- Museum number
- Object: The Holy Thorn Reliquary
Reliquary of gold, richly enamelled and set with rubies, pearls and sapphires. Architectural base in form of castellated fortress with a half-length angel sounding a trumpet occupying each turret, base also with arms of Jean, duc de Berry in rectangular panels of blue and red translucent enamel. The front is a depiction of the Resurrection of the Dead, a green-enamelled mound rising from the base from which coffins protrude, the dead rising from within. Above is a rock-crystal window, the Thorn placed vertically in the centre, mounted on a cabochon sapphire, above an inscribed scroll. Figures of the Virgin and St. John kneel beside the Thorn, Christ with his five wounds is seated behind it, his feet resting on a white-enamelled globe. Two angels hold a crown of thorns above his head, the instruments of the Passion in their other hands. An arch is formed around the whole by the twelve Apostles within a mass of leaves and branches, God the Father at the top. On the reverse are two hinged doors decorated in relief and pontillé with the figures of St. Michael and the Devil and St. Christopher carrying the Christ Child, inside these is an empty cavity covered in modern glass, probably a space for another relic. Above this is a roundel with the face of Christ in relief amidst sunrays. Marked.
- Production date
- 1400 (circa)
Height: 30.50 centimetres
Weight: 1404.65 grammes
Width: 13 centimetres (across base)
Width: 15 centimetres (max)
Depth: 7 centimetres
- Curator's comments
Text from Tait 1986:-
Provenance: Jean, duc de Berry (d.1416); the Treasury of the Emperor Charles V (reigned 1519-55) and subsequently in the Imperial Hapsburg Collection in Vienna (first surviving Austrian record appears in an Inventory of 1544); lent to an exhibition of Medieval and Renaissance Works of Art, held in Vienna under the auspices of the Vienna Alterthums-Verein in 1860; entered the collection of Baron Anselm von Rothschild (d. 1874) between 1872 and 1874 (cat. no. 607); by inheritance to his son Baron Ferdinand Rothschild (d. 1898).
Commentary: When this great masterpiece reached the British Museum in 1899, its true identity had been completely lost. In Read 1902 it was described as “Spanish, late 16th century” and, because none of its former history was known to Read, there was no reference to the very similar object in the Imperial collections in Vienna.
Twenty-five years later the researches of Joseph Destrée were published and, for the first time, it was recognised that there were two almost identical reliquaries and that the one preserved in the Geistliche Schatzkammer of the Hofburg, Vienna (the Ecclesiastical Treasury of the Imperial Hapsburg Court in Vienna), was a modern copy and that the original was in London - in the Waddesdon Bequest at the British Museum. Significantly, Joseph Destrée punctiliously acknowledged his debt to Professor H.J. Hermann in reaching this conclusion, and, moreover, there exists an earlier letter from Professor Hermann, dated 23 November 1923, which expresses the view that the Vienna version seems to be a forgery of about 1880.
In those intervening twenty-five years several official Austrian publications had appeared, illustrating and discussing the version in the Geistliche Schatzkammer; from these publications it becomes clear that it still had not been realised in Austria that the item preserved in Vienna was only a modern copy. Indeed, the 1901 ‘Mittheilungen der K. K. Central Commission für Erforschung und Erhaltung der Kunst und Historischen Denkmale’ had misleadingly included two woodcuts illustrating the original - not the modern copy that was actually there in Vienna; presumably this error was unintentional and arose because these woodblocks had been made from old photographs of the original, taken before the modern substitute version had been made. The 1909 official ‘Guide’ to the Geistliche Schatzkammer and the revised second edition by Dr Dreger make no reference to the existence of the British Museum's version, though Dr Dreger cautiously avoided a precise indication of date, preferring the phrase “in der art der späteren Gothik” (“in the later Gothic manner”) to describe the object in the Schatzkammer.
In Destrée 1927 the purpose was to demonstrate that the Waddesdon Bequest Reliquary was not only the original but that it could be identified with an entry in the 1677 Inventory of the Vienna Hofburg Schatzkammer (folio 13 verso): “Ein Dorn von der Cron Christi in einen herrlichen Geheuss von goldt und Edelsteinen eingefasset, welches auf 3 Tonnen goldes geschaetzt wird.” (“A Thorn from Christ's crown, mounted in a splendid tabernacle of gold and precious stones, valued at three ‘Tonnen’ of gold.”)
This 1677 Inventory had been published in the ‘Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses’, Vienna, 1899, xx, pt. ii, p. cxcvi. Curiously, in Dalton 1927 there is no reference to the 1677 Inventory, although Dalton had translated the article by Joseph Destrée for publication in vol. 79 of ‘The Connoisseur’ (1927) and was clearly willing to have Read's Spanish Renaissance ('late 16th century') attribution radically changed to conform with Destrée's opinion; Dalton's entry reads: “German work in the French style, 14th-15th century. This reliquary is mentioned in the Inventory of the Schatzkammer at Vienna, 1731. In the 19th century, when it was sent to be restored, a copy was substituted for the original, and placed in the Schatzkammer.” In Destrée 1927 it was also confirmed, without quoting from any of the later Inventories, that this Reliquary of the Holy Thorn was to be found regularly recorded in the subsequent Inventories of 1730, 1758, 1780 and 1856. In fact, it is worth quoting in extenso the longer description given in the 1758 Inventory:
“Ein ganz goldenes pacifical, obenauf Gott der Vatter samt zwei engeln, in der mitte inner den glas Gott der Sohn, auf einen regenbogen sizend, darbei ein heiliger dorn von der cron Christi, auf beiden seithen die 12 Aposteln nebst 4 engeln, an dem fues das Jüngste Gericht, alles schön geschmelzet und mit 12 schönen perlen und 15 gebohrt und ungeschnittenen rubinpalet und 1 saphir besezet.”
(“A large gold Pacificale [or Pax], at the top God the Father between two angels, in the middle under the glass is God the Son, seated on a rainbow, with a Holy Thorn from the Crown of Christ, surrounded by the 12 Apostles along with 4 angels at the foot the Resurrection of the Dead, all beautifully enamelled and set with 12 beautiful pearls and 15 cabochon and uncut rubies and 1 sapphire.”)
(See H. Zimerman, ‘Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses’, Vienna, 1895, XVI, pt. ii, p. VII, no. 8: Inventar der Geistlichen Schatzkammer, 1758, Reg. no. 12623.)
The compiler of this 1758 Inventory was careless and did not notice that the gemstone at the top of the joyau is a cabochon sapphire. There are, today, fourteen rubies and two sapphires on the Reliquary. Similarly, there are fourteen pearls - not the twelve recorded by the compiler of the 1758 Inventory. Perhaps two pearls had already been lost by 1758, and certainly there are now two pearls (one in the 'glory' behind God the Father, the other below St John the Baptist) which seem to have neither their original gold 'cradle' setting nor even the same quality of lustre.
Proof that the Waddesdon Reliquary was the one regularly described in these Inventories from 1677 to 1856 is to be found in the exactly corresponding woodcut illustrations accompanying the descriptions in the above-mentioned ‘Mittheilungen’ of 1901. Furthermore, there is the printed description of this Reliquary in the 1860 Exhibition ‘Katalog’ (no. 70), which appears never to have been quoted in earlier discussions of this problem; it reads: “Reliquiarium aus Gold, mit Email und Edelsteinen geziert, 11½ in. hoch; sechzehntes Jahrundert. Eigenthum der geistlichen Schatzkammer der Hofburgcapelle. Prachtvolle Arbeit der Goldschmiedekunt in ihrer höchsten Blüthe. Unterhalb. der Mitteldarstellung au einem Bande die Aufschrift: Ista est una spinea corone domini nostri Jhesu Christi.”
