Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Capsula, Capsella, and Insular House-shaped Shrines

In this post I would like to introduce the topic of Insular house-shaped shrines. These small containers, often regarded as reliquaries, have long puzzled art historians and archaeologists alike. Indeed, house-shaped shrines are wonderful examples of the complexity of studying early medieval art, especially in the British Isles and Ireland, as many of the textual sources are fragmentary, as are many of the shrines themselves. In this post I will introduce the issues surround the study of these enigmatic artefacts by focusing on the Monymusk shrine and the works of David Caldwell, Erika von Erhadt-Siebold, and Neil O’Donoghue.
Side of the Monymusk Reliquary

One of the earliest ascribed functions of house-shaped shrines was that of a reliquary. The Monymusk shrine was attributed the status of the Breccbennach of St Columba by Joseph Anderson in 1880.[1] The Breccbennach, or ‘blessed shrine’ as Anderson understood the term, was a reliquary associated with St Columba and the Monastery of Arbroath.[2] The Breccbennach was reportedly carried into battle at Bannockburn in 1314.[3] In 2001, Caldwell questioned Anderson’s original interpretation on three fronts. Firstly, Caldwell noted that there are no surviving references to the shape or decoration of the Breccbennach and thus it cannot be known if the Monymusk shrine is indeed the vexilla referred to in the texts. Indeed, Isidore of Seville noted in his Etymologiae that the term vexillum was primarily a military term denoting a banner or ‘battle-sign, having its name drawn from the diminutive of ‘sail’ (velum), as if it were velxillum’.[4] Furthermore, the Latin hymn Vexilla regis prodeunt written by Venantius Fortunatus related the term vexilla to the Cross, ‘Vexilla Regis prodeunt/Fulget Crucis mysterium,/quo carne carnis conditor,/suspensus est patibulo’.[5] Secondly, Monymusk House, where the shrine was found, only dates to the sixteenth-century. Tied with this issue, the estate of Monymusk has changed ownership since the original hereditary keepers of the Breccbennach were granted the shrine.[6] Thirdly, the nearby Priory of Monymusk, a successor of a previous house, was founded in the twelfth century and offers a more local origin for the shrine separate from the tradition of St Columba.[7] When Duns referred to house-shaped shrines as reliquaries in the 1880s, he did so due to the Breccbennach status of the Monymusk shrine.[8]  
Inside the Monymusk Reliquary

Scholarship by both Conway and Blindheim continued linking house-shrines to reliquaries through Monymusk. While Blindheim was primarily concerned with establishing the Insular connections of the continental house-shrines, Conway sought to demonstrate the connection between Insular house-shaped shrines and continental purse-shaped reliquaries. However, both studies assumed that the Monymusk shrine was indeed a reliquary and used this as a cornerstone of their arguments.[9] As such, subsequent interpretations of house-shaped shrines as reliquaries, which are predicated on the reliquary status of the Monymusk shrine, must be called into question.

Further attempts to determine the function of house-shaped shrines through identifying textual references to their use in the Lives of the Irish Saints noted that the Irish term menistir could designate either a portable reliquary or Eucharistic vessel; however, the term lacked a detailed description of what a menistir may have looked like.[10] Additionally, Erika von Erhadt-Siebold’s work on the fifty-fifth riddle of Aldhelm’s (c. 639-709) Enigmata, demonstrated that the subject of the riddle, the chrismal, could be seen as a description of house-shrines,[11]

Alma domus veneror divino munere plena,
Valvas sed nullus reserat nee limina pandit,
Culmina ni fuerint aulis sublata quaternis,
Et licet exterius rutilent de corpore gemmae,
Aurea dum fulvis flavescit bulla metallis,
Sed tamen uberius ditantur viscera crassa
Intus, qua species flagrat pulcherrima Christi:
Candida sanctarum sic floret gloria rerum,
Nec trabis in templo, surgunt nee tecta columnis.[12]

Von Erhardt-Siebold dissected the Latin of Aldhelm’s riddle Chrismal sive Chrismarium, in particular the section which she believed described opening chrismals. Von Erhardt-Siebold went on to state, ‘aulae are simply the corners of the chest and quaternus stands for quarter…thus the roof (or roofs—since the lid is composed of two principle parts) is lifted from the four corners’.[13] Indeed, Aldhelm further describes the decoration of the shine as being made of precious materials, along with the lack of obvious openings. As such, Aldhelm is describing a container which glistens and opens from the top, just like the Monymusk shrine. Aldhelm’s description is potentially the only reference to what a house-shaped shrine may have looked like.
Side view of the shrine showing
the various components
of its construction.

