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Reliquary pendant of the Holy Thorn

Interior, Nativity and Annunciation

  • View of opened pendant, exterior

    View of opened pendant, exterior

  • View of closed pendant

    View of closed pendant

  • Scenes from the life of Christ

    Scenes from the life of Christ


Length: 3.800 cm

Gift of George Salting

M&ME 1902.2-10.1

Room 40: Medieval Europe

    Reliquary pendant of the Holy Thorn

    Medieval, around AD 1340
    From Paris, France

    A thorn from Christ's crown?

    This reliquary is made of gold, with an exterior of amethystine crystal. The three principal leaves are richly enamelled in basse-taille ('shallow cut'), with scenes divided into two registers by a decorative band. The scenes depicted represent episodes from the life of Christ, with one exception. In the lower register of one leaf a barefoot king kneels with his queen, praying to the Virgin and Child. It is likely that they commissioned the piece.

    One side of the central leaf is not enamelled; it contains instead a miniature painted on vellum of the Nativity and the Annunciation to the Shepherds. It is very faded but when freshly painted it may have more closely resembled the brilliant colour of the enamels.

    The purpose of the miniature is to conceal a relic of the Holy Thorn. The relic compartment is divided into seven, the central one reserved for a thorn said to come from the crown of thorns that Christ wore on the Cross. The thorn is still in place, with a small golden crown placed above it.

    Who are the royal couple who ordered the reliquary to be made? There is no evidence to suggest their identities apart from the likely date of the object and its probable place of manufacture. The treatment of the figures of both the enamels and the illumination suggests a date slightly before the middle of the fourteenth century. The enamelling is very much in the fashion of Parisian metalworkers at this time. Given these stylistic attributions, the most promising candidates are Philip VI (reigned 1328-50) and his wife Jeanne de Bourgogne.

    J. Robinson, Masterpieces: Medieval Art (London, British Museum Press, 2008)

    F. Baron, Les fastes du Gothique: le siè (Grand Palais, Paris, 1981)


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