The Royal Gold Cup
Paris, France, about AD 1370-80
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This cup is made of solid gold and lavishly decorated with translucent enamels. The scenes shown on it relate to the life and miracles of St Agnes.
Agnes was imprisoned in a brothel as punishment for refusing to marry Procopius, son of the prefect Sempronius, in the time of the Emperor Constantine (reigned AD 306-337). She subsequently restored Procopius to life when he was strangled by a demon. Although he was repentant, Agnes was not spared her fate, and was condemned to burn. However, the flames had no effect on her, and she had to be killed with a spear. The cover of the cup is devoted to this section of the story, with each scene explained by a Latin inscription.
The bowl shows St Agnes' burial, the martyrdom of her sister Erementiana by stoning (St Agnes appears at the scene with three virgin martyrs carrying palms), and the healing of Princess Constantia of leprosy. The foot of the cup is decorated with the symbols of the Evangelists; the interior of the bowl and cover contain enamels of St Agnes receiving instruction, and God in Majesty.
The cup was given formally to Charles VI of France (reigned 1380-1422) by Jean Duc de Berry (1340-1416) on the occasion of his visit to Tourraine in 1391. However, it is unlikely that it was made for this occasion since the two men had been on bad terms, and the meeting was something of a reconciliation. It is possible that the Duc de Berry had the cup made for his brother Charles V (who was born on St Agnes' day, 21 January). Charles died in 1381 before it was completed, and so it was given to Charles VI when he and his uncle met.
The cup later came into the hands of John, Duke of Bedford (1391-1447). It is then mentioned in various royal accounts of the Tudors. Two extra bands have been inserted in the stem of the cup, the first of which is decorated with enamelled Tudor roses dating to the period of Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47). The second carries an inscription which relates to the peace between James I of England (reigned 1603-25) and Philip III of Spain (reigned 1598-1621), in 1604.
At this point the cup left England and remained somewhere unknown in Spain, until 1883 when it was offered for sale on the Paris market by a convent in Burgos. It was bought by Baron Pichon, who subsequently sold it to a Bond Street dealer in London where Augustus Wollaston Franks purchased it for £8,000. The cup was acquired by the British Museum in 1892 through a combination of public subscription and Franks' own contribution.
Investigating the Royal Gold Cup
The Royal Gold Cup is unique in many ways, and is a particularly fine example of Medieval enamelling on gold, including use of the transparent red enamel, sometimes known as ‘rouge clair’ or ‘ruby glass’.
This colour was so highly regarded at the time that it was considered worthy of mention in many Medieval inventories.