Medieval Works in the Museums of the XMAC
Curator: Alberto Velasco Gonzàlez
The Middles Ages seem a long time ago to us. That’s why when we hear someone talking about the 13th century we feel a sense of vertigo, a kind of insecurity around the facts and the knowledge arising from the temporal distance. However, that’s not the only distance that determines our approach to the medieval centuries. How do we perceive the idea of physical distance in relation to the centuries of the Romanesque and Gothic styles? Can we really grasp what a long journey meant for the people of that time? Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we thought nothing of boarding a plane. Today, travelling to a far-off land is perhaps not as difficult as it was in the Middles Ages, but it still generates insecurity and uncertainty in us.
In the medieval centuries works of art also travelled accompanied by people. Their journeys involved the movement of objects, either because they were taken to be used during their sojourn far from home or —and this interests us more— because in their displacement from one place to another they became something rare and difficult to find in those distant markets. In this respect, faith and commerce were behind the arrival in the Catalan territories of many goods and artistic productions from such exotic places as Al-Andalus, Egypt, Persia or Byzantium, as well as from those nearer to home, such as Italy, France or the Southern Netherlands. Often, especially in the case of those arriving from the Orient or North Africa, objects that had no religious use in their places of origin became part of the sacred treasures of Catalan churches, often as relic holders. And that has an explanation, which we will attempt to provide with this exhibition.
Today, more than ever, the temporal distance of the centuries and a curiosity to learn how the long-distance journeys of people and objects were approached engender in us an attraction and, above all, a series of questions. This virtual exhibition will attempt to provide answers through different concepts and ideas. The intention is to speak about a series of works of art assembled in the museums that make up the Art Museums Network of Catalonia. They testify to the circulation of merchandise and objects in the Middles Ages and demonstrate that those movements brought about the arrival of a series of artistic productions, some of them quite exotic, that people found fascinating then and we still marvel at today.
FROM EAST TO WEST, VIA AL-ANDALUS
In a time of 5G, globalisation and Amazon, we need to ask ourselves why, at a 1500-year-old archaeological site in the Segrià region we find a set of objects of Mediterranean and oriental origin. Likewise, it could seem surprising to us that chess pieces made in Egypt or Persia would have been bought by an 11th-century knight and his wife and would end up as part of the treasure of the abbacy of Sant Pere d’Àger. They all have their own particular explanation, but there is something many have in common. It is that the relations between East and West have thrived since time immemorial and that this is reflected in the exchange of artistic objects and products. Catalan merchants have had consulates in Tunisia, Béjaïa (Algeria) and Alexandria since the 13th century. However, the movement was not just one way. For example, woven wool from Lleida reached beyond the farthest confines of Christianity and in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula (Egypt) there is a painting donated in 1387 by Bernat Maresa, a citizen of Barcelona and the Catalan consul in Damascus. Mediterranean relations and trade with Al-Andalus facilitated the arrival of textiles and other luxury items that fascinated the Christian elites, as well as more modest works, such as the Byzantine icons that were acquired by the oligarchs of towns and cities. In this respect, we know that in 1404 several vessels arrived in the port of Barcelona with numerous icons from Byzantium among their cargos, as well as chairs, chests, carpets and other objects.
The excavation of the basilica at the Visigothic archaeological site of El Bovalar yielded a series of liturgical objects among which was this magnificent bronze censer. It has three openings on the dome with the anagram of Christ from which the incense smoke rose. It has a clear connection to Mediterranean productions, as we can see in the censer from Rome preserved in the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen in Mannheim, although it was originally of Egyptian (Coptic) or Italian origin; or those found in Volubilis (Morocco) and Crikvine (Dalmatia, Croatia), the latter of which also bears a dove on its crown. Closer to home we can mention the censer from Lledó and another from Aubenya (Mallorca). Among other objects of foreign origin found in the El Bovalar excavations, also of particular note are a cross and a small liturgical jug of possible Coptic (Egyptian) origin. It has been deduced that they all reached this town in the Segrià region through trade with Italy, probably via the Balearic Islands, in the same way as the objects with similar uses that have been found at other archaeological sites in Catalonia.