Alfred Darcel in 1863 described the location of this 1860 Exhibition in Vienna (in his publication ‘Les Arts Industries du Moyen Age en Allemagne: rapport addressé à son excellence le Ministre de l'instruction publique et des cultes, sur l'exposition archéologique de Vienne en 1860’). He stated that it was organised and mounted by the Archaeological Society of Vienna in a newly built complex that included La Bourse at one end; he went on to speak of “un passage la traverse à l'une de ses extrémités et c'est une des salles inoccupées, au second étage, que la Société des Antiquaires avait heureusement choisie pour étaler les richesses qui lui avait été confiées”. In his survey Darcel did not mention the Holy Thorn Reliquary, perhaps because he did not recognise it as a medieval object and was content to follow the 1860 ‘Katalog’ entry which had described it as '16th century'.
Two important facts about this Reliquary of the Holy Thorn have, therefore, been established by the entries in the Inventories (1677-1856) and by the 1860 ‘Katalog’ entry: firstly, neither the date nor the place of its manufacture was correctly understood and, secondly, the identity of its first owner had been so completely lost that the significance of the two heraldic enamelled plaques was not appreciated nor in any way recorded. When the two plaques were first recorded (in Schestag 1873/4, no. 607, with the date 'um 1500', and again in Read 1902), they were briefly described, but there was no suggestion that they had any heraldic significance nor, indeed, was there any kind of comment. In Dalton 1927 the two enamelled plaques were not even mentioned in the description of the object, although Destrée (1907) and Falke (1908) had used them as evidence for their argument that the Reliquary had a French origin.
Following upon the 1860 Exhibition, the Holy Thorn Reliquary was returned to the Geistliche Schatzkammer, which at that time was under the control of the Vienna Hofburgpfarramt (Court Parochial Office); this body had the responsibility of appointing a custodian of the collection, who was usually a priest. Whether the Holy Thorn Reliquary had been damaged at the Exhibition in 1860 or whether there was a general new policy for improving the appearance of the treasures seems uncertain, but undoubtedly the Holy Thorn Reliquary and at least four other early items from the Geistliche Schatzkammer were sent in the 1860s to the workshop of Salomon Weininger (1822-79) for restoration, and in each of these five cases a substitute copy was made to take the place of the original; the substitutes were all accepted as the genuine originals and were, of course, placed on display with the rest of the Geistliche Schatzkammer. Only one of the five became the subject of an enquiry shortly after Weininger's death; it was the famous large Fatimid rock-crystal ring, mounted in a Gothic monstrance, purchased by the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, in 1887. When the offer of sale was first made, the Nuremberg Museum authorities immediately recognised this spectacular object and notified the Vienna Court Obersthofmeister, but the Austrian response was to refuse that unique opportunity to buy it back. Their decision is perhaps more understandable than their unwillingness at the time to seek to regain possession of it through the law courts. The original is still in Nuremberg and the fake is still in Vienna.
By 1887 the criminal activities of Salomon Weininger were already a thing of the past because his substitution of faked copies in place of the four genuine Renaissance bronzes he had been given to clean and restore from the Estensische Kunstsammlung in Vienna - two of the originals are in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Salting Bequest) - had led to his exposure, and in June 1876 he had been sentenced to five years' imprisonment. Indeed, he had died in the Austrian State Prison at Stein three years later (see L. Planiscig, ‘Die Estensische Kunstsammlung’, Vienna, 1919, nos 207-8; ‘idem, Andrea Riccio’, Vienna, 1927, p. 252; and H. Weihrauch, ‘Europaische Bronzestatuetten’, Munich, 1967, p. 490). Apart from the Fatimid rock-crystal and silver-gilt fake, revealed in 1887 by the Nuremberg Museum authorities, the four other Weininger substitutes remained undetected in the Geistliche Schatzkammer for more than half a century. However, any lingering doubts that may have remained after 1927 concerning the relationship between the Waddesdon Bequest Reliquary and the Weininger substitute in Vienna were finally dispelled in September 1944, when the modern copy was brought by members of the staff of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, to the British Museum and compared with the original; members of the Department of Metalwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum were invited to attend this conclusive examination.
Three years earlier an article by Dame Joan Evans in ‘The Burlington Magazine’ (1941) had sought to establish the heraldic significance of the two enamelled plaques set in the fortified walls of the gold base of the Reliquary. On the basis of misinformation from Mr Van der Put about the armorial bearings the article set out to relate this Reliquary with an item once owned by Louis, duc d'Orleans (1372-1407), the younger son of the French king, Charles V, and described in the Inventory of 1408, which was made at Blois after Louis' death (see F. M. Graves, ‘Deux Inventaires de la Maison d'Orléans’, Paris, 1926, p. 101, no. 366: “Ung tableau à mettre reliques de la mémoire de la Passion Notre Seigneur où sont esmaillez les XII Apostres, et dedans sont huit grosses perles, trois balaiz et trois saphirs”). Despite the obvious discrepancies, Joan Evans took the view that they were small and “cannot be allowed to invalidate the identification”, and, in her view, the Reliquary was made for the duc d'Orleans between 1388 and 1407. This identification was repeated, even more positively, in 1948 in her major book ‘Art in Medieval France’ (p. 207, fig. 197) and was accepted without demur by no less an authority than Erwin Panofsky in 1951.
However, by 1954 Theodor Müller and Erich Steingräber had compiled their 'Katalog' of French gold enamelled sculpture c. 1400 and decided that, because of the discrepancies, they could not accept this identification of the Reliquary with the Orleans Inventory of 1408 (no. 366), though they did proceed to establish most convincingly that the stylistic attribution to a Paris workshop c.1400 was correct (pp. 66-7). Curiously, they omitted to include in their description of the Reliquary any mention of the two heraldic plaques; furthermore, they incorrectly stated that in addition to the gold enamelled parts the Reliquary also comprised silver-gilt 'framing parts' (“rahmende Teile Silber vergoldet”). Consequently, in the mid-1950s the two enamelled heraldic plaques still remained the major aspect of the Reliquary to be tackled.
Having observed precisely the same coat of arms recurring in several of the famous illuminated manuscripts that were originally in the collection of Jean, duc de Berry, the author decided to consult the President of the Société Française d'Héraldique et de Sigillographie, who at that time was baron Meurgey de Tupigny, and, in a written reply, was told that these were, indeed, the arms of a prince of the House of Berry and should be read as follows: “d'azure semé de fleurs-de-lis d'or à la bordure engrêlée de gueules” (see Tait 1962, p. 226, fn. 2); this information was communicated to Peter Lasko and published in the same year (see Lasko 1962, p. 262, fn. 7), where it was pointed out that “unfortunately, none of the inventories of the Duc de Berry's possessions, made in 1401, 1413 and in the year of his death in 1416 describes any piece identifiable as the Thorn Reliquary as we see it today, although a large number of objects are listed that were decorated with the arms of Berry”.
Jean, duc de Berry (b. 1340-d. 1416), was the brother of the King of France, Charles V (reigned 1364-80), and uncle of Charles VI (reigned 1380-1422) and is well-known as a grand patron of the arts and an avid collector, whose impatience often led to the design of his commissions being altered before they were half-finished. Consequently, the total lack of an appropriate description in those three Inventories of the Berry collections does not necessarily have much significance, and in addition the scale of his princely gifts, especially of joyaux, was only equalled by his brothers and nephews, the Dukes of Burgundy and Anjou (see Meiss 1967, pp. 48-50). Although it is clear from the records that these royal dukes employed goldsmiths on the most lavish scale in the fifty years from 1360 to 1410, very few of their fine commissions have survived - indeed, many pieces were melted down within a few years of their completion. According to the ‘Commentarii’ of Lorenzo Ghiberti, of Florence, one of the finest goldsmiths was the Cologne master named Gusmin, but he was so bitter to find his major creations for his princely patrons north of the Alps being put into the melting-pot that he retired to a monastery and ceased to be a goldsmith.