While the chrismal was often used to carry the Eucharist, von Erhadt-Siebold noted that the terminology was highly fluid in the early medieval period indicating that a chrismal could be used to carry oil, the Eucharist, dust from a saint’s grave, or even acting as a relic in its own right.[14] Indeed, the title of the riddle, Chrismal sive Chrismarium, denotes a level of fluidity by referencing two possible terms. Therefore, possibly the most explicit reference to the form and decoration of a chrismal represents a complex network of co-meaning as the use of sive implies that Aldhelm knew the subject of his riddle would be known by multiple names and functions. Indeed, Bishop Heraldus of Tours mentioned the practice of carrying oil and the Eucharist in the chrismal, ‘Ut presbyteri chrisma, oleum, et Eucharistiam semper habeant, ut parati inveniantur’.[15]

Drawing on these Eucharistic connections, O’Donoghue critiqued the previously held interpretations of house-shaped shrines as reliquaries and instead argued that references to chrismal in early medieval texts noted containers commissioned exclusively for chrism and the Eucharist, not relics.[16] O’Donoghue cited the theological and practical importance of the Eucharist in The Pontifical of Egbert, Missale Francorum, and the Sacramentatium Gelasianum’s blessings of the chrismal during the Praefatio Crismalis.[17] O’Donogue highlighted the prayers’ emphasis on Christ as seen in his translated portion of the prayer from the Pontifical of Egbert, ‘Omnipotens Deus, trinitas insepa-/rabilis, minibus nostris opem tue/benedictionis infunde, ut, per nostram/benedictionem, hoc vasculum sanctificetur, et corporis Christi novum/sepulchrum Spiritus Sancti gratia perficiatur’.[18] While the text does refer to the body of Christ (corporis Christi), in his interpretation, O’Donoghue does not note the varying application of the term chrismal nor the use of the term capsula and capsella in nonliturgical sources. In Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, he describes how the missionary Germanus uses of a small bag or box, worn around his neck, to cure a girl’s blindness, ‘adherentem lateri suo capsulam cum sanctorum reliquiis collo auulsam manibus conprehendit, eamque in conspectus omnium puaella oculis adplicuit’.[19] The same term is used when the abbess Æthelhild begged Queen Osthryth for some of St Oswald’s relic soil, and thereupon wrapped it in cloth and secured it in a small box, ‘et accipiens inligatum panno condidit in capsella’.[20] These are the snipits we must ruminate over in order to uncover the possible functions of house-shaped shrines.

Through examining Aldhelm's riddle it becomes apparent that objects similar to the Monymusk shrine, ones which possess glistening metallic bosses and 'roofs' which open from the top, were related to the term chrismal at least by the tenth century. Unfortunately, the term chrismal is not altogether clear and many of the Insular house-shaped shrines were created possibly centuries earlier. While there is a Eucharistic connection inherent to the term chrismal, when examining nonliturgical sources house-shaped shrines functionality is again problematised as terms such as capsella and capsula are used to describe small caskets. What we can be sure of is that Insular house-shaped shrines possess similar constructional elements, namely the same means of opening, overall shape in their trapezoidal roofs, and finally in suspension straps which would have allowed them to be hung or worn, possibly around the neck as Bede reports. Sadly I do not have a simple conclusion for this post, as I am presently researching the material, construction, and the possible references to house-shaped shrines as part of my PhD at the University of Edinburgh. Perhaps in a year or two I may have a clearer idea of what these enigmatic caskets contained but for now it appears the Aldhelm's riddle will have to remain just that.


