Curatorial Essay

Throughout history, gold has been revered as a spiritual and powerful object. Whether it was used as a religious material or a form of wealth, the metal holds many meanings. In economic contexts, it holds high monetary wealth; in social contexts, it represents affluence and power; and in religious contexts, it connects to God and the divine.[1]

How has gold been represented in religious contexts in Medieval times? In Christianity, gold was used as a connection to the Holy Spirit in reliquaries. A reliquary is a vessel that holds a relic of a saint, which could be a bone, a piece of cloth, or something associated with a holy figure. The reliquary is typically venerated, meaning to honor an icon or relic with a ritual act of devotion, and some have pilgrims travel to pray to the saint for blessings. As relics are considered to be "more valuable than precious stones and more to be esteemed than gold," they were typically enshrined in precious materials and in elaborate cases.[2] Gold also represents divine light, and was especially used in early Christian churches, where gold leaf shimmered in candlelight in poorly lit buildings, creating stimulating visual experiences for largely illiterate congregations.[3]

Gold is also a connection to the angelic and the heavenly. Heaven was described as having streets of gold in the Book of Revelation, saying “And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold” (Revelation 21:21).[4] For this exhibit, a collection of reliquaries have been chosen with a common theme linking them: they are all gold Christian reliquaries.

Since relics were considered “more valuable than precious stones and more to be esteemed than gold,” it was only fitting to enshrine them in gold and gemstones.[5] The beauty of a reliquary was intended to reflect the spiritual value and importance of what it contained, and so reliquaries were made of the highest materials, often by extremely skilled goldsmiths, such as the Mosans from modern-day Belgium.[6] The material enhances the reliquary by exemplifying the value of the contents. Gold reliquaries connect the saint to the divine, as the material is malleable, luxurious, and expensive. The gold conveys heavenly martyrdom, and the reflective surface evokes a connection to the spiritual world. Using gold as a tool to hold a saint’s relics for worship and veneration shows their importance. Exceptional examples of this include Jean de Touyl’s Reliquary Shrine, the Holy Thorn Reliquary, the Stavelot Triptych, and the Reliquary of Sainte Foy.

The gold reliquaries, all made for devotion and with skill, highlight the importance of religious veneration. Comparing the four pieces can reveal much about medieval Christian worship, gold’s role in devotion, and how these specific reliquaries function as a collection of objects. In Western Europe, a form of personal devotion that emphasized the emotional involvement of the individual emerged by 1300.[7] Images of the Virgin and Child were extremely popular, as seen in Jean de Touyl’s Reliquary Shrine.[8] Imitating the space of a Gothic cathedral, the reliquary has two hinged doors that swing open to reveal an enthroned Virgin Mary and Christ surrounded by angels, acting reminiscent of bodyguards. Upon opening the shrine, viewers would see the Virgin is nursing an infant Christ, emphasizing the human aspects of the Virgin. Though the relics held in the shrine are unknown, it can be inferred that the relic would have had to do with Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary, as they are the subjects. The angels that surround the Virgin and Christ are holding small boxes that probably held the relics. It’s small size indicates that it was made for personal devotion. The Virgin’s unnaturally large hands are worth noting, as they direct the viewer’s attention to Christ, enthroned on his mother’s lap. The piece is reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral, with trefoil arches, gables decorated with crockets, which are ornaments in the shape of bent foliage, and pointed arches.[9] The representations of Mary, Christ, and the angels show the evolving portraiture form of the time, as the figures are less stylized as they were in Byzantine art.

Though many reliquaries were made in medieval times, some borrowed from the past, as seen in the Stavelot Triptych. Created by the Mosans between 1156 and 1158, the triptych was made and kept in Stavelot Abbey until 1792, when it taken of the Abbey’s last prince-abbott when he fled during the French Revolution.[10] This portable altar has two wings that open to reveal a centerpiece containing two smaller Byzantine triptychs. One of the smaller triptychs contains a piece of the True Cross, the cross that Christ was crucified on, discovered by Saint Helena, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine’s mother. The medallions on the wings tell the story of her discovery, as well as Constantine’s conversion to Christianity.[11] There is an inscription that reads ‘Behold the Cross of the Lord. Let adverse parties flee. He [Christ] conquered, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah of the root of David’.[12] This is a warning to viewers of the power of Christ and shows his importance and significance.

