Monday 22 April 2013

Golden Crowns: Votive Offerings in Visigoth Spain

While researching the early medieval reliquaries of the Kingdom of Asturias and Visigothic Spain for my doctoral research, I happened upon the collection of votive crowns from the treasure of Guarrazar. The the academic debate centring on these Visigothic votive crowns concerns issues of power, submission, and piety.[1] In attempting to explain the phenomenon of Visigothic votive crowns, José Gómez places these artefacts within Visigothic liturgy and the long tradition of votive offerings in the form of crowns.  Gómez goes on to argue that these votive crowns do not represent the submission of noble power per se, but are rather religious markers of noble piety.[2] Yet, I wonder if the multivalent image of the crown can offer such a straightforward answer.[3] The use of votive crowns appears to be a widespread tradition stretching from Visigoth Spain to Byzantium, steaming from previous Roman traditional offerings.[4] Yet, are these sumptuous artefacts representing piety, power, or perhaps their donors? By briefly looking at the votive crown of Recceswinth I, I wish to explore the complexities of reading these artefacts. Following this, I wish to propose another perspective to our understanding of these votive offerings, namely that the crowns could be understood as representing their donors themselves rather than their piety or power.

The treasure of Guarranzar was discovered in Spain in 1858 after rainwater removed a slab, which originally sealed the hoard in a tomb. The treasure comprised a large group of crowns and crosses, though unfortunately for current scholars, many of the crowns were melted down or sold after the treasure’s initial discovery. The surviving material consists of ten crowns, nine crosses, sixteen pendants, and various chains and fragments.[5] There is no record of why the treasure was hidden away, though the defeat of Roderick in Guadalete in 711 and the rise of Islam on the Iberian Peninsula do offer powerful incentives.[6] Not wishing to write a history of the Visigoths, which would require its own blog post, I shall jump to Visigothic Hispania in the seventh century. The conversion of Reccared I from Arian Christianity, which for centuries acted as a cultural marker for the Visigoths, to Catholicism acts as a convenient delineation, however artificial.[7] After the Third Council of Toledo in 589, Reccared I both denounced Arianism and adopted the name Flavius, continuing the Visigothic translation of Roman imperial customs into their elite culture.[8] Moving to the reigns of Chindasuinth (642-653) and Recceswinth I (649-672), both kings oversaw the formulation of the Liber Iudiciorum, which abolished the previous tradition of different law codes for the Romans and the Visigoths, thus creating a unified people, the hispani, at least by legal definition. The Liber Iudiciorum united Cannon Law, Roman Law, and some Gothic elements into one code, which would be embellished by later kings.[9] The balance between secular authority and religious power can be seen throughout the law codes, in particular with the ability of the bishop to question the local magistrate on behalf of anyone who felt that their case was handled unjustly.[10] These issues of authority will be touched upon further in an effort to understand the votive crowns of Visigothic kings.

Palo Casket
The votive crown of Recceswinth I is a piece of Visigothic metalwork which incorporates spoila gemstones from as early as the second century.[11] The small crowns is suspended from chains while golden letters hang from the crown, reading ‘[R]RECCESVINTUS REX OFFERET’, emphatically proclaiming the donation of the crown by Recceswinth I. The crowns were either placed upon or hung over the altar, as noted in the Liber Pontificalis and further referenced in the Palo Casket.[12] While crowns are contemporarily understood as symbols of royal power, it is important to avoid anachronisms. The use of crowns by the Visigoths as insignia was not explicit until Liuviglid’s reign in 568-586, when Liuviglid translated Byzantine and Roman imperial traditions into Visigothic court ceremony.[13] Yet despite the presences of diadems as royal insignia, the use of the terms corona and diadema were understood to mean strikingly different things. In regards to both the Lex Vsigothorum and the Councils of Toledo, the use of the term corona denoted ‘heavenly rewards’ while diadema stood for ‘earthly glory’, despite the physical similarities of both items.[14] As such, Visigothic votive crowns cannot be seen as purely submissions of royal authority to the Church, a very tempting interpretation after the conversion of many to Catholicism, as the diadema was understood to be conceptually separate from the corona.[15]
Rather than simply representing the submission of the elite to the Church, these votive crowns appear as multivalenced artefacts. Gómez’s interpretation of the crowns describes them as sumptuous offering that denoted heavenly, not earthly, power and glory. However, it cannot be stressed enough that the Visigothic kings actively sought to incorporate Byzantine and Roman rituals of office into their court. These small crowns would have been suspended above altars as votive offerings by Visigothic elite. In the case of the crown of Recceswinth I, the king’s name adorns the crown proclaiming in Latin, presumably above the altar, the donation of the king. One might begin to question the audience of these artefacts. While diadema and corona are clearly delineated in other sources, within the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, the use of corona is used both to describe the kingly and earthly crown and that of the heavens and the martyrs.[16] Additionally, when considering the incorporation of Byzantine practices into Visigothic ceremony, it is important to note that the Byzantine emperors aligned themselves with the political power of the Church, in many ways conflating the political power of the emperor with the spiritual power of Christ.[17] I believe it to be impossible to separate the political and spiritual elements of these votive offering, as I believe it is slightly anachronistic to separate the role of spiritual and secular politics as the two were in many cases intertwined. 