Figures 1 and 2- NMS

Figure 3 - Creative Commons, submitted by Nachosan to Wikipedia

[1] Anderson, Joseph. "Notice of an Ancient Celtic Reliquary Exhibited to the Society by Sir Archibald Grant, Bart., of Monymusk." Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 14 (1879-80): 431-35.
[2] ‘To determine that the Breccbennach must have been similar to the Cathach because they were both Celtic vexilla equally fails to convince. Anderson’s explanation of the meaning of the word Breccbennach—‘the blessed one’—is rejected by Gaelic scholars who, as noted above, prefer ‘the speckled, peaked one’. This later description might cover a shrine like the Monymusk Reliquary, but is not particular enough to exclude its application to other classes of objects, including flags.’ Caldwell, David. "The Monymusk Reliquary: The Breccbennach of St Columba?" Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 131 (2001): 278.
[3] Caldwell, David. "The Monymusk Reliquary: The Breccbennach of St Columba?" Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 131 (2001): 278.
[4] Isidore of Seville Book XVII, iii, 5. Isidore. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Trans. Stephen A. Barney. Cambridge: Cambridge UP: 361.
[5]The banner of the Kings comes forth/Now shines forth the Mystery of the Cross/Where the Creator of the Flesh, is flesh/who was hanged on the gallows’. Venantius Fortunatus. Analecta Hymnica Medii Aevi. Ed. Clemens Blume and Guido Dreves. Leipzig: O.R. Reisland, 1907 : 74;Edwards, Jennifer. "Their Cross to Bear: Controversy and the Relic of the True Cross in Poitiers." Essays in Medieval Studies 24 (2007): 69.
[6] Caldwell, David. "The Monymusk Reliquary: The Breccbennach of St Columba?" Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 131 (2001): 278.
[7] Stuart, John. Sculptured Stones of Scotland. Aberdeen: Bennett, 1867: 75-6;
[8] Duns, D. "Notice of an Ancient Celtic Reliquary Ornamented with Interlaced Work." Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 14 (1879-80): 286-7.
[9] Conway, William. "Portable Reliquaries of the Early Medieval Period." Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 31 (1918-9): 235-8; Blindheim, Martin. "A House-Shaped Irish-Scots Reliquary in Bologna, and Its Place Among the Other Reliquaries." Acta Achaeologica 55 (1984): 1-53.
[10] Plummer, Charles. Bethada Náem NÉrenn; Lives of Irish Saints. Oxford: Clarendon, 1922: 356.
[11] ‘I have learned to appreciate the riddle in all its details for I have found portable Celtic reliquaries made in the form of a house…and correspond exactly to Aldhelm’s description.’ Von Erhadt-Siebold, Erika. "Aldhelm’s Chrismal." Speculum 3 (1935): 278.
[12] Translation by Lapidge and Rosier, ‘I am venerated as a holy house, filled with a divine gift. But no-one unlocks my portals nor throws open my doors unless the roof is removed from my four chambers. And although there are gleaming jewels on the outside of my body and a golden boss glistens with its burnished metalwork, yet my teeming inwards are more richly endowed within, where the beauteous splendour of Christ shimmers: thus does the brilliant glory of these holy things bloom! in this church the (vaults of the) roof do not spring from beams or columns.’ Aldhelmus. Aldhelm: The Poetic Works. Trans. Michael Lapidge. Woodbridge: Brewer, 2009: 81; Ehwald, Rudolf, ed. Aldhelmi Opera. Berolini: Apvd Weidmannos, 1919: 122.
[13] Von Erhadt-Siebold, Erika. "Aldhelm’s Chrismal." Speculum 3 (1935): 278.
[14] Von Erhadt-Siebold cites the Vita S. Comgalli, Vita S. Aridii, Acta de S. Columba de Tyre da Glass, Vita Altera S. Aredii, and Vita S. Germani as examples for the myriad of functions displayed by chrismals and chrismariums. Von Erhadt-Siebold, Erika. "Aldhelm’s Chrismal." Speculum 3 (1935): 277; 94. Snoek, G. J. C. Medieval Piety from Relics to the Eucharist: A Process of Mutual Interaction. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995: 93-4; Cabrol, Fernand, and Henri Leclercq. Dictionnaire D'archéologie Chrétienne Et De Liturgie,. Vol. III. Paris: Letouzey Et Ané, 1913: 1478-81.
[15] ‘The priests shall always carry chrism oil and the Eucharist, so that they may be found ready’ Heraldus of Tours. Capitula Heradi, Archiepiscopi Turonensis. Ed. J. P. Minge. Vol. 121. Paris: Turnhout, 1852. Patrologia Latina. Web. 10 July 2013. <http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:pld&rft_dat=xri:pld:ft:all:Z300164216>.
[16] O'Donoghue, Neil. "Insular and House-Shaped Shrines in the Early Middle Ages." Insular & Anglo-Saxon Art and Thought in the Early Medieval Period. Ed. Colum Hourihane. Princeton: Index of Christian Art, Dept. of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University, 2011: 84-91.
[17] O'Donoghue, Neil. "Insular and House-Shaped Shrines in the Early Middle Ages." Insular & Anglo-Saxon Art and Thought in the Early Medieval Period. Ed. Colum Hourihane. Princeton: Index of Christian Art, Dept. of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University, 2011: 84-5.
[18] O'Donoghue, Neil. "Insular and House-Shaped Shrines in the Early Middle Ages." Insular & Anglo-Saxon Art and Thought in the Early Medieval Period. Ed. Colum Hourihane. Princeton: Index of Christian Art, Dept. of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University, 2011: 84-5.
Bede. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Trans. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969: 58.
[20] Bede. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Trans. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969: 248.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Some thoughts on the Shrine of San Vicente in Ávila

The Shrine of SS Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta
In the city of Ávila, also called City of Stones and Saints, in the South of Castile within the Basílica de San Vicente, a remarkable Romanesque shrine has survived that unfortunately has not received the attention of scholars it deserves. In today's post I will introduce the shrine and its saints and give an overlook of its imagery and meaning.