The so-called “Treasure of Sant Pere de Roda”, was discovered in 1810. It consists of a small chest, a portable altar, a chrismarium, various lipsanothecas, relics, parchments, textiles and the encolpium, we are looking at here. This is a type of reliquary in the shape of the Latin cross that pilgrims wore around their necks for protection. It consisted of two articulated pieces and had a cavity in which a relic of the True Cross was normally placed. They were common in the eastern Mediterranean and were made in Egypt, Syria and, above all, the Holy Land, where they were purchased as a type of souvenir. How did the encolpium and the rest of the objects come to be part of the monastery’s treasure? It could have been through trade, a donation from a passing pilgrim or, more likely, brought back by monks from Sant Pere de Roda from a visit to the Frankish court or Rome. Documented among the members of the community are some of considerable importance and wealth, such as Hildesind (947-991), the monastery’s first abbot, who we know travelled to Laon (953) and Rome (974 and 979).
The owners of this chess set were Arnau Mir de Tost and Arsenda, the lord and lady of Àger in the mid-11th century. In their wills and asset inventories, the different chess sets they owned are listed among their possessions of lands and castles, evidence of the pride they took in possessing them. In the same documents we find other luxury items from the Orient and al-Andalus, including textiles. When Arnau and Arsenda died, this chess set became part of the treasure of the abbacy of Sant Pere d’Àger, that they had founded and protected, another indication of its worth. It was traditionally thought that these rock crystal chess pieces had been made in a Cairo workshop during the Fatimid period. However, Deborah Freeman has recently hypothesised that they were made in eastern Iran (Khorasan), Afghanistan or Basra (southern Iraq), the last of which was known as an important rock crystal carving centre. How did Arnau and Arsenda come to possess it? The most likely way is through trade with Al-Andalus.
In 1861, a bronze ewer in the form of a lion and a bronze mortar dating from the 12th century were found in the castle of Monzón de Campos (Palencia). Today the lion is in the Musée du Louvre, while the mortar is part of the Víctor Balaguer Library-Museum collection. The latter is one of the most exceptional known examples of its type and is considered the most emblematic of the series of Gothic mortars with ribs and ringed handles that take the form of animal heads. It is also decorated with arabesques, friezes, birds and epigraphic motifs that express wishes and blessings addressed to its owner. There is some discussion as to whether it came from Al-Andalus or was imported. In any case, it reached Catalonia quite late as it was incorporated into the Vilanova museum collection in 1911.
Small holy water vessel
This is one of those pieces in need of a careful study to accurately determine its origin and chronology. Nevertheless, the typology of vessel with a handle and, above all, the plaques with engraved decoration on the sides indicate an obvious Islamic manufacture. Its typology also leads us to believe that it would have been used in a ritual involving water. Similar objects were produced in Iran, Afghanistan and Egypt between the 10th and the 16th centuries. We do not know how it reached the Vic Episcopal Museum, but if it came from one of the churches in the diocese, it could have been reused as a small holy water vessel. Metalwork art in the Islamic societies achieved very high levels of quality and its artisans produced well-finished, luxury products that reached Christian hands via al-Andalus.
The shape, material and decoration of medallions and horizontal strips with geometric motifs allow us to conclude that this bowl is of Mamluk origin and was probably made in Egypt or Syria in the 14th or 15th century. It is not the only object of this type preserved in a Catalan museum, as there is a similar piece in the Lleida Diocesan and County Museum that came from the parish church of Benavent (Huesca). We have to question the reason for the arrival of objects of this type in churches in such late chronologies, even more so when they were no longer used as lipsanothecas in altar consecration ceremonies such as those of the 11th century. One explanation could be that they were valued as highly-prized, exotic objects that had probably been brought here through trade with Damascus, of which we have abundant evidence during the 14th and 15th centuries.
Virgin and Child
Catalan medieval documentation reveals intensive trading relations between the merchants of Catalonia and Byzantium, as well as other parts of what was known as Romania. These relations facilitated the importation of diverse objects and types of furniture produced in those lands. Of particular note were the Byzantine icons, that came via the ports of Constantinople, Crete, Chios and Asia Minor and through trade relations with Venice, Sicily and Genova. These icons were also painted in Venice and in eastern workshops imitating the Byzantine style. Unfortunately, and although the documents confirm that they were quite common in domestic settings, little evidence of them has survived in Catalan museums. Exceptions include this example from Solsona painted in a Cretan workshop and another preserved in the Vic Episcopal Museum. Some of these exotic images are still venerated in the sanctuaries or churches of origin, for example, in the monastery of Santa Maria de Valldonzella, in Barcelona or various churches in Valencia and Aragon. In appearance they were very different to the Virgins with Child painted by local masters and people were fascinated by their exoticism. We also know that they were very highly regarded among the faithful for the miraculous properties attributed to them as acheiropoieta or “icons made without human hands”.
