28 February 2011

Precious vessels

The British Museum's excellent collaboration with Radio 4, A History of the World in 100 Objects, is a good example of a successful multi-media project that achieves interesting and informative results. The 100 fifteen-minute lectures, broadcast on Radio 4 and podcasted on the BBC iPlayer, allow museum visitors to learn more about key exhibits. And if you're like me, they also encourage visits to particular collections to seek out items that might have otherwise been missed in previous visits.

Two such items were the focus of a museum visit with friends a few months ago, concentrating on the European collections. Both are luxury items in their own right, but aside from their decorative finery, the prime purpose for which they were designed was as containers of precious substances or objects. Item 40, the Hoxne pepper pot, was from Britain in the 4th century AD, while item 66, the Holy Thorn Reliquary, was made in Paris around the first decade of the 15th century. Each is a prime example of the consuming passions of the age in which they were made.

Spice up your life

The charming 10 centimetre high silver pepper pot in the shape of a wealthy Roman lady was discovered in 1992 in Suffolk, as part of the Hoxne hoard, a massive treasure trove of Roman gold and silver. The pepper pot shows an impressive quality of design in its construction. The likeness of the woman is well formed, with her hand firmly grasping a scroll and her hair deftly portrayed in detailed curls. The deftly-made lid on the underside has three settings: one shut, one to permit pepper to emerge, and a third to allow the container to be filled. The care and attention to detail of the pepper pot shows both the importance of the valuable spice in Roman Britain and the wealth of the person who had it made. Spice was a lifeblood of empire: it was traded from faraway India, transported to and consumed in all Roman lands, and it was a core element of many opulent dishes in the Roman diet.     

When the pepper pot was buried in Hoxne (pronounced 'Hoxon') the early part of the 5th century AD, Roman rule in Britain was crumbling - the failing economy was shifting from currency-based transactions to barter: Wikipedia notes that 'by 407 there were no new Roman coins going into circulation, and by 430 it is likely that coinage as a medium of exchange had been abandoned'. 

Around this time there was a power vacuum in Britain that made it difficult to hold onto personal wealth on the scale of the Hoxne hoard. In 402 AD the VI Victrix Legion, one of the two Roman legions defending Roman Britain, was withdrawn to Italy to fight the Visigoths. The other legion, II Augusta, followed to Gaul five years later, and the lack of protection was soon capitalised on by loot-hungry raiders. In 408 Britain was ravaged by Picts, Scots and Saxon raiders.  

At some point in the 5th century someone buried the pepper pot and the rest of their great collection of silverware, hoping at some point to return to retrieve it from its secret burial site. But they never returned, and the secret of its hiding place preserved the treasure for nearly 16 centuries.

Every rose has its thorn

In historian Kenneth Clark's seminal survey of European culture, the 1969 television series Civilisation, one object lovingly scrutinised from every angle and held up as an exemplar of high medieval art is the Holy Thorn Reliquary.  This 14th century French work is a riot of gold, silver, rubies, pearls and sapphires, and at its heart is the rock crystal chamber containing what was believed to be amongst the holiest of relics of medieval Christianity: a thorn from the Holy Crown worn by Christ at the crucifixion at Golgotha. The thorn itself was from the crown bought by France's King Louis IX from the Byzantine Emperor Baldwin II in Constantinople in 1239, and was said to have resided there since the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in the 7th century. The crown along with a supposed fragment of the True Cross cost the King the enormous economy-depleting sum of 135,000 livres, which is more than triple the cost of the lavish Sainte-Chapelle built in Paris to house the relics. The crown itself, genuine or not, is now denuded of thorns, and resides in a 19th century reliquary in Notre Dame in Paris.

Probably made for Jean, Duc de Berry, around the late 14th or early 15th century, the Holy Thorn Reliquary houses a thorn plucked from the Holy Crown in the most sumptuous vessel imaginable. In addition to its bank-breaking collection of precious metals and jewels, the reliquary also boasts a host of finely detailed enamel figures, including the centrepiece behind transparent rock crystal: Christ himself, flanked by John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, with the thorn sprouting in front of him from a polished sapphire sphere. Below this, the reliquary tells its own story in a Latin inscription: Ista est una spinea corone / Domine nostri ihesu cristi ('This is a thorn from the crown / Of Our Lord Jesus Christ'). The British Museum's director, Neil MacGregor, describes the reliquary's religious purpose as 'a sermon in gold and jewels, an aid to intense contemplation, and the source of the deepest comfort'.   

The reliquary is a extravagant symbol of piety in an age in which the wealthiest rulers spent vast sums on religious artworks. The Duc de Berry was the brother of the King of France, and so occupied an exalted position amongst the French nobility, but both of his sons had predeceased him, so he was particularly mindful of his place in history and he was perhaps also freed of the desire to retain his wealth to pass on to his heirs. Kenneth Clark believed that de Berry 'was peculiar because the arts were his whole life', and noted that his cruelly-taxed subjects might have welcomed a more modest container for the thorn. The magnificence of the reliquary is a grander example of high-status art than the Hoxne pepper pot, but it reflects the same intent: to display the status of the owner and their personal taste in extravagant housing for their precious possessions.

For more information about the Hoxne pepper pot and the Holy Thorn Reliquary, listen to the 15-minute Radio 4 documentaries on each object, linked in paragraph 2 above.

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