Before examining the duc de Berry's Inventories in search of this Reliquary, it may be noted that the difficulties of the terminology have been much discussed (for a neatly summarised account see Panofsky 1951, p. 76). Apparently, in the later Middle Ages a bona fide reliquary could be listed as a ‘jocale’ or ‘joyau’ and, conversely, many a piece of jewellery might be referred to as a ‘reliquière’ or ‘reliquaire’ (see Erich Meyer, Reliquie und Reliquiar im Mittelalter, ‘Festschrift für Georg Heise zum 28 June, 1950’, Berlin, 1950, pp. 55 ff., and also J. Braun, ‘Die Reliquiare des christlichen Kultes und ihre Entwicklung’, Freiburg, 1940, pp. 70 ff., 286 ff., figs 269-88).
Turning now to an interpretation of the written evidence contained in the Inventories of the duc de Berry's collections, it is important to note how vast and difficult a task faced the compilers and how much the individual qualities of these men affected the value and usefulness of the descriptions. The earliest is the Inventory of 1401-3 (Bib. nat. fr. 11496; pub. J. Guiffrey, ‘Inventaires de Jean, duc de Berry (1401-14.16)’, 2 vols, Paris, 1894-6. N.B. The only Berry Inventory that Guiffrey published in full, however, is the Inventory of 1413-16 (Archives nationales K.K. 258). The first Inventory contains 1,317 items and was the work of two different men; begun by Guillaume de Ruilly, ‘garde de joyaux’, on 2 December 1401, the task commenced in the Château de Dourdan (near Paris) and continued in the duc de Berry's principal residence, the Hôtel de Nesle in Paris. In May 1402 Ruilly was replaced by Robinet d'Etampes, who finished the Inventory by listing the items in the Château de Mehun-sur-Yèvre, in the Great Tower of the ducal Palace at Bourges and in the Chancellery of the Cathedral of Bourges. This Inventory was finished on 23 February 1403, but it also contains numerous notes dating from 1404 to 1407 recording the gifts made by Berry to the Sainte-Chapelle of the Palace of Bourges. Fortunately, Robinet was an exceptionally thorough and precise keeper of the ducal collections and remained with Jean de Berry, even being present when Jean signed his will in May 1416, shortly before his death. The fullness of Robinet's descriptions and his practice of updating the lists with notes about new acquisitions, gifts and alterations give the Berry Inventories unrivalled value.
Indeed, Robinet's annotation to item 10 of the first Inventory of 1401-3 is an excellent example and is the place where the answer to the Waddesdon Bequest Reliquary's precise date of manufacture may yet be found, as already fully discussed in a paper read to the Society of Antiquaries by the author on 9 April 1981, and, more briefly, restated in the author's introductory survey of the Waddesdon Bequest (Tait 1981, pp. 19-23):
“10. Item, une coronne d'or en manière d'une coronne d'Empereur, où il a quartre florons, et en chascun floron une espine de la coronne de Nostre Seigneur, garnie de perrerie, c'est assavoir: de douze gros balaiz et huit petis, dix-sept gros saphirs, huit petites esmeraudes, trente-six grosses perles et quarente autres perles moiennes; pesant tout ensemble quatourze mars et deux onces.
Aurum dicte corone fuit magistro Martino Gouge, thesaurario, traditum, et lapides remanserunt erga Dominum, ut per compotum dicti Robineti constat. Postmodum Dominus dedit sue capelle Bitturicensi VIII parvas esmeraudes. Item, dedit dicto Robineto VI balaiz de numero dictorum VIII parvorum balaiz. Et residuum dictorum lapidum cum IIIIor aliis perlis fuerunt per Dominum traditum Renequino de Hallen, aurifabro, pro convertendo in uno jocali, ut constat per compotum dicti Robineti. Et de dictis spinis tres fuerunt date capelle palacii Bicturicensis; et quarta spina redditur per dictum compotum dicti Robineti in uno magno jocali auri.”
Robinet's helpful annotation records the fate of the duc de Berry's richly bejewelled gold 'Imperial' crown containing the four Thorns from Our Lord's Crown of Thorns. It was broken up on the orders of the duc de Berry and the gold was delivered to his treasurer and the gemstones to Berry himself, who later gave eight emeralds to his Sainte-Chapelle at Bourges. Apart from six rubies, the remainder of the gemstones together with four other pearls were handed over to the goldsmith, named Renequino de Hallen, to convert into a jocali (“pro convertendo in uno jocali”). Nothing is known about this jocali, neither its design nor its subsequent fate. Today no single object survives that can be associated with the goldsmith named Renequino de Hallen. Consequently, he is just a name in an inventory and, tempting though it may be, there are no grounds whatsoever for asserting that he was the goldsmith who created the duc de Berry's Reliquary that is now in the Waddesdon Bequest at the British Museum.
Of the four Thorns three were given to the Sainte-Chapelle of the Palace of Bourges, while the fourth Thorn was set “in uno magno jocali auri” (“in a large gold jewel or reliquary”). There is every reason to accept that this last-mentioned jocali could be a reference to the Holy Thorn Reliquary, now in the Waddesdon Bequest at the British Museum, because not only has this Reliquary already been independently dated ‘c. 1400’ on purely stylistic grounds, but the phrase “uno magno jocali auri” would have been a wholly appropriate choice of words for Robinet to have used when describing this object. Furthermore, the fact that Jean de Berry had decided not to donate all four Thorns to his mortuary chapel suggests that he wanted to keep one relic for his own use and hence would have had his coat of arms incorporated into the design as he had done on so many of the precious objects in his collection.
The gift of the other three Thorns to his new foundation, the Sainte-Chapelle adjoining his palace at Bourges, is most understandable because the latter was to stand comparison with the famous Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, which Louis IX (St Louis) had created in the 1240’s to house the Crown of Thorns and the large section of the True Cross, both of which had been acquired by the King from Constantinople where they had been kept in the chapel of the Byzantine Emperor's palace. Consecrated on 25 April 1248, the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris had been built as part of the King's palace on the Île-de-la-Cité, and Jean de Berry's project was intended to copy it but on a larger scale. Finished in 1405, it was to be his great mortuary chapel - as splendid as the one his brother, the Duke of Burgundy, had created at Champmol in 1388. Consequently, it was richly endowed with his wonderful library, with a large section of his costly treasures and several outstanding relics of Christ, including the fragments of Nails from the Cross given him by Pope Clement VII in 1384 and, most importantly, the piece of the True Cross itself, given him in 1372 by his brother, Charles V, who had himself cut it from Louis IX's precious acquisition from Constantinople - the pride of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. If that relic of the True Cross was getting smaller because of these royal incisions, so too the Crown of Thorns must have been losing many of its Thorns - indeed, Jean de Berry alone had at least six Thorns, one of which Robinet records was subsequently given to the King of the Romans (see item 272 of the 1401-3 Inventory and its annotation, discussed by Lasko 1962, p. 263) and another to the Duke of York (see item 62 of the 1413-16 Inventory, published in Guiffrey 1896; “ung cristal creux, longuet et roont, garni d'or, ou quel a une des espines de la saincte coronne Nostre Seigneur, lesquels cristal et espine sont d'un grant joyau d'or fait de maconnerie en manière d'ung tabernacle”.) The Crown of Thorns and the dispersal of the various Thorns in individual reliquaries are discussed in J. E. A. Gosselin, ‘Notice historique sur la sainte Couronne d'espines’, Paris, 1828, and by Fernand de Mély, Reliques de Constantinople in the ‘Revue de I'Art Chrétien’, 1899-1900, and in P. E. D. Riant, ‘Exuviae Sacrae Constantinopolitanae’, vol. III, Geneva, 1904.