EUROPE, A LARGE ART MARKET
In the medieval centuries certain artistic productions spread en masse across Europe thanks to the trading networks. Romanesque-period precious metal work in Catalonia was responsible for important local productions, but it was also when a large quantity of low-cost but very attractive objets d’art, such as the Limoges enamels. began to be imported. The Limoges region produced crosses, reliquaries, candelabra, pyxides, ciboria, censers, book covers and croziers. The arrival of these articles in Catalonia even led to imitations being made by local workshops. It was during the Gothic period that we see the triumph of certain artistic productions with designation of origin. English embroidery, els French ivory, Nottingham alabaster, Italian chests, Flemish altarpieces and brass and copper metalwork from towns such as Nuremberg or regions such as Namur flooded the European market. At that time Flanders excelled as a grand market, which is why one of the first Catalan consulates was opened in Bruges in 1330. Thus, the powerful trading networks woven between Flanders and the Crown of Aragon allowed objects such as the exceptional brass lamp preserved in the Solsona Diocesan and County Museum to reach Santa Fe de Valldeperes.
Ciborium from La Cerdanya
This must be one of the most striking objects from Limoges preserved in Catalonia. A ciborium is a eucharistic vessel used for holding Hosts or sacramental bread. This example is closely linked to a similar one in the Louvre Museum, the Master Alpais ciborium, that, unlike ours, still has its upper pommel and foot. In the British Museum there is a third example directly related to the other two. The La Cerdanya ciborium can be considered to have reached Catalonia among the first imports from Limoges. These objects would have initially arrived via the trade routes or perhaps through international contacts fostered by religious orders, especially the Benedictines and the Templars, or religious centres such as Sant Ruf d’Avinyó or Grandmont abbey, all of which were very influential in the Catalan-speaking lands.
Chasuble from the vestments of Saint Vincent
This chasuble belongs to a vestment set made up of different liturgical garments originally from Sant Vicenç de Roda d’Isàvena (Huesca), although from the 15th century it was kept and venerated in La Seu Vella in Lleida. The most interesting part of the chasuble is the scapular, the central embroidered strip bearing a delicate decoration of the Tree of Jesse. It is an acu pictae embroidery of the opus anglicanum, type typical of the workshops of London and its environs, of which only five examples are preserved in the whole of Spain. It is possible that it arrived in Roda de Isàvena via Avignon, the seat of the papal court, where these embroideries were particularly appreciated. All the pieces that make up the set were made with a main textile that the medieval documentation normally referred to as pannus tartaricus. These were fabrics manufactured in the Mongol empire that evidenced an Islamic influence and reached Europe —where they were highly prized— through Italian merchants. They have been found in the royal tombs of the monastery of Las Huelgas (Burgos), and the vestment set of Saint Valerius, also from Roda de Isàvena, has fabric of this type on the sleeves.
This type of Flemish collapsible lamp is mentioned in medieval Catalan and Mallorcan documentation as “salomons”, a term that designated a spider or a candelabra with various arms and no foot that was hung from the ceiling or an arm. Today they are known as “Arnolfini lamps” as one identical to that of Solsona is depicted in the famous painting The Arnolfini Wedding by Jan van Eyck (1434). Despite their spread across Europe, very few examples have been preserved. Exceptions are the two in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York [this one and this one]. In the church of Santa Maria dels Corporals de Daroca there is a very similar one, possibly donated by Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1488. We have to bear in mind that these lamps were mass produced and were not intended preferentially for churches, as they were particularly suitable for lighting private homes. The Mallorcan merchant Francesc Ballester (1505) had one in his house. Like the one in Solsona, it was crowned by a lion and had six arms. In contrast, churches had greater areas and higher ceilings and needed larger lights, such as the one designed by Peter Vischer the Elder in 1489 for the church of St. Lorenz in Nuremberg.
Italian chests (cofanetti) made with gesso pastiglia were one of the most successful productions for non-religious use during the 15th century. Along with mirrors and small writing boxes, they were common in the private areas of Italian homes during the Renaissance. The chests were used to keep prized possessions that were gifted at the time of an engagement or marriage, such as brooches, jewellery or precious stones. Externally they were decorated with non-religious themes —often related to Roman history— with a moral purpose that emphasised values such as honour, purity, rectitude, chastity and honesty. The scenes were created using moulded plaster in relief that was subsequently polychromed and gilded to emphasise their luxury appearance. The figures were normally left in white so that they stood out from the gilded background.
