Lothair Crystal

Carolingian, AD 855–869
From Lotharingia (Lorraine), possibly Aachen (in modern Germany)

Lothair Crystal

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This exceptionally large rock crystal is engraved with scenes of the story of Susannah as recorded in the Apocrypha.

Each scene is accompanied by an inscription drawn from the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible made by St Jerome).

In the first four scenes Susannah is shown accosted by the elders, falsely accused and convicted of adultery. The last scenes show the elders being questioned by Daniel, condemned for false witness and executed. The final scene shows Susannah declared innocent.

The figures are executed in the energetic figural style known as the Rheims style which derived from manuscript drawings such as the Utrecht Psalter. According to an inscription engraved on the crystal it was engraved for Lothair, ‘King of the Franks’, most probably Lothair II of Lotharingia (AD 855–869). It is likely that the crystal, made for a king and meant to be seen at court, was intended to exemplify the proper functioning of justice. However, there is an irony to the subject matter, as Lothair tried many times to have his marriage annulled so he could marry his mistress, which resulted in a bitter dispute between Lothair and Pope Nicholas I.

From the tenth century until 1793 the crystal was in the abbey of Waulsort in Belgium. Its original function is uncertain, but it was later used to fasten abbots’ copes while officiating at Mass.

Supposedly it was cracked when thrown into the Meuse during the sack of Waulsort by the French in 1793.

The crystal is framed in a fifteenth-century gilded copper frame.

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Object details

Width: 18.6 cm
Depth: 1.39 cm

Prehistory and Europe

    Britain, Europe and Prehistory
    1855,1201.5

    References

    S. Marzinzik, Masterpieces: Early medieval art (London, The British Museum Press, 2013), no. 97

    N. MacGregor, A history of the world in 100 objects (London, The British Museum/BBC/Allen Lane), no. 53

    M. Caygill, The British Museum A-Z Companion (British Museum Press, 1999) pp. 191-2

    G. Kornbluth, Engraved Gems of the Carolingian Empire (Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University, 1995)

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    S. Airlie, ‘Private Bodies and the Body Politic in the Divorce Case of Lothar II’, Past and Present, 161 (1998), pp. 3–38

    G. Kornbluth, ‘The Susanna Crystal of Lothar II: Chastity, the Church and Royal Justice’, Gesta, 31 (1992), pp. 25–39

    R. McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians 751-987 (London/New York, Longman, 1983)