The second of the duc de Berry's Inventories comprised 1,251 items, and nos 1-1,099 were all inventoried by Robinet d'Etampes before 31 January 1413; the remainder were acquisitions of the last three difficult years (February 1413 - June 1416), and a careful distinction is made between purchases and those items that had been received as gifts by the duc de Berry. Consequently, the absence from these lists of any item that could be said to resemble the very distinctive Waddesdon Bequest Reliquary can only be interpreted as reliable evidence that the duc’s “quarta spina redditur ... in uno magno jocali auri” had already been given away, presumably as a present to the Duke of Burgundy or some foreign ruler or political ally, before 1413. In this way the Reliquary would have escaped the melting-pot that was to consume almost all of the duc de Berry's gold and silver objects and so could have eventually entered the Hapsburg collections and been placed in their Court Chapel Treasury. The Geistliche Schatzkammer in Vienna does, indeed, contain a number of fifteenth-century courtly objects that had originally belonged to the Dukes of Burgundy and with the marriage in 1477 of the heiress, Mary, daughter of Charles the Bold, to the Archduke Maximilian (later Emperor Maximilian I) these Burgundian treasures were absorbed into the Hapsburg ‘schatzkammer’ without much documentation (for a fuller discussion of the Lovers Brooch see cat. no. 2, p. 50, where its lack of a firm connection with Mary of Burgundy (b. 1457 – d.1482) but its highly probable Burgundian origin, c. 1475, is commented upon). Despite the fierce rivalry between Jean de Berry and his brother, Philippe le Hardi (duc 1363 - d.1404), and his successor, Jean sans Peur (duc 1404 - d.1419), magnificent gifts of great virtuosity continued to be exchanged regularly between Berry and Burgundy and consequently this Reliquary most probably reached Vienna between 1477 and 1482 through the inheritance of Mary of Burgundy and her Hapsburg husband, Maximilian (d. 1519). Their son, Philip the Fair, had died in 1506, but their grandson and heir became the Emperor Charles V (reigned 1519-55) and in the Inventory of his Treasury, made in 1544, an item is listed that appears to correspond with the Holy Thorn Reliquary, although the description is short: “Ain gulden täffele, darinnen das jungst gericht gesmelzt, aussen herumb die Zwelfpotten, oben ain geschmelter Salvator, verseczt mit zwaien sophiern, dreizehn wallais (ballais) und funfzehen perlen, wigt 4 mark 12 lott.”
(Published in the ‘Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses’, Vienna, 1888, VII, reg. no. 4793, f. 63, p. xcix. The author owes this important reference to a personal communication in 1985 from Dr Renate Eikelman after the text of this volume had already gone to press and after the authorities in Vienna had confirmed that there was no record of the Reliquary in any Austrian inventory earlier than 1677.)
Significantly, the description mentions two sapphires (both have survived), thirteen rubies (now fourteen, all of which seem to be original) and fifteen pearls (now only fourteen, two of which may be replacements); however, there is no obvious place where the extra ruby could have been set in place of the missing pearl, since the gemstones and pearls alternate and are arranged symmetrically to create a carefully balanced effect.
It would seem, therefore, that the compiler of the 1544 Inventory had made a mistake and, although the combined total number of gemstones and pearls was correct, he had recorded one too many pearls and one too few rubies. His listing of the two sapphires, on the other hand, helps to confirm the error of the 1758 Inventory where only one sapphire is mentioned but where one too many rubies is said to decorate the Reliquary.
In attempting to pinpoint more reliably the date when the Holy Thorn Reliquary was made, two possibilities must be considered: either it was both made and given away before the compilation of the first Berry Inventory (December 1401 - February 1403), or it was made around 1405, when the duc de Berry's Sainte-Chapelle in Bourges was completed. In the case of the latter alternative there would have been a pressing need - widely recognised in medieval France - to provide the Bourges Sainte-Chapelle with an adequate endowment of well-authenticated relics. The duc de Berry's gift of three of the four Thorns would undoubtedly have helped most handsomely and, of course, his decision to have the fourth Thorn mounted in “uno magno jocali auri” without delay would have been equally in character. During the following five or six years before the second Inventory was begun, the Reliquary could have adorned the duc's collection until he chose to make a present of it. Of these two possibilities the first is less restricted in date but the second seems perhaps more likely on the arguments of stylistic comparison and development.
Fortunately, the Reliquary can be compared with four similar but far more securely dated works of art - all outstanding examples of enamelled gold sculpture (‘émail en ronde bosse’):
(i) The St Michael and the Devil Group (before 1397), given to Charles VI, King of France, as a New Year's gift in 1397 by Philippe le Hardi, Duke of Burgundy. In 1405 Charles VI had to give it to the Queen's brother, Ludwig of Bavaria, in lieu of the year's pension owing to him. In 1441 Ludwig presented it to his religious foundation at Ingolstadt, where it remained until 1801. It is now known only from the early detailed written descriptions and from the small eighteenth-century painting of it (in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich), made after the removal of many of its pearls and gemstones. (Full publication by Eva Kovačs, L'orfèvrerie parisienne et ses sources, ‘Revue de L’Art’, 28, 1975, pp. 28-30, fig. 9.)
(ii) The Madonna of Toledo (before 1402), recorded in the first Inventory of the duc de Berry's collection (item 362) among the treasures kept at the Château de Mehun-sur-Yèvre, which Robinet d'Etampes began listing in May 1402. According to Robinet's annotation, it was given by Jean de Berry to the Queen of Navarre. The Cathedral of Toledo, where it is preserved, has only an ancient tradition - no documentary evidence - recording that it was a gift of Eleanor of Castille, wife of Charles III, King of Navarre. (Full publication by Kovačs 1975, p. 28, fig. 8.)
(iii) The Calvary of Esztergom (before 1403), given by Marguerite de Flandre (1350-1405) to her husband, Philippe le Hardi, Duke of Burgundy, as a New Year's gift in 1403 and recorded in the Inventory of 1404, made immediately following the death of Philippe le Hardi (see E. Dehaisnes, ‘Documents et Extraits divers concernant l’histoire de l'art dans la Flandre, l'Artois et le Hainaut avant le XV siècle, part 11, 1374 -1401’, Lille, 1886, p. 827; full publication by Kovačs 1975, pp. 25-8, figs 1-7).
(iv) The Goldenes Rössel (before 1404), given by the Queen of France, Isabeau of Bavaria, to her husband, Charles VI, as a New Year's gift in 1404. In July 1405 Charles VI pawned it to his brother-in-law, Ludwig of Bavaria (d. 1447); his heirs presented it in 1509 to the pilgrimage church of Altötting, near Munich, where it is still preserved (see full publication in Müller and Steingräber 1954, pp. 69-71).
Of these four the earliest is of particular interest because in creating the group of St Michael and the Devil the goldsmith has decided to place the main figure group on an enamelled mound within a fortress - just as the scene of the Resurrection of the Dead is similarly represented on the Holy Thorn Reliquary in the Waddesdon Bequest. However, despite the obvious parallels, there are significant differences which may help to determine the dating of the Reliquary. Fortunately, the 1441 document recording the gift of this St Michael group to the convent at Ingolstadt provides a very detailed description, particularly noting each gemstone and pearl, and gives a valuable insight into contemporary terminology (quoted in full by Kovačs 1975, p. 29); for example, it establishes the meaning of “une terrace esmaillée” and “l’entablement”, phrases that crop up again and again in these French Inventories of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when listing secular as well as ecclesiastical plate. The relevant passage in the 1441 document reads: “Et sur les côtes de cette même image s'élèvent deux arbres en fleurs, deux rubis balais et trente-huit perles. Item l'image se tient sur une terrace où est une figure du diable ou du dragon et sur les deux côtes deux petits anges dont chacun tient un saphir, chaque saphir surmonté d'un troche de perles, et l'entablement consiste en une forteresse à creneaux.”