Christ of Sorrows with angels carrying the instruments of the Passion
Pathetic, painful images of Christ that showed the wounds he suffered during the Crucifixion gained great prestige in the second half of the 15th century due to the expansion of the devotio moderna, a spiritual trend that made the faithful experience the pain suffered by the Son of God during his martyrdom. The model represented here, with Christ emerging from the tomb, pressing the wound on his side and surrounded by angels with the Arma Christi, corresponds to a style developed by painters such as Giovanni Bellini and Antonello de Messina in Italy. In the Crown of Aragon, Bartolomé Bermejo painted similar images. Others were painted in Flanders at the time, as we can see in an example in the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ghent, from the circle of Robert Campin. The style of the painting in the Museum of Reus can be included in this pictorial context, given that it was probably painted by a Flemish artist. This is further corroborated by the fact that it was painted on oak.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, England developed an important alabaster carving industry that became one of the most interesting episodes in European medieval sculpture. The artisans specialising in carving alabaster worked in different parts of the country, but as most of the raw material came from rural mines around Nottingham, the majority of this production is known today as “Nottingham alabaster”. The English workshops produced sepulchres, free-standing figures and, above all, altarpieces that were exported all over the continent, especially to the Spanish kingdoms. Castile is one of the territories in which it has been possible to document a mass arrival, due to the intensive maritime trade between England and Galicia in the mid-15th century. The relief in the Cau Ferrat Museum was purchased on the antiquarian market (for the Santiago Rusiñol collection) and we do not know whether it was actually brought to the Iberian Peninsula in the medieval period. It depicts the scene of the Epiphany with a composition on different levels that was habitual in that type of production, as we can see from a relief in Avila cathedral. We know of more than a hundred English alabasters with this scene and it is common to find details such as Saint Joseph sleeping or a woman in labour, as we can see in some examples in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
The altarpiece-tabernacle from the monastery of Santa Clara de Calabazanos is an atypical work in Castile in terms of its structural typology. Although altarpieces-tabernacles had been known in Castile from the 13th century, the typology of the one we are analysing here is more in keeping with the Flemish models, together with the style of the sculpture that presides over it, which was probably carved in the Brabant area (Brussels or Antwerp). The Gothic centuries brought to the Spanish kingdoms numerous pictorial sculpted altarpieces from the Southern Netherlands, where there was a thriving network of workshops that exported their creations all over Europe. In Catalonia we know those of the monastery of Pedralbes or that of the Franciscan monastery in Figueres. Many of them arrived at the hands of private individuals with trading connections to Flanders or with a preference for northern art.
THE EMBELLISHMENT OF ALTARS AND HOMES
Images played an important role in both churches and homes. The religious experience was channelled through the altarpieces that presided over the church altars, as well as through the smaller devotional paintings and sculptures used by the faithful in the intimacy of their homes. To satisfy the requirement for works of art in those areas it was possible to turn to local artists, or imported productions that were able to contribute exotism, distinction and perhaps even greater emotionality to the practice of piety. Some of the works in this section speak to us of the vitality of the trade in works of art between the Crown of Aragon and northern Europe as early as the beginning of the 15th century. Others, in contrast, demonstrate it through the production and export of carved altarpieces that would become centralised in the Brabant area, with numerous examples documented in Spanish territory. Certain productions, such as the small sculptures from Mechelen, were specially designed for use in the home, although when they reached Spain, many became part of church or monastery altars. The same thing occurred with the small French ivories or the Flemish pieces made in terracotta, the arrival of which is well attested in Barcelona in the mercantile documentation and the inventories of private houses.
Our Lady and Angels with Candles
The arrival of sculptures like this one from a small chapel in the rural area of the Solsonès region proves that the 14th-century French ivory carvings were widely distributed across Europe. Ivory sculpture had a long tradition in western Europe, but it was not until the mid-13th century that the carving of elephant tusks was revitalised with the production of small sculptural groups and statuettes, diptychs, triptychs and polyptychs designed for worship in churches and private devotion in homes. Other items included chests, mirrors, combs, board games and other luxury items for personal use. Paris became the main production and export centre and it was there that the ivory arrived, thanks to the Mediterranean and Atlantic trade with Africa, via Gibraltar. In parallel, the major production of works continued in the Nordic countries, in places such as Trondheim (Norway), where they specialised in carving walrus tusks from Iceland and Greenland.
Virgin and Child
We find ourselves before a high-quality sculpture of the Virgin and Child, identified by the domestic tradition of the monastery of Sixena as “Our Lady of the Parlour”. Related to a central European model rarely seen on the Iberian Peninsula, it forms part of theSchöne Madonnen—Beautiful Virgins— typology executed in Bohemia and the southern Germanic area circa 1390-1425 following the canons of the international Gothic style. This chronology fits in well with the years of the governance of Count Peter II of Urgell, one of the most important patrons of art in medieval Catalonia and whose daughter, Isabel, was a nun at Sixena. The count rewarded the monastery with a magnificent gold pax decorated with precious stones made in Paris around 1400 (stolen a few years ago from the National Art Museum of Catalonia), a type of work that fits in very well with hisexquisite and sophisticated taste. It is for that reason he proposed that the carving should be taken to Sixena, also by his hand, as an offering to the monastery his daughter had entered.