Votive Crown of Recceswinth I

As such, how can the votive offering of Recceswinth I represent its donors? First one must acknowledge that the Visigoths were attempting to construct explicit ritual and visual culture through the translation of Roman and Byzantine practices into their own, thus creating a hybrid culture. Second, while not all the crowns display the names of their donors, the crown of Recceswinth I separates itself from the other votive crowns through the use of Latin. Third the audience of these crowns was limited. Few would have access to the altar and they would need to understand enough Latin to read the crown’s bejewelled letters. Indeed, the interpretation of these votive crowns as pious offerings or as symbols of submission of their donors to the Church begins to pale when considering the question of audience. These votive crowns appear to be aligning their donors with the power of the Church, much in the same way as the inauguration of Byzantine emperors sought to transform the image of the emperor into that of the imago Christi.[18]  A similar practice of highlighting a donor's connection to the Church, both politically and spiritually, can be seen with the inclusion of Pope Pascal in the apse mosaic of Santa Prassede. While not figural, the votive crown of Recceswinth I could be seen as an attempt by the Visigothic king to align himself with the powers of the Church. I hesitate using the word appropriate, for I see this symbolic gesture as a dance of sorts, with Recceswinth I carefully constructing a visual language of piety and power. While not being bodily present in the church, the king’s name is placed near the altar utilising a symbolic language which intertwined the heavenly and the earthy. While this theory remains rather speculative, I think it important to remember every artefact, object, or piece of art served a specific and often times performative function. 


[1] López, Gisela. 1999. ‘Symbolic Life and Signs of Identity in Visigothic Times’, The Visigoths From the Migration Period to the Seventh Century: An Ethnographic Perspective (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge): 424-6
[2] Gómez, José. 2004. ‘Las Coronas de Donacíon Regia del Tesoro de Guarrazar: La Religiosidad en la Monarqúia Visigoda el uso de Modelos Bizantinos’, Sacralidad Arqueología, 21: 466
[3] Valdez Del Almo, Elizabeth. 1990. ‘Triumphal Visions and Monastic Devotion: The Annunciation Relief of Santo Domingo de Silos’, Gesta, 29: 171
[4] Arce, Javier. 2001. ‘El Conjunto Votivo de Gurrazar: Función y Significado’, El Tesoro Visigodo de Guarrazar (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid): 354
[5] Guerra, M. F. and Calligaro, T. 2007. ‘The Treasure of Guarrazar: Tracing the Gold Supplies in the Visigothic Iberian Peninsula’, Archaeometry, 49: 54
[6] López, Gisela. 1999. 424-6.
[7] Díaz, Pablo. 1999. ‘Visigothic Political Institutions’, The Visigoths From the Migration Period to the Seventh Century: An Ethnographic Perspective, (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge): 337
[8] Díaz, Pablo and Valverde, Ma.R. 2000. ‘The Theoretical Strength and Practical Weakness of the Visigothic Monarchy of Toledo’: Rituals of Power: From Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, (Brill, Leiden): 64
[9] Collins, Roger. 2004. Visigothic Spain: 409-711 (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford):  226
[10] Ferguson, Craig. 2012. A Comparative Approach to Ethnic Identity and urban Settlement: Visigothic Spain, Lombard Italy and Merovingian Francia, c. 565-774 AD [unpublished PhD May 15th 2012]: 106-7
[11] Guerra, M. F. and Calligaro, T. 2007.
[12] Gómez, José. 2004. 468-9.
[13] Díaz, Pablo and Valverde, Ma.R. 2000. 76.
[14] Díaz, Pablo and Valverde, Ma.R. 2000. 65-66.
[15] Gómez, José. 2004. 471-2.
[16] Barney, Stephen A., et al. 2006. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge): 390
[17] Cameron, Averil. 1979. ‘Images of Authority: Elites and Icons in Late Sixth-Century Byzantium’, Past and Present, 84: 12
[18] Ibid.

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