In addition to being a reliquary, the triptych shows the divergence of Eastern and Western Christianity. The stylistic differences are evident: the inner Byzantine triptychs are two-dimensional, showing hierarchical figures adoring the cross, made from cloisonné enamel, but the medallions are made from champlevé enamel, and are three-dimensional narratives telling the story of Helena’s discovery of the cross and Constantine’s conversion to Christianity.[13]The unconventional use of Byzantine pieces in the triptych connects it to the holiness and riches of the empire. Due to the small size and the fact that it was kept in Stavelot Abbey, it can be inferred that the piece was made for personal devotion.

Relics made for personal devotion are typically smaller, with the smallest of the four being the Holy Thorn Reliquary, standing just over seven inches tall. Of the pieces made for personal devotion, this is the only one where the recipient is known: the French Jean, Duke of Berry.[14] Made sometime before 1397, the reliquary holds a thorn from the crown of thorns Jesus Christ wore when he was crucified. There is an inscription, which reads 'This is a thorn from the crown of Our Lord Jesus Christ.'[15] The simple description tells the importance of the piece to the viewer - it is a thorn from a crown worn by Christ during his death. Though it is has Gothic influences, such as the pointed arches at the base, it cannot be classified as completely Gothic, as there is still Romanesque features. The small scale of some reliquaries allows for it to be worshipped by one person or a small group, which enhances the experience of the congregant.

Though worshipping solo can enhance the experience, reliquaries venerated by groups can have an overwhelming experience. On the road to Santiago de Compostela, an important pilgrimage site in Medieval Europe, the Abbey Church of Sainte Foy contained an important reliquary.  The Reliquary of Sainte Foy was typically worshipped by hordes of people at a time, as described by monk Bernard of Angers:

The crowd of people prostrating themselves on the ground was so dense it was impossible to kneel down…When they saw it for the first time, all in gold and sparkling with precious stones and looking like a human face, the majority of the peasants thought that the statue was really looking at them and answering their prayers with her eyes.[16]

Typically venerated by circulating the statue three times, pilgrims typically worshipped this statue by circulating three times in hopes of blessings on their journey.[17] Over time, pilgrims donated gemstones and cameos to be included in the statue. Though the creation date is unknown, Bernard first wrote of it in 1010.[18]

Sainte Foy was a twelve-year-old Roman girl who refused to renounce her faith and was thusly martyred at the end of the third century. Foy’s relics resided in Agen, France until 866, when a monastic community in Conques successfully stole the relics, which are said to cure the blind. Her skull resides in the head of the statue, which is made from the repurposing of a Roman bust. The use of spolia, or the repurposing of Roman artifacts, connects the statue to Rome, the seat of Christianity, and its riches.[19]

Though each reliquary was venerated differently, the use of gold and other precious materials highlight the significance of the relics. Each piece is gold, whether it is gilded, such as de Touyl’s Reliquary Shrine, the Stavelot Triptych, and the Reliquary of Sainte Foy, or if it is made of pure gold like the Holy Thorn Reliquary.

In de Touyl’s Reliquary Shrine, the importance of the object is evident in its decoration. The gilt used coveys the significance of the Virgin and Christ, and the angels’ importance is shown in their placement, as they share the same space as the Virgin and Christ. The evocation of stained glass highlights the skill used in making this piece, as it is not glass, but carefully painted cobalt blue, emerald green, amethyst, and topaz enamel.[20] Stained glass is reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral, and it was used in full-sized cathedrals to tell narratives in the windows that would be hit by sunlight, creating a mystical experience.[21] The gold that cloths the Virgin, Christ, and the angels show the gravity of their characters. A figure clothed in gold typically means they are very important, as gold is a symbol of the divine.  

The Stavelot Triptych creates a feeling of importance in the viewer’s role as well as it’s role as a reliquary. The inner piece has the two smaller triptychs held forward in high relief, making it look like it is being presented to the viewer. Each wing is lined with semi-precious stones, pearls, and beads.[22] The piece looks lush and even soft, showing the wealth of the unknown commissioner.