Wise Men of the Epiphany
These sculptures belonged to an Epiphany group that formed part of one of the altarpieces in Jaca cathedral. The Jaca Diocesan Museum preserves other fragments of the same set, which is the highest quality example of the very few international Gothic Flemish altarpieces preserved in Spain. The cathedral was severely damaged by fire in 1395, meaning that the altarpiece would have been acquired shortly afterwards. The preserved remains are one of the first testimonials to the import of Flemish altarpieces on the Iberian Peninsula, together with a painted triptych from the monastery of Quejana (Alava), today in a private collection. It was not until the second half of the 15th century that the sculpture workshops of Antwerp, Brussels and Mechelen began the mass export of their works to the rest of the continent, so this early evidence of imports in Spain reveals that there was already a flourishing market around 1400.
Marys of a Crucifixion
The Master of the Altar of Rimini is an anonymous sculptor active in the Southern Netherlands and the north of France. The name derives from a sculptural group depicting the Crucifixion from the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Rimini, today preserved in the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt am Main and recently restored. This master was at the head of a large workshop that specialised in working alabaster, the material in which the Sitges relief was carved. It depicts Mary fainting at the Calvary and supported by two Marys. Identical characters with the sculptor’s characteristic treatment of the pleats and the faces can be seen in the aforementioned work in the German museum. In addition, the Muzeum Narodowe in Warsaw has a very similar group with the Marys. We do not know where Santiago Rusiñol, the artist who assembled the collection at Cau Ferrat in Sitges, acquired the sculptural fragment. In any case, a Piety venerated in the Sanctuary of Piety in Igualada confirms that the arrival in Catalonia of works from this northern workshop is documented from the 15th century.
In 1536, the Generalitat of Catalonia paid 180 pounds and 10 solidi at a public auction in Barcelona for this magnificent work in precious metal “for the Palau de la Generalitat on the occasion of the festival of Saint George”. The piece was kept for centuries in the chapel of the Palau de la Generalitat, dedicated to Saint George (Sant Jordi), the institution’s patron saint. The superb quality of its manufacture suggests it was imported, although experts were unable to agree on where it was made, in Italy or central Europe. Fortunately, a study of the marks in three different places on the piece has now confirmed that it was made in Paris during the first decades of the 15th century. Therefore, we know that when it was purchased in 1536 by the members of the Catalan parliament, it was already more than a century old and that it came from outside the country, Castile, as the seller was Juan Bravo of Saravia, a noble from Soria. From the technical point of view, of particular note is the perfection of the casting and the coupling of the different pieces of silver that make up the armour, as well as the combination with the gilding and the polychrome.
Virgin and Child
Old photographs show that until 1936 this Virgin and Child presided over the pediment of the façade of the Old Church of Sant Martí de Cerdanyola. The portal dates from the 17th century, from which we can deduce that when the new Baroque church was built, somebody moved it there, probably due to the reverence for the image among the local parishioners. We do not know how this sculpture came to Cerdanyola, but the fact that it is from the 15th century and is made of terracotta suggests a production that was frequent in the Netherlands, above all in the town of Utrecht, which specialised in making small moulded figures in that material, as well as in pipe clay (pijpaarde in Dutch), a type of white clay made up basically of kaolinite. Towns such as Antwerp, Mechelen, Den Bosch, Leiden and Liège also produced images of this type that were mainly for use in private homes. These also, once exported, could also end up in churches, as in this case or that of a Baby Jesus in pipe clay found in the chapel of Castell Formós in Balaguer.
Virgin and Child
The sculpture workshops in the town of Mechelen specialised in an almost industrial-scale production of a type of image that was very successful commercially due to its low cost and meticulous polychrome based on gilding, quilting and punchwork. They are known as “Mechelen Dolls” (Poupées Malinoises) because of their size (between 26 cm and 38 cm) and very peculiar, round, childlike, Chinese-looking faces with a characteristic stereotypical smile. They were especially appropriate for worship in the intimacy of the home, which explains why they were almost mass produced and were particularly successful among the clientele of the Spanish kingdoms. They often bear marques from the town of Mechelen on the back that were applied as a quality control measure. The most recent studies have confirmed that well differentiated carving and polychroming techniques were used. Various museums in the network preserve images of this type, for example the Vic Episcopal Museum, although the majority of them came from early collections and the antiques market.