Not only are the green-enamelled mounds, the steps leading up to the portals and the crenellated walls apparently very similar on both pieces, but the placing of little angels within the turrets of the fortress also corresponds exactly. Even tiny details such as the gold half-opened shutters, pushed open from the bottom, appear to be executed in the same manner. This very distinctive and exceptional detail can be found (repeated six times most meticulously) in the extraordinarily jewel-like miniature of the Lord over the Water by Giovannino dei Grassi in Gian Galeazzo Visconti's prayer-book of c. 1395-8 (see Meiss 1967, p. 143, fig. 578), which was left unfinished in Milan on the Duke's death in 1402 (Bib. Nazionale, Florence, Landau-Finaly 22, fol. 26).
However, a major contrast lies in the overall proportions. The St Michael figure group seems disproportionately large in relation to the jocali as a whole, even though the crenellated walls of the fortress have been left solid and plain, thereby imparting a massive weighty quality to the lower part. The goldsmith of the Holy Thorn Reliquary, on the other hand, has given a light openness to the fortress at the base by introducing broad arches on either side of the portal and also at the rear. Furthermore, although he has followed tradition and depicted the heavenly apparition of the Last Judgement scene on a suitably larger scale, all these main figures seem to relate more successfully to those on Earth, both to the angels in the turrets and to the Resurrected Dead on the enamelled mound.
The same problem evidently faced the goldsmith when he was designing the Madonna of Toledo jocali. This figure group which includes the folding chair and the lectern seems too large for the polygonal base with its five feet -plain rectangular cubes with enamelled cushions. Indeed, these strangely clumsy feet seem almost to have been added to the design in an attempt to offset the top-heavy effect of the composition. In the case of the Madonna of Toledo jocali the base and feet (the 'entablement' of the Inventories) are made only of silver-gilt - not gold. This use of the less expensive material for the lower part of the jocali, where strength and stability were important, is an understandable economy, though gilding silver was, of course, a not inexpensive luxury too. The same economy was practised by the goldsmith who made the Goldenes Rössel at Altötting and, indeed, the original socle (now lost) of the Calvary of Esztergom is known to have been made of silver-gilt. It is rare to find one of these joyaux with a base made of pure gold, but it would seem that both the St Michael jocali (formerly at Ingolstadt) and the duc de Berry's Holy Thorn Reliquary (in the British Museum) are the exceptions.
The proportions of the Esztergom Calvary and of the Goldenes Rössel were wholly successful, and, even though the former has lost its original base, the harmony of the relationship between the architectural elements and the figures is entirely satisfactory. The very pronounced pointed Gothic architectural forms and spiky details of the zone enclosing Christ at the Column are still manifestly in the tradition of the fourteenth century and can be readily compared with objects like the Three Towers Reliquary, c. 1375 (in Aachen Cathedral Treasury). However, there is a fundamental change in the upper zone with its open quality and with the hill of Calvary emerging above the pinnacles to create the illusion of a sublime, almost heavenly, scene to which mankind on Earth can aspire. The same quality of openness characterises the Goldenes Rössel where even the rounded forms of the arches (on the lower level) framing the dramatically sculptural group of the page holding the white horse of King Charles VI are no longer part of that oppressively obtrusive and confining pointed Gothic architecture. The openwork trellis of the floral bower, in which the Madonna and Child are placed on the upper zone of the Goldenes Rössel, may still retain the form of the Gothic pointed arch, but it is so muted and softened in its outline by a floral naturalism that almost nothing of the character of the fourteenth century remains.
This new trend seems swiftly to transform the art of the French courts and so perhaps it is not necessary to postulate so precisely a date of “about 1410” (see Lasko 1962, p. 264) for the introduction of the semicircular-headed arch. Throughout the first decade of the fifteenth century these goldsmiths and the ateliers of these court artists working for Charles VI and the royal dukes were, undoubtedly, at their most precocious and inventive. There is not a single pointed arch to be found anywhere on the Holy Thorn Reliquary, even in the details of the crenellated walls of the 'fortress' base. Exceptionally, even the general outline of the Reliquary does not remotely suggest the Gothic pointed arch, which may be said to linger on, albeit rather faintly, in the Goldenes Rössel; instead, a pure circle, formed by the 'glory' around the figure of God the Father, rests on the head of the semicircular arch framing the Last Judgement scene. In fact, that frame is robustly broad and three-dimensional, as it would be in an architectural context. The surface of that frame (between the outer and the inner moulding) curves at first gently and then more steeply forwards; its concave, three-dimensional quality is enhanced by the application of free-standing, twisting branches and foliage interspersed with pearls and gem-stones. The most comparable architectural example to have survived in situ is the vast Coronation of the Virgin scene high above the archway on the outer wall of the Château de La Ferté-Milon, near Paris, which most fortunately can be dated with certainty between 1392 and 1407 (see Evans 1948, fig. 154, and Theodor Müller, ‘Sculpture in the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Spain, 1400-1500’, London, 1966, pp. 18-19, pl. 12A). The broad frame, concave with wide trelliswork of realistic leafwork, continues along the bottom - just as the frame does on the Reliquary - making a strikingly bold right-angle turn at the bottom on either side; the two sides pass, with a sophisticated illusionary trick, behind the extended projecting ledge of the figural scene and, at the top, curve in a gently rounded fashion to form a wide shallow arch. The spacious recess is given a further illusion of depth by the introduction of architectural features on the sides which curve inwards, but, as Theodor Müller expressed it, the splendid horizontal composition “is an example of painterly sculpture developed freely in space. Its antecedents are not any regional developments within the Île-de-France, but the Netherlandish sculptors, of whose services French feudalism, as we have seen, frequently made use”.
On the Holy Thorn Reliquary, as in many of the contemporary illustrations of châteaux in the miniatures of the Berry manuscripts, the windows of the portal and of the crenellated walls are all square-headed and the door itself, far from having a pointed arch, has a flat top with a rather sophisticated reversed form of the rounded outline, because on either side at the top an arc - a quarter of a circle - curves inwards, like two spandrels. The portal has, unquestionably, the look of a fifteenth- rather than a fourteenth-century piece of architecture; even the triangular turret, placed angle-wise above the door, has two semicircular, round-headed arches terminating in mid-air. The same kind of curious architectural feature was introduced by the Limbourg brothers into their miniature showing the triangular Château de Poitiers, at the top of the month of July miniature in the ‘Très Riches Heures de Jean de Berry’, c. 1413-16, folio 7V (Musée Condé, Chantilly); attached to the corner on the left there is clearly shown in the miniature a comparable architectural feature, albeit on a larger scale (see Meiss 1967, plates vol., fig. 421).
Equally subtle is the goldsmith's use of a recess for the central scene. Just as the broad frame curves forward, so the recess (behind the rock-crystal 'window') curves steeply inwards and then curves gently, almost parallel to the 'picture' foreground. The illusion of deep space thus created beyond the 'window' is enhanced by the shimmering surface of the burnished gold and the very low relief of the plain broad Cross behind the figure of Christ in Judgement.