The Holy Thorn Reliquary’s commissioner is known and well-documented: Louis IX of France. Made for Jean, Duke of Berry and the brother of Charles V, it is one of a small number of major goldsmiths' works that survive from the royal courts. The wealth of Louis IX, and his status as king, allowed for this piece to have been made with the most extravagant of materials. Made of solid gold, the reliquary is dripping in precious gemstones including rubies, sapphires, and pearls. The purity of the metal represents the purity of the Virgin Mary and the sacrifice made by Christ for his people. The gold conveys the heavenly martyrdom of Christ, and sapphires represent God’s throne, which is said to be made of sapphires.[23]

Gemstones are a primary part of the Reliquary of Sainte Foy, as pilgrims donated them so her dress is covered in with agates, amethysts, crystals, carnelians, emeralds, garnets, hematite, jade, onyx, opals, pearls, rubies, sapphires, topazes, and antique cameos.[24] The statue is luxurious, with the gold and gemstones that sparkle in the light. Sainte Foy is sitting, with her arms outstretched, staring forward at the viewer, and her blank stare reflects the spiritual transcendence from life on Earth. The gold was thought to have been overwhelming, with Bernard writing “Brother, what do you think of this idol? Would Jupiter or Mars consider himself unworthy of such a statue?”[25] He was frightened of the statue’s beauty, thinking it would be a source of idolatry. The fear was not unreasonable, as pilgrims would come to ask for the saint’s blessings and could be overwhelmed by the spectacular gold and begin to worship the statue rather than the saint.

Gold has been used for religious purposes since the beginning of religion, but the best examples of it can be found in medieval Europe. de Touyl’s Reliquary Shrine, the Stavelot Triptych, and the Reliquary of Sainte Foy, and the Holy Thorn Reliquary are some of the most exquisite examples of this, as they are each reliquaries made of gold for the purpose of being venerated. Gold connects the reliquaries, which are containers for relics of items connected to a holy figure, to the divine. The material is a symbol of wealth, indicating the importance of both the piece and the commissioner and maker. It is representative of Heaven, and will continue to be used as such for years to come, as it has been used for centuries behind.

[1] Behr, Charlotte. "The Symbolic Nature of Gold in Magical and Religious Contexts." The Portable Antiquities Scheme. Accessed April 16, 2018.

[2] Boehm, Barbara Drake. "Relics and Reliquaries in Medieval Christianity | Essay | Heilbrunn

Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art." The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Accessed April 06, 2018.

[3] Mann, Jon. "A Brief History of Gold in Art, from Ancient Egyptian Masks to Jeff Koons." Artsy. October 19, 2017. Accessed April 15, 2018.

[4] Revelation (also Apocalypse). In The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments: New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010. Revelation 21:21.

[5] Boehm. "Relics and Reliquaries in Medieval Christianity."

[6] "Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relic and Devotion in Medieval Europe." British Museum. Accessed April 15, 2018.

[7] Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. "Private Devotion in Medieval Christianity." October 2001. Accessed April 15, 2018.

[8]  Freeman, Margaret B. "A Shrine for a Queen." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin.


[9] Hornik, Heidi J. "A Queen's Gift." Christian Reflection. 2010.

[10] COSAIR Online Collection Catalog. "The Stavelot Triptych." The Morgan Library & Museum

COSAIR Online Collection Catalog. Accessed March 31, 2018.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Voelkle, William M. "Stavelot Triptych." Grove Art. October 04, 2017. Accessed April 04, 2018.

[13] Stokstad, Marilyn. Medieval Art. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004.

[14] "The Holy Thorn Reliquary." British Museum. Accessed March 31, 2018.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Freeman, Charles. Holy Bones, Holy Dust : How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe. London: Yale University Press, 2011. Accessed April 3, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.

[17] Ibid.

[18]  Foster, Elisa. "Church and Reliquary of Sainte‐Foy, France." Khan Academy. Accessed April 16, 2018.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Freeman, Margaret B. “A Shrine for a Queen.”

[21] “Stained Glass: History and Technique.” Khan Academy.

[22] COSAIR. "The Stavelot Triptych."

[23] Exodus. In The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments: New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010. Exodus 24:10.

[24] Foster. "Church and Reliquary of Sainte‐Foy, France."

[25] Sheingorn, Pamela, and Robert L. A. Clark. The Book of Sainte Foy. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

Curatorial Essay