Some of the secondary routes of the Way of St James passed through Catalonia and the territory of Girona, on els where the places visited by the pilgrims included the monastery of Sant Pere de Roda and Girona. The town had various hospitals (or hostels) that provided accommodation for travellers. One was Sant Llàtzer, in the Pedret quarter, which had a chapel dedicated to Sant Jaume containing this triptych. It is pending an in-depth study, but in the meantime we can state that on the main compartment it depicts a lamentation before the dead Christ with Saint Francis of Assisi, while on the wings we can see Saint Michael, a good advocate at the hour of death, and Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travellers and pilgrims. They were all very suitable saints for a painting in a pilgrims’ hostel. We know nothing about the artist who painted the triptych, a master from the Flemish circle of around 1500, nor do we know how it came to be in the hospital. It is, however, highly likely to have been one of the many small triptychs imported by Catalan merchants from Flanders and distributed through Barcelona.
RELICS AND ADAPTATIONS
Seen through 21st-century eyes, it could seem strange to us that inside a Christian altar consecrated in the 11th century there were relics wrapped in fabric from the Orient inside a receptacle from al-Andalus. How could it be that the mortal remains of saints —of Christian martyrs— were protected by items manufactured by non-believers? The answer is simple: the fascination of Christian society for objects of art produced by “the others”. This meant that many of the relic holders used in Catalonia in the Romanesque period, the so-called lipsanothecas, were of oriental or Andalusian origin. The Caliphate of Cordoba (929-1031) had a thriving market in luxury goods that favoured the arrival of, for example, cut-glass flasks made in Persia and designed to contain cosmetics. Despite such a prosaic original purpose, some of these pieces would end up being used to consecrate altars in Catalonia. A similar case would be the Hispano-Arabic textiles made with silk that were sometimes used to make liturgical garments or to protect the relics kept in lipsanothecas, as they were considered to be noble materials and worthy of protecting holy remains. In the Gothic centuries, chests lined with different materials, such as those of pewter from Cyprus, or those of bone from Italy made by the Embriachi family, went from containing prized objects from the profane world to hosting the mortal remains of saints in churches and cathedrals.
Until now it was though that this small bottle reused as a relic container had come from al-Andalus, specifically from Cordoba. However, its typology, manufacturing technique and especially the decorative motifs of discs with a central button suggest it was made in Iran in a production centre such as that of Nishapur. These discs, also known as “umbos”, became one of the most common motifs on Islamic glass with cut decoration in relief, although their precedents can be found in the Sassanid period. The small bottle from Sant Pere de Montgrony was made in the 9th or 10th century, but it was not until the 11th or 12th century that it would have been reused as a lipsanotheca in Catalonia, coinciding with the construction of the church and the consecration of its altars.
Glass molars flasks made by blowing the softened glass into a mould and decorating it with cut relief on the wheel are typical of 8th-10th century Persian productions. They were made in workshops in what is now Iran and many examples are preserved in museums of around the world, such as the Corning Museum of Glass (Nova York). They were also produced in Fustat (Egypt) around the same time. They reached Catalonia thanks to the trading networks with Al-Andalus, rather than from sackings and booty obtained in battles with Islamic forces. There are other examples preserved in this country, including one in the Museum of Lleida, made of rock crystal that came from the abbacy of Àger. In that case it was not used as a lipsanotheca, but as a chess piece.
This bowl was discovered in 1936 in a cavity in the church of Sant Vicenç de Besalú, after the destruction of the high altarpiece. This could mean that it had been reused as a relic container in the consecration of an altar in the 10th or 11th century. There are doubts about its origin, with a Persian, Maghribi or Cordoban provenance being suggested. More recently a Hispano-Arabic provenance has been put forward as the most plausible option. In support of this, some very similar examples have been found in the excavations at Madinat al-Zahra that could indicate a possible Cordoban origin for the Besalú piece. They speak to us of the refinement and luxury of the caliphal court that is materialised in objects of great technical delicacy that were much admired in feudal society. This admiration led them to be considered as worthy receptacles for relics in Christian churches.