By placing the Twelve Apostles and the group of angels adoring God the Father outside the architectural frame, the goldsmith has again created an illusion of openness, almost of floating in space. This ethereal, heavenly quality is most marked when the eye perceives the gap between the trumpeting angels in the turrets of the sturdy fortress on Earth and the fluttering foliate 'clouds' below the last of the Apostles on either side.
In conclusion, most of the stylistic elements which can be observed when looking at the front of the Holy Thorn Reliquary would favour a dating c. 1405 and not the earlier dating before the first Berry Inventory of 1401-3. Unlike most of the other surviving examples in this group, the Holy Thorn Reliquary was intended to be seen and, perhaps, venerated from the other side. Even the closely related Reliquary of the Chapelle de l'Ordre du Saint-Esprit (Musée du Louvre, Paris), which has most recently been removed from its important position as the earliest extant joyau of this French group (c.1390) and been courageously re-attributed to a workshop in London c. 1410 (see Eva Kovačs, Le Reliquaire de l'ordre du Saint-Esprit, ‘La Revue du Louvre et des Musées de France’, October 1981, 4, pp. 246-51; also exhibition catalogue, ‘Les Fastes du Gothique: le siecle de Charles V’, Paris, 1981, pp. 269-71, no. 221), has only a flat solid back comprising seven rectangular panels decorated with engraved foliate ornament. The reverse of the Waddesdon Bequest Reliquary is unique in being designed with two large doors, hinged so that when swinging open they reveal a simple unadorned round-headed 'window' set in a plain gold frame that originally contained either a relic, such as a fragment from the Sudarium (the Cloth of St Veronica with the Holy Face) or, perhaps an illuminated miniature or small devotional panel. The two gold doors are plain on the inside, but the exteriors are so richly decorated with consummate skill that they provide valuable evidence in favour of the later dating c. 1405-10.
The St Michael and the Devil relief (on the left-hand door) is executed in the most fully developed 'International Gothic' style, which has a strongly Italian flavour, reminiscent of the early Lorenzo Ghiberti bronze reliefs. The advanced style of this door seems to be a natural progression from the two reliefs on the spherical head of the sceptre of Charles V (Musée du Louvre), made before 1380 (see Danielle Gaborit-Chopin, La baton cantoral de la Sainte-Chapelle, ‘Bulletin Monumental’, 1975, pp. 67-81; also in the 1981 exhibition catalogue, ‘Les Fastes du Gothique: le siècle de Charles V’, p. 249, no. 202). The extraordinary character of these two hemispherical reliefs (perhaps once enamelled) is a precursor of the soft flowing style of the St Michael door on the Reliquary and, indeed, on the sceptre the figure of the angel thrusting the spear at a soul condemned to Hell (above the figure of the dead Charlemagne) makes an interesting comparison with the St Michael on the left-hand door and a striking contrast with the Ingolstadt joyau of St Michael and the Devil, which lacks all the sinuous, rhythmical elegance of this 'International Gothic' style. Not only has the duc de Berry's goldsmith skilfully depicted a twisting, almost contrapposto, movement in this figure of St Michael but he has employed a range of techniques with great virtuosity - from the very highest embossing in relief of the Archangel's head and his upraised hand clutching the staff that is completely free of the background for most of its length, to the most subtle surface stippling in the feathering of the wings above St Michael's head and the delicate minute flowers in the background.
Perhaps the most comparable - if less fine - works of art to have survived are the documented rectangular, silver-gilt and engraved reliefs with scenes from the life of St Servatius, taken from the lower part of a reliquary bust of the Saint given to the Treasury of the Church of St Servatius in Maastricht in 1403 by Henry, Duke of Bavaria (now preserved in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, inv. no. 1885, 1195; lent to the exhibition ‘Rhein und Maas: Kunst und Kultur 800-1400’, Cologne, 1972, no. Q.14, where four of the scenes in relief are illustrated). By far the most striking similarities can be seen in the relief depicting the mitred figure of the Saint slaying the Dragon with his staff: the pose of the two principal figures (St Michael and St Servatius), the treatment of the draperies, the elegance of these 'International Gothic' style compositions, and even the depiction of the two diminutive dragons are all closely related. One of the oblong reliefs of the legend of St Servatius showing a group of five figures kneeling in front of St Peter depicts the scene taking place within a fortress, and the crenellated walls encircling the composition are reminiscent of the Ingolstadt St Michael jocali; whilst the architectural background in the third relief - a scene of the procession carrying the châsse-reliquaire around the walls of a city - is noteworthy for its total lack of the Gothic pointed arch and for the very similar treatment of the crenellated walls, portals and turrets. In Theodor Müller's opinion “they bear testimony to that story-telling quality which constitutes the enchantment of Netherlandish illuminated manuscripts from the beginning of the fifteenth century . . . The compositions have so complex a painterly movement that there seems to me to be no doubt of the origins of these silver reliefs in early fifteenth-century developments of painting” (Theodor Müller, Sculpture in the Netherlands, Germany, France and Spain, 1400-1500, London, 1966, p. 23, fig. 12B).
The backgrounds of these reliefs are still patterned; where the miniaturist would have painted a blue sky, the goldsmith has a minute pattern of lozenges of close cross-hatching. The latter is perhaps not as delicate as the fine stippled floral motifs that cover the backgrounds of both doors on the Holy Thorn Reliquary and are particularly discernible above St Christopher. Furthermore, the superior way in which the duc de Berry's goldsmith has attempted to render the rocky bank of the river and the waters of the swift flowing stream, with stippled grass and plants on the far side, is, indeed, part of this painterly naturalism in which miniaturists, like the Limbourg brothers, excelled and which was fostered by the patronage of Jean de Berry at the beginning of the fifteenth century.
On both doors of the Holy Thorn Reliquary the goldsmith has attempted to add to the realism by causing the composition to break forward and overlap the picture frame or moulding. It is a trick that the goldsmith wisely uses in a most restrained fashion - just the head of the Dragon, the left elbows of both Saints but, most effectively, the clenched right hand of the heavily burdened St Christopher and the cross surmounting St Michael's staff. This artistic device cannot be found on the silver reliefs from the Maastricht St Servatius Reliquary of 1403 but it does begin to occur in some French illuminated manuscripts that can be dated c. 1405-10; for example, the Annunciation miniature in the Leningrad Book of Hours by the miniaturist known as Pseudo-Jacquemart (Leningrad, State Library, MS. Q.V. 1. 8; illustrated and discussed in Meiss 1967, pp. 263-5, fig. 255).
Pseudo-Jacquemart worked mainly for Jean, duc de Berry, from c. 1380 to c. 1412, during which time he contributed to the illumination of the ‘Petites Heures’, the ‘Psalter’ and, towards 1405-10, the ‘Grandes Heures’ (see ‘Les Fastes du Gothique: le siècle de Charles V’, Paris, 1981, no. 298, illus. p. 345, for a particularly effective use of this pictorial trick) and the Bourges Evangeliary. In the Leningrad Annunciation miniature the elegant standing Virgin holds a book in her left hand that breaks forward across the picture frame, while the Angel kneels with trailing drapery and extends his right leg over the picture frame (lower left corner). Another of Pseudo-Jacquemart's miniatures in the Leningrad Book of Hours depicts the Enthroned Madonna and Writing Child (Meiss 1967, pp. 264-5, fig. 256), and the halo of the Child is in the form of rays - not the usual disc or 'moon' - and, as Meiss points out, this new form of halo “began to be popular in French painting around the turn of the century”. It is the new form that has been used by the goldsmith for the Christ Child on the St Christopher door of the Holy Thorn Reliquary, though the goldsmith has employed the most delicate of stippling techniques to create a subtle variation of intensity that is truly painterly in its conception.
