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The St Eustace Head Reliquary

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    1850,1127.1

  • Title (object)

    • The St Eustace Head Reliquary
  • Description

    Head reliquary of St Eustace and wooden core; silver-gilt repoussé head with gem-set filigree circlet binding straight hair; nine gems composed of varieties of quartz (rock crystal, chalcedony, amethyst, carnelian), two of aragonite (pearl, mother of pearl), one of obsidian and six of glass. Supported by fully carved wooden core also in shape of head, top of which forms lid of hollow compartment for relics.
    Around the plinth are gold plaques in the form of the twelve apostles standing under an arcade of trefoil-headed arches.
    Contemporary wood case.

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  • Culture/period

  • Date

    • 1180 - 1200
  • Production place

  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 350 millimetres
    • Width: 166 millimetres
    • Depth: 184 millimetres
    • Weight: 1592 grammes
  • Curator's comments

    The existence of the inner wooden head was not discovered until 1956 when the silver case was being cleaned. The relic compartment was then opened, and a number of fragments of bone wrapped in cloth and identified by vellum `relic tituli' were found which had clearly not been disturbed hitherto. The relics were returned to Basle, but the vellum `tituli', cloth fragments and cotton wadding were retained by the Museum. Head reliquaries, also known as `chefs', were popular in the medieval period. One of the most famous examples is the Pope Alexander head reliquary from the Abbey of Stavelot in the Ardennes, which dates from the 1st half of the 12th century (Brussels Museum). For further details of the relics, see the object file. PSH 13.9.91.
    Burckhardt 1933 Vol II, No. 5
    L'Europe Gothique XII-XIV siècles 1968, cat.no.373.Blurton 1997
    From at least the ninth century onwards, containers for the relics of saints, of their attributes and of the sacred places of the Western Church, often assumed an idealized form of the relic within. For instance, the reliquary could be in the form of an arm, a foot, a nail or a domed building. Here, fragments of the skull of Saint Eustace, a Roman military saint, were housed in a 'head', which was intended to produce in the worshipper an image of the venerated saint. The wooden core was hollowed out and contained a number of relics, each wrapped in a fragment of textile and given an identifying ticket.
    Around the base, the twelve nimbed figures standing within arcading are presumably the twelve Apostles; a single matrix seems to have been employed for hammering out all twelve figures. This reliquary belonged to the Cathedral Treasury of Basel, in Switzerland, where it was first mentioned in 1477. It was sold with other elements of the Treasury in 1836, shortly after their acquisition by the Canton, and purchased by the British Museum in 1850.This reliquary was made for the cathedral
    treasury at Basel, Switzerland where it was
    thought to contain relics of the head of St
    Eustace. When it was opened, however, it
    contained the relics of various saints as well as
    nine unlabelled skull fragments. The reliquary has
    two parts: a wooden core that holds the relics,
    and a silver-gilt cover decorated with recycled
    Roman glass and gems. This use of Roman
    materials reveals the value placed on the
    classical past by medieval goldsmiths and their
    patrons.

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  • Bibliography

    • Joyner, Freestone & Robinson 2006 bibliographic details
    • Bagnoli, Klein, Mann & Robinson 2011 104 bibliographic details
    • Blurton 1997 205 bibliographic details
    • Dalton 1924 p. 39, pl. X bibliographic details
    • Robinson 2008 p. 74 bibliographic details
  • Location

    Not on display

  • Exhibition history

    Exhibited:
    2017 28 Jun-08 Oct, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
    2017 1 Mar-31 May, National Museum of China, Beijing, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects' 2015-2016 20 Sep-11 Jan, Kobe City Museum, Kobe, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
    2015 14 Jul–6 Sep, Kyushu National Museum, Dazaifu, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
    2015 18 Apr–28 Jun, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
    2014-2015 13 Dec-15 Mar, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
    2012 Mar-Jul, Abu Dhabi, Manarat Al Saadiyat, Treasures of the World’s Cultures 2011 23 June-9 Oct, London, BM, 'Treasures of Heaven' 2011 13 Feb-8 May, Baltimore, Walters Museum of Art, 'Treasures of Heaven' 2010 17 Oct-2011 6 Jan, Ohio, Cleveland Museum of Art, 'Treasures of Heaven' 2005 27 Oct-2006 31 Jan, Haengso Museum, Keimyung University, Daegu, Treasures of the World's Cultures 2005 25 Jul-8 Oct, Busan Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures 2005 11 Apr-10 Jul, Seoul Arts Centre, Treasures of the World's Cultures 2004 26 Jun-29 Aug, Niigata Bandaijima Art Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures 2004 10 Apr-13 Jun, Fukuoka Art Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures 2004 17 Jan-28 Mar, Kobe City Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures 2003 18 Oct-14 Dec, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures 2001 30 Nov-2002 24 Feb, Germany, Munich, Bavarian National Museum, Der Basler Münsterschatz 2001 13 Jul-21 Oct, Switzerland, Basel, Historisches Museum, Der Basler Münsterschatz 2001 26 Feb-27 May, USA, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Treasures of the Basel Cathedral 1998 9 Feb-3 May, India, Mumbai, Sir Caswasjee Jahangir Hall, The Enduring Image 1997 13 Oct-1998 5 Jan, India, New Delhi, National Museum, The Enduring Image

  • Subjects

  • Associated names

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date

    1850

  • Department

    Britain, Europe and Prehistory

  • Registration number

    1850,1127.1

Head reliquary of St Eustace; silver-gilt; silver; wood; gem-set; intaglios; silver repoussé head with jewelled circlet binding straight hair; rests on square plinth: sides ornamented with saints standing under arcade of trefoil-headed arches; head is supported by fully carved wooden core also in shape of head, top of which forms lid of hollow compartment for relics; contemporary wood case.

Head reliquary of St Eustace; silver-gilt; silver; wood; gem-set; intaglios; silver repoussé head with jewelled circlet binding straight hair; rests on square plinth: sides ornamented with saints standing under arcade of trefoil-headed arches; head is supported by fully carved wooden core also in shape of head, top of which forms lid of hollow compartment for relics; contemporary wood case.

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