Dalmatic from the “Tern” of Saint Valerius
The "Tern" of Saint Valerius is a set of liturgical garments venerated between the 13th and 15th centuries in the cathedral of Sant Vicenç de Roda d’Isàvena. In the 15th century it was moved to the See in Lleida, where it was kept until 1922, when it was sold. According to a document in the Roda de Isàvena archives, the prior of Roda and the bishop of Lleida attended the provincial council held in Tarragona in 1279. They brought back with them a set of liturgical garments that they dedicated to Saint Valerius, as the cathedral had held his relics since the 11th century, when they were recovered from infidel territory. Therefore, it is likely that the textiles were purchased in Tarragona, as merchants took advantage of those meetings to offer luxury objects and textiles to the ecclesiastical dignities. We should not be surprised that they used Hispano-Arabic fabrics (as well as others from diverse origins) to make the different garments that made up the tern (cape, chasuble and two dalmatics), as those silk and gold fabrics were particularly valued and admired by Christian society.
The island of Cyprus became a strategic enclave on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, the crusades and the route to the Orient. This made it an essential stop for travellers on one of these journeys. On the island they would have found a dynamic market where they could purchase opulent textiles or chests such as this, known as “Cyprus chests”. They had an unusual appearance due to the sheets of pewter (an alloy of lead and tin) that covered the wooden frame and often repeated the same motifs. We can find examples in Maastricht, Florence, Leipzig and Paris. In this last case, the Musée de Cluny has two detached plaques from a small chest of this type on which we can read “I am the small chest that came from Cyprus to be sold; blessed be all those who buy me”. In Spain we know of various examples in Castile, while in Catalonia we have the two from the Treasury of the Cathedral of Girona and the one found in 1921 in the tomb of the Mercedarian sant Pere Ermengol (1238-1304) in the church of La Guàrdia de Prats and now in the Tarragona Diocesan Museum. Pere Ermengol devoted the latter part of his life to liberating Christian captives from Granada, Murcia and Algiers.
From Late Antiquity, ampullae were small receptacles that pilgrims took away as a souvenir after having visited certain churches and chapels during a pilgrimage. They were often filled with oil from the lamps that were lit in front of particular reliquaries or saints’ tombs. The oil was considered to be impregnated with the virtus of the saint or martyr and to have protective and even curative powers. The pilgrim or traveller hung the ampulla around their neck and were then ready to continue their journey. They are objects closely linked to travels and pilgrimages and are often found far from their places of origin, as in this case. Lead ampullae in the shape of a small jug are common in France and Britain but are not often found in Catalan territory. A research group from Radboud University (Holland) is currently setting up the Kuneradatabase to compile the pilgrim ensigns and ampullae found in Europe.
The small chest from Sant Miquel de Fluvià was made by the Embriachi workshop in Italy circa 1400. The workshop was founded by Baldassarre Embriachi, an interesting character who, in addition to being a merchant and a banker, also produced luxury objects such as chests, mirrors and small triptychs, all executed in bone and wood with incrustations. This type of luxury product was highly appreciated by their owners, who often donated them to the Church to be reused as reliquaries for the mortal remains of saints. We document this reuse in Catalonia in various cases, including that of the small chest of Saint Severus from Barcelona Cathedral; that of Saint James from Riudoms, (stolen by Erik the Belgian in 1980); those documented but not known from the church of Vilanova de Meià that contained the relics of various saints; and finally one from the abbacy of Sant Pere d’Àger, that hosted the relics of Saint Sabina.
IMPORTED FOR LITURGY AND DEVOTIONThe first documental evidence of Limousin enamelwork in Catalan churches dates from the early 13th century. This craftwork from Limoges received an important boost as a result of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the support of Pope Innocent III (1298-1216), who would have seen it on a visit to that region. The visual brilliance of the enamels that decorated the pieces and their relatively low cost were two of the reasons for their success. The practices associated with the liturgy led to the arrival of other objects needed for the rituals and the embellishment of the altars, such as the bronze images of Christ manufactured in the Germanic area, which excelled in high quality metalwork. Also of note are the bowls or basins erroneously known as “Hanseatic”. Most of these have been found in Estonia, although the area in which they were distributed stretches from the Baltic to the lower Rhine and includes England, Poland and the North Sea coast. This democratisation of objects linked to the faith is also manifested in the French ivories that, although they were made with a precious material, were small and relatively cheap.
This Christ is from the church of Sant Miquel de Moror, in the Pyrenees that came under the canon of Santa Maria de Mur from where it became part of the museum collection. The stylistic links with the carvings produced in the Pyrenees around the same time in the Erill workshop, have at times led experts to consider a local manufacture. However, together with a second Christ from La Cerdanya, they are appliqué figures that oblige us to look beyond the Pyrenees towards the Germanic world. This is due to the similarities with the works created in an area in which these small productions in bronze reached very high levels of quality. We should remember that Mur was a religious centre directly linked to the Counts of Pallars, although we do not know if they had anything to do with the arrival of the Christ in Moror.