The goldsmith's desire to emulate the intricate refinements of the contemporary miniature painters employed at the court of Jean, duc de Berry, in the first decade of the fifteenth century is even more brilliantly demonstrated by his use of the technique of stippling to re-create the effect of rich brocades with floral patterns, visible between the folds of the cloaks worn by the two Saints. Although some of these stippled 'sunflowers' are now rather faint from rubbing, it is clear that these brocade patterns were originally as exquisitely detailed as the stippled feathers covering the chest, arms and legs of St Michael. This latter feature is most exceptional and may, perhaps, derive from the costumes worn in religious plays, for it is interesting to note where it ends, so that the feet, hands, neck and face of the St Michael figure are carefully left plain. [For comments on Weininger's forgery see Tait's published catalogue]
[Please note that in his 2010 book on the Reliquary, John Cherry suggests a much earlier date than Tait, to before 1397 based on the form of the arms in the base. This dating fits the style of the whole Reliquary better than Tait's. Cherry believes the Reliquary was likely to have been given away shortly after it was made which explains why it is not listed in the 1401-3 inventory, and also ensured its survival, as Jean's treasures would have been melted down with all other gold treasures in Paris in 1417 by the victorious English shortly afer his death. It then perhaps became a Burgundian treasure and found its way to Vienna with other treasures upon the marriage of Mary of Burgundy to ArchDuke Maximilian in 1477 (later Holy Roman Emperor).]
Bibliography: ‘Katalog der von dem Wiener Alterthums-Verein veranstalteten Ausstellung von Kunst-gegenständen aus dem Mittelalter und der Renaissance, eröffnet am 16. November, 1860’, Zweite Auflage, Vienna, 1860, no. 70 (describes briefly the original); Schestag 1872 (Franz Schestag , ‘Katalog der Kuntsammlung des Freihern Anselm von Rothschild in Wein’, zweitzer theil, Vienna, 1872) does not include it but there is a very rare printed Supplement entitled ‘Anhang’, and no. 607 gives a fairly detailed description (published with the ten other new acquisitions presumably in 1873-4); ‘Mittheilungen der K.K. Central Commission für Erforschung und Erhaltung der Kunst und Historischen Denkmale’, XXVII, Vienna, 1901, where the two woodcut illustrations show the original - not the Weininger substitute; Charles Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 67, pl. XVI, illustrates the original; Joseph Destrée in ‘Les Musées et les Monuments de France’, Paris, 1907, p. 84; Otto von Falke in A. Michel, ‘Histoire de l'Art’, vol. III, pt. 2, Paris, 1908, p. 870; A Schnerich, ‘Guide du Trésor ecclésiastique de la Maison Impériale à la Hofburg à Vienne’, 1909, illustrates the Weininger substitute but describes it as if it were the original, and this illustration was again used in a book review of Schnerich's ‘Guide’ which was published in ‘Revue de l’art Chrétien’, 1911, p. 72; M. Dreger's second edition of Schnerich's ‘Guide’ remains non-committal about the date of the version in Vienna; M. Frankenburger, Zur Geschichte des Ingolstädter und Landshuter Herzogschatzes und des Stiftes Allötting, in ‘Repert. für Kunstwiss.’, XLIV, 1923, p. 43; Joseph Destrée, The Reliquary of the Holy Thorn in the Waddesdon Bequest at the British Museum (trans. O. M. Dalton), ‘The Connoisseur’, LXXIX, 1927, pp. 138-43, illustrating both the original and the Weininger substitute, figs I-IV ; O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 67, pl. IX; A. Weixlgärtner, ‘Fuhrer durch die Geistliche Schatzkammer’, Vienna, 1929, p. 8; W. Burger, ‘Abendländische Schmelzarbeiten’, Berlin, 1930, p. 151; exhibition catalogue, ‘Gefälsche Kunstwerke’, Vienna, 1937, p. 5, no. 2; Leporini, Gefälsche Kunstwerke, ‘Pantheon’, XX, 1937, p. 352 ; Joan Evans, The Duke of Orleans' Reliquary of the Holy Thorn, ‘The Burlington Magazine’, LXXXVIII, 1941, pp. 196-201; Otto Kurz, ‘Fakes’, London, 1948, p. 218, pls 69-70; Joan Evans, ‘Art in Medieval France’, London, New York, Toronto, 1948, p. 207, fig. 197; Erwin Panofsky, A Parisian Goldsmith's Model of the Early Fifteenth Century?, ‘Beiträge für Georg Swarzenski’, Berlin, 1951, p. 80, fig. 7; Theodor Müller and Erich Steingräber, Die Französische Goldemailplastik Um 1400, ‘Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst’, v, N.F. 1954, pp. 29 ff., no. 3; Hugh Tait, Historiated Tudor Jewellery, ‘Antiquaries Journal’, XLII, 1962, p. 226 ff., a printed version of the paper read to the Society of Antiquaries in 1957; Peter Lasko, The Thorn Reliquary, ‘Apollo’, LXXVII, 1962, pp. 259-64, pl. III, figs 5-6; M. Meiss, ‘French Painting in the time of Jean de Berry, the late fourteenth century, and the patronage of the duke’, London and New York, 2 vols, 1967, p. 51, figs 571, 842; J. F. Hayward, Salomon Weininger, ‘The Connoisseur’, 187, 1974, pp. 170ff.; R. W. Lightbown, ‘Secular Goldsmiths' Work in Medieval France: A History’ (Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London, XXXVI, 1978, p. 66; Hugh Tait, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: The Legacy of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild to the British Museum’, London, 1981, pp. 19-23, col. pl. 11, figs 7-10; Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. 1., The Jewels', British Museum, London, 1986, no. 1, pls. I-Va, figs. 8-15; Renate Eikelmann,'Goldemail um 1400', in Reinhold Baumstark (ed.), 'Das Goldene Roessl : Ein Meisterwerk der Pariser Hofkunst um 1400', Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, 1995, p.118, fig. 58; Éva Kovács, L'âge D'or De L'Orfèvrerie Parisienne : Au Temps Des Princes De Valois, Editions Faton, Dijon, 2004, no.3; Elizabeth Taburet-Delahaye & François Avril, 'Paris 1400 : Les Arts Sous Charles VI', Fayard, 2008, p.166, fig.42; Christie's London, 'Works of Art from the Bute Collection, Wednesday 3rd July 1996, lot. 63; James Robinson, 'Masterpieces of Medieval Art', British Museum, London, 2008, p.87; John Cherry, 'The Holy Thorn Reliquary', British Museum, London, 2010; Bagnoli, Klein, Mann & Robinson, 'Treasures of Heaven : Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe', British Museum, London, 2010, pp.94-95; Neil MacGregor, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects', British Museum, London, 2010, no.66; Dora Thornton, 'A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest', British Museum, London, 2015, pp.74-87; P.Rainer, "Nothing to make me doubt its authenticity: Salomon Weininger's Forgeries", In The Waddesdon Bequest, a new look, eds. P.Shirley and D.Thornton, London 2017, pp.178-189.
Losses: (i) The Dove of the Holy Spirit: the third person of the Trinity should, in the iconography of this type of Last Judgement scene, be represented, and it would seem likely that the lozenge-shaped hole that no longer serves any purpose on the architectural corbel immediately below the half-length figure of God the Father (at the apex) was originally intended to secure the gold enamelled Dove of the Holy Ghost. In that position the Dove would have been seen mid-way between God the Father and Christ in Judgement in the customary fashion, probably with outstretched wings.
(ii) The original contents of the compartment behind the gold doors of St Michael and St Christopher (on the reverse): there is no record of what this compartment was intended to contain but it is suggested below that there may have been a holy relic, perhaps a fragment of the ‘Sudarium’. At present, when the doors are opened by withdrawing the gold pin, a round-headed modern glass 'window' set in a plain gold frame is revealed but behind it there is only a slightly stained and torn piece of vellum and a backing of modern white plaster that fills the entire area; only the two gold prongs (in the centre, at the top and bottom) remain as evidence of an earlier method of securing the contents of this compartment.
