a stag with a luminous crucifx between its antlers. Some time later, after victory in battle, he refused to join in thanksgiving to the Roman gods, and was burnt to death with his wife and sons.
The reliquary was made in Basle around 1200. The filigree on the band around the saint's head resembles the work on the shrine of Charlemagne in Aachen of 1215. The twelve figures under cusped arches on the base, probably the Apostles, are clearly of the early thirteenth century, both in the early gothic form of the architecture and the gently modelled draperies of the repeated figures formed by the same die. It may be compared with another reliquary now in the Treasury of the abbey of St Maurice d’Agaune (Switzerland).
The reliquary consists of a wooden core of head and base, carved from sycamore, which was later covered with silver plates. The wooden core and the silver covering have been kept as two separate objects since conservation in the 1950s. When the head was conserved in 1955 a number of relics were found wrapped in textiles including nine skull fragments, presumably thought to be relics of St Eustace.
J.C.H. King (ed.), Human image (London, The British Museum Press, 2000)
J. Robinson, Masterpieces: Medieval Art (London, British Museum Press, 2008)
T. Richard Blurton (ed.), The enduring image: treasures, exh. cat (British Council, 1997)