The presence on the Iberian Peninsula of these bowls or basins of Central European origin is highly exceptional. One hypothesis is that they were made in the Rhine and Meuse area, although the largest number of examples (more than two hundred) has been found in Estonia Owing to their high symbolic value, the few examples known in Spain were reused in ecclesiastical contexts, as in this case. The Jaca Diocesan Museum has two more from the monastery of San Juan de la Peña, where they had been reused, one on top of the other, as a relic lipsanotheca. In the European context they have occasionally been found in funerary areas or in archaeological contexts on riverbeds. The latter have led to hypotheses about possible purification rituals in which the bowls were thrown into the water as a votive offerings. They all present the same shape and incised decorations with religious and mythological themes of an allegorical and moralising nature, often accompanied by inscriptions. The most recent research suggests that they were often given a religious purpose, although they were also used for handwashing or eating in domestic settings.
Pyxides were eucharistic vessels with round bodies and conical lids used for holding consecrated hosts. The enamelled examples from Limoges appear to have been especially popular in Catalonia, together with the incense boats and censers. The one from Maçanet de Cabrenys stands out for its heraldic decoration, but above all because we know its provenance. It was found in 1964 in the church altar, meaning that it had probably been reused as a lipsanotheca during the act of consecration. In the late 12th century, the Catalan monarchs implemented a policy of expansion beyond the Pyrenees that would no doubt have benefitted the trade in Limoges enamel in Catalonia. The monarchs exercised political control over Occitania and their court followers who travelled through the Languedoc or Provence regions would have seen at first hand the Limoges ware, which they could have acquired for the Catalan monasteries and churches.
Altar cruets were small jugs used to carry the water or wine used in the holy mass. This partially preserved example was found in the late 19th century buried near the church of Sant Quintí d’en Bas. It is particularly interesting because it is a piece of Limoges work of a type that is unique in Catalonia and we know its provenance. It was probably one of an identical pair, of which the other one has not been preserved. It bears the typical vegetal decoration of the Limoges enamels together with two medallions with depictions of angels. A very similar example from the abbey of Saint-Denis de Paris is kept in the National Library of France. The wide distribution of Limoges enamel was no doubt due in part to its low cost, but also to the aesthetic effect and fascination the gilding and the bright colours of the enamels must have caused.
A Pax is a liturgical object that, from the 13th century, was given to the faithful to kiss during the Kiss of Peace rite in the mass. In this case it was an ivory plaque that was subsequently framed in silver. These plaques, which tended to be part of a diptych or a polyptych, began to be mass produced in Paris and distributed across Europe in the 13th century, reaching their peak in the following century. Their small size and fine materials contributed to their considerable success and to the fact that numerous examples have been preserved. This one came from the Castilian church of San Cebrián de Campos. Records show that in Catalonia there was also one in the treasury of Vic Cathedral; it was stolen in the early 20th century and can be found today in the Walters Arts Gallery of Baltimore.
Martyrology of Usuard
A martyrology is a catalogue of Catholic Church saints arranged in the calendar order of their feasts during the liturgical year. This codex, the Martyrology of Usuard, is an important manuscript with a complex history that was illuminated in the Prague area in the mid-15th century. However, it did not arrive in Catalonia until the 17th century at the hand of Pedro Antonio de Aragon, viceroy of Naples (1666-1671), who bequeathed his library to the monastery of Poblet. In 1835, with the exclaustration of the monastery, two monks took the codex to Girona, meaning that since it was written it has been in Bohemia, Hungary, Moravia, Rome, Naples, Madrid, Poblet and Girona. The text was written by Usuard, a monk from the monastery of Saint Germain-des-Prés (Paris) who lived in the 9th century and who was commissioned to work on the revision of the martyrology by King Charles the Bald. Usuard is considered to have been one of the most important writers of the Carolingian Renaissance.
This type of chest, of which numerous examples have been preserved around Europe, was popularised in France during the 15th and 16th centuries. Meticulously made in Gothic forged iron tracery, tradition tells us that such chests were used to transport and protect holy texts such as missals and books of hours or as a containers for valuable documents and prized objects that could be hidden in their secret compartments. In any case, the idea of movement and travel is always inherent in them due to the security they offered on being made of iron with rings on the sides to attach them to a saddle or a belt. Affixed to the interior of the lid there was often an engraved devotion (coffrets à estampes), This meant that once opened the chest could be used as a small portable altar with which to pray while on a journey or in the intimacy of a private home.