(iii) The central element of the gold crenellated fortress (at the base) on the reverse: the present condition of this area indicates that originally the two round-headed arches of the fortress would have continued to curve downwards towards the centre but the gold has been roughly shorn off. Similarly, the gold sheet forming a base to the little semicircular recess in the centre of the upper part of the crenellated wall has been crudely cut off, once again leaving a jagged edge. The small remaining part of the 'floor', or base, of that semicircular recess is pierced by a small round hole, which may be original though its purpose remains conjectural. This central architectural element in the crenellated fortress may have reached down to the ground and may therefore have corresponded with the portal on the front. Such a feature would have given an added stability to the Reliquary, but it is clear that, for whatever reason, this feature had already been roughly cut away and removed from the Reliquary before the 1860s when Weininger was making his copy. His substitute version in Vienna does not offer an explanation of these tantalisingly inconclusive remains; Weininger's solution was to ignore them and produce a simplified and tidy version.
Repairs: (i) The God the Father group: the half-length figure (at the apex) has suffered the loss of some white enamel on the face and, probably, the replacement or repair of the crown, the orb and the sceptre; the two adoring angels (immediately below God the Father) have also lost some white enamel and their wings have been replaced; the bottom left-hand pearl (on the circular 'glory') is a replacement in a later gold 'cradle' setting.
(ii) The Twelve Apostles: these half-length figures with their symbols were particularly vulnerable, and on the left side there is considerable evidence of damage and repair. For example, the figure of the third Apostle (from the top), St John the Divine, with chalice and serpent in his left hand, is in its original form but all the enamel is badly cracked and damaged. In contrast, the heads of the two Apostles immediately above the St John figure are apparently completely new; these modern replacements closely resemble those on the Weininger substitute version in Vienna. The emblem carried by the Apostle on the left, second from the top, also appears to be modern, and the Apostle immediately beneath St John the Divine holds a modern sword and his right-hand has been virtually lost. The hands of the Twelve Apostles are each made separately, enamelled in white, and then inserted into the gold sleeve of the arm; however, on one of the twelve figures (on the right side, the third Apostle from the top) the right hand was loose and while it was completely removed during conservation, the open end of the sleeve became more clearly visible; the hand has been reattached. Although the neck of that particular Apostle had been damaged, the head apparently was not replaced. The gold emblem carried by the penultimate Apostle on the left-hand side appears to be the remains of a St Andrew's cross, but one arm of the cross has been broken off whilst another arm is bent upwards. On the right side St Peter (at the top) is noticeably tilting to the right, and consequently his raised hand is now in St James's right eye (just below), whilst the last Apostle (at the bottom right) is damaged along the outer shoulder and arm, both of which have been carelessly repaired. Even the broad frame shows a few signs of repair: the two pearls (top left) have evidently been re-attached with gold patches applied to the curving surface of the frame, and some of the surrounding foliate elements seem to have been lost; the pearl near the bottom right (beneath St John the Baptist) appears to be a later replacement in a modern version of the gold 'cradle' setting.
(iii) The central scene of the Second Coming: although perfectly preserved because of the protective rock-crystal 'window', it should be noticed that the gold sheet forming the back of the recess has been pierced by two small round holes (between the kneeling St John the Baptist and the Cross in relief); furthermore, there is an irregular tear or gash in the gold background in the corresponding place on the other side of the Cross (above the right hand of the kneeling Virgin Mary). Because of the perfect condition of the figures surrounding the Christ in Judgement, it must be deduced that this damage was inflicted from the rear; indeed, it is significant that the backing of modern white plaster can now be seen through the two little holes and the tear in the gold. It may be assumed that the plaster was inserted to strengthen and support the recess when the relic in the compartment behind the doors (on the reverse) was removed, leaving these two tiny damaged areas on the background to the Second Coming scene more exposed.
(iv) The Resurrection of the Dead: the green mound has been damaged at the point where it narrows and becomes a 'stem' supporting the Heavenly scene above; the narrow area is partly hidden on the front below the inscribed scroll, but a study of the back and, even more so, an inspection of the interior reveal both considerable damage to the enamel on the exterior and the vital strengthening of the 'stem' by filling in the interior at the narrowest section. The four trumpeting half-length angels in the turrets are now held in place with a crudely attached rivet driven through the wall of each turret just below the crenellation; originally they were each attached to a short tubular fitting suspended out of sight within the turret itself - one still survives next to the main portal of the fortress. The enamel on these angels has survived in a remarkably good state, except at the wrists and on the shoulders where the trumpets and the wings have been detached and re-joined or straightened.
Further replica almost certainly acquired by John Patrick, 3rd Marquess of Bute (1847-1900) and sold as part of the sale of Works of Art from the Bute Collection by the Order of the Executors and The Trustees of the Residue Funds of the 6th Marquess of Bute, Christie's 3rd July 1996 (lot 63),
- Bibliographic references
Read 1902 / The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898 (67)
Dalton 1927 / The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild. (67)
Tait 1986 / Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; I The Jewels (1)
Cherry 2010 / The Holy Thorn Reliquary
MacGregor 2010 / A History of the World in 100 Objects (66)
Thornton 2015 / A Rothschild Renaissance, Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest (pp.74-87)
Bagnoli, Klein, Mann & Robinson 2011 / Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe (54)
Shirley and Thornton 2017 / A Rothschild Renaissance: A New Look at the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum (p.4, p.50, p.178-189, p.179, fig.260, p.188, fig.273, p.206, fig.299)
- On display (G2a/dc4)
- Exhibition history
2011 23 June-9 Oct, London, BM, 'Treasures of Heaven'
2010-2011, London, BM/BBC, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
- Very well preserved but with some losses and a few areas of damage, some of which were restored in Vienna between 1860 and 1872 in the workshop of Salomon Weininger (b.1822-d.1879). Originally the doors of the Reliquary were enamelled, which may explain why it was sent to Weininger for repair in 1860: his copy has enamelled doors. Missing area beneath the semicircular recess on the base . See Tait 1986 for full description of losses and interventions.
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Treasury of HRE Charles V (reigned 1519-55), then the Imperial Hapsburg Collection, as recorded in inventories of 1544 and 1677, and then regularly in inventories of the Schatzkammer from 1730 -1856. The two heraldic plaques on the front of the base are enamelled with the arms of Jean, Duc de Berry (1340-1416), patron and collector, though the object does not appear in his inventories of 1401, 1413 or 1416. An inventory of his collections, 1401-2 mentions a grand imperial crown set with four Holy Thorns which was broken up into components to be re-used; three of the Thorns were given by Jean Duc de Berry to his mortuary Chapel in Bourges, but the fourth was to be made into `uno magno jocali auri' which is probably this object.
The reliquary was lent from the Geistliche Shatzkammer in Vienna to an exhibition of Medieval and renaissance art in Vienna in 1860. After the exhibition it was sent for repair to Salomon Weininger, who made an inferior copy and sold on the original. The original may have been in Rothschild hands in Paris by 1866, and was acquired by Baron Anselm between 1872 and 1874, when the supplement to Shestag's 1872 catalogue was published including this object.
Doubts about the copy were first expressed in 1907 and again in 1923 and 1927, but only in 1959 were copy and original compared at the BM. The copy has enamelled doors on its reverse indicating that the original enamel doors were lost or removed between 1860 and 1898 when the original reliquary arrived at the BM.
This collection is known as the Waddesdon Bequest under the terms of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild’s will.
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number