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. 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. Yet, I wonder if the multivalent image of the crown can offer such a straightforward answer. The use of votive crowns appears to be a widespread tradition stretching from Visigoth Spain to Byzantium, steaming from previous Roman traditional offerings. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. These issues of authority will be touched upon further in an effort to understand the votive crowns of Visigothic kings.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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