The shrine was probably built between 1180 and 1185 (with several later Gothic additions) for the Basilica San Vicente in Ávila.1 It houses the remains of Saint Vicente, also the patron saint of the church, and his sisters Sabina and Cristeta. According to legend, Vicente refused to partake in pagan rituals and was thus imprisoned in Talavera, his home town. While imprisoned, he is visited by his sisters who aided in his escape to Avila. The siblings were caught shortly after their escape and tortured by their captors until they were finally executed. This rendition of the legend was first recorded by Prudentius in his Peristephanon in the fourth century. By the time the shrine was built, however, the legend had been expanded to include an additional episode. After the saint's martyrdom, their bodies were guarded by a snake sent by God until they were discovered by a Jew. The snake attacked him and only released him once he called unto Christ. The Jew thus converted and built a basilica for the saints, so they could receive a proper burial there. As we shall see later, this additional episode became a significant feature in the visual programme of the shrine.
North side of the shrine
The shrine follows the design of a two-aisled basilica. The shrine's north and south side depict the legend of Saint Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta. On the east and west side, we can see a depiction of the Epiphany and the Theophany. The arcades on which the whole structure rests, is decorated with representations of the apostles as well as religious and secular figures. On the north side of the shrine the visual narration begins with Vicente's refusal to worship the pagan gods, followed to the right by his sisters’ visit and their escape. On the south side the story continues with their capture in Ávila, their torture on X-shaped crosses and their martyrdom by having their heads smashed by massive stone blocks. The next two scenes focus entirely on the Jew who found them; first by showing him, identifiable by his cap, beard and physiognomy, being attacked by the snake, then by building the shrine for the saints. In the second scene the change in his attire is of great significance as his shirt indicates that the scene occurs after he received his baptism.

The Jew builds the shrine for the saints
The Jew is attacked by the snake
It appears the shrine shows an ambiguous image of Jews within the legend. On the one hand we see the Jewish figure, corresponding to the legend, finding the bodies, converting and making sure that the saints receive the burial they deserve by building a shrine for them above which the basilica was built. The fact that this part of the legend constitutes large part of the imagery, as well as the resemblance of the depicted basilica to the Basilica de San Vicente creates an image of the church within the church.2 Additionally, the convert becomes an integral part not only of the story but of the history and identity of the Basilica and the city of Ávila
The martyrdom of the saints
However, there is a significant addition in the visualisation of the legend. In the scene of the martyrdom a figure has been added that is identifiable as Jew by its physiognomy. Simultaneously an additional Jewish figure seems to partake in the execution of the martyrs. It has been suggested that the Jew in this programme is turned 'from the happenstance observer of the Visigothic tale to a persecutor who nurtures as an active hostility to the young saints.'3 However, based on the different clothing it appears to me that these figures may in fact be two separate individuals. This would imply that the imagery of the shrine is not polemicising again Jews in the same generalising way as can be observed in other visual material. Though of course a polemic still remains, and the positive aspect of the Jew who finds the bodies is only possible due to his conversion. Nevertheless, the imagery seems to indicate an approach to the Other, that is not purely generalising, but explores notions of individual actions. However, such reading needs to be looked at in more detail, especially with regards to the specific socio-historical context in Ávila, which will be part of my further PhD studies.


1 See Goldschmidt, Werner. “El Sepulcro de San Vicente, En Avila.” Archivo Español de Arqueología 12 (1936): 161–170 for a full account of the dating.
2 See Camps, Daniel Rico. “A Shrine in Its Setting: San Vicente de Ávila.” In Decorations for the Holy Dead: Visual Embellishments on Tombs and Shrines of Saints, edited by Stephan Lamia and Elizabeth Valdez del Alamo, 57–76. Turnhout: Brepols, 2002 for a detailed analysis of the different layers in the relationships between shrine, imagery and church.
3 Patton, Pamela Anne. Art of Estrangement: Redefining Jews in Reconquest Spain. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012, 27-31.

Images: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Sepulcro_de_los_Santos_M%C3%A1rtires,_Basilica_of_San_Vicente,_%C3%81vila