Reliquary Chasse Depicting the Martyrdom of Thomas Becket, ca. 1210
Copper alloy (gilt) and champlevé enamel over wood core
7 1/8 x 8 1/4 x 3 1/4 in. (18.1 x 21.1 x 8.3 cm)
Gift of Baroness René de Kerchove, 1952
The martyred English archbishop Thomas Becket was especially venerated in England and France during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, creating a demand for relics and artifacts associated with him. Produced in the renowned enamel workshops of Limoges in southwest France, this reliquary, or chasse, is one of a series of elaborate and vibrantly colored
reliquaries decorated with scenes of Becket's assassination, burial, and other stylized motifs.
The outspoken English archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170, by four knights in the household of King Henry II.1 Miracles attributed to him occurred almost immediately, and in little more than two years Thomas was canonized, on 21 February 1173. The martyr's fame and veneration quickly spread throughout England and France--areas then united under Plantagenet rule--and his death became an especially popular subject for Limoges enamels.
There are about fifty extant Limoges chasses that illustrate the murder of Thomas Becket; most can be dated between 1195 and 1220.2 Probably all of these chests once held relics of the saint. The earliest chasses were produced almost immediately after Becket's death and canonization; a second group of reliquaries was probably made in response to the exhumation and translation of the saint's body in 1220.3 The earlier pieces exhibit pronounced Romanesque stylistic elements, such as slim, agile figures in animated narratives, and a linear stylization of forms. In later examples, these tendencies are coupled with a simplified Gothic influence, showing figures with supple draperies and full rounded faces. The Oberlin chasse was probably made about 1210, and shares many features with other pieces from this later group.
Most of the chasses follow the same basic format as the Oberlin example, with slight variations in design and iconography.4 The murder of the saint at the altar is represented on the principle face, and his entombment (or ascension) on the roof. The gabled side plaques depict apostles or saints, and the back and roof plaques are patterned with simple decorative motifs. The uniformity of motifs (both individually and in combination) has suggested that the chasses may have been inspired by a common model, possibly English.5 Many chasses culminate in a crest at the roof peak, often ornamented with rock crystal or enameled medallions.
The Oberlin chasse depicts Thomas Becket turning from the altar to confront his two assailants: one delivers a fatal sword blow, the other is armed with sword sheath and axe. On the altar are a chalice and a candlestick. In the roof panel, Becket's body is lowered into the tomb by two kneeling figures; an archbishop, holding a crosier, stands to give his blessing. The two floral-arboreal elements flanking the figural group on the roof are rather unusual; in Limoges enamels they are used to indicate that a scene takes place outdoors (which was not the case in Becket's burial), and are found on only one other Becket chasse.6 Two unidentified saints are depicted on the gabled end plaques. The figure on the proper left panel holds a book; the figure on the opposite end holds his right wrist with his left hand, a gesture that symbolized sorrow in the Middle Ages and is commonly found in Crucifixion scenes in the figures of Mary or Saint John.7
The enameled ground of the front plaques is decorated with a random pattern of stylized rosettes and bordered by broad undulating bands. The rear panels of the chasse are decorated with a simple repetitive pattern of quatrefoils, bordered by a band of small crosses on a red enamel ground.
There are close parallels between the Oberlin chasse and similar pieces at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (inv. M. 244.433); the Toledo Museum of Art (inv. 56.74); and the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg (inv. 1822.222). The Oberlin reliquary is slightly larger than most Becket chasses produced at this time.8
M. E. Wieseman
Limoges, in the province of Aquitaine in southwest France, was a center of goldsmithing and enamelwork from at least the beginning of the twelfth century.9 After mid century, there was a rapid proliferation of enamel workshops throughout the Limousin area dedicated to the newly developed technique of champlevé ("raised ground") enamel. In the champlevé technique, the metal substrate or support, usually copper, is gouged out to form cells into which the powdered glass is poured; heat fuses the molten glass to the substrate. The exposed metal is usually gilded. A new technical variation developed in the Limousin workshops during the last quarter of the twelfth century reversed the traditional enameling procedure, creating objects with enameled grounds and the figures held in reserve and engraved, or formed of relief appliqués. The champlevé technique was used for both religious and secular pieces such as book covers, candlesticks, medallions, chasses and coffers, plaques, small statues and effigies. Although individual hands can sometimes be recognized in groups of enameled objects produced around Limoges, none of the artists are identifiable, and a single craftsman may have worked for more than one workshop.
Boehm, Barbara Drake, Elisabeth Tabouret-Delahaye, et al. Enamels of Limoges 1100-1350. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1996.
Possibly from the Convent de Pont-à-Mousson, Meurthe-et-Moselle, France
With Henri Daguerre, Paris
Collection Michael Dreicer, New York (1918)
Bequeathed by him to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1921, inv. 22.60.18)
Returned to donor's family (1933)
Collection Baroness René de Kerchove (widow of Michael Dreicer), by whom given in 1952
Columbus, Ohio, Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, 1958. Aspects of Late Medieval Art. 31 October - 22 November. Cat. no. 5.
East Lansing, Kresge Art Center, Michigan State University, 1959. An Exhibition Presented on the Occasion of the Dedication of the Kresge Art Center, Michigan State University. May. Cat. no. 66.
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1970. The Year 1200. 12 February - 10 May. Cat. no. 164.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Museum of Art, 1985. Songs of Glory: Medieval Art from 900-1500. 22 January - 29 April. Cat. no. 51.
Breck, Joseph. "The Michael Dreicer Collection, Part II: Sculpture and Decorative Arts." Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 17 (May 1922), p. 106.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Guide to the Collections. New York, 1931, p. 89.
Parkhurst, Charles. "Preliminary Notes on Three Early Limoges Enamels at Oberlin." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 9, no. 3 (Spring 1952), pp. 96-105.
Hoffmann, Konrad. In The Year 1200. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1970, p. 158, cat. no. 164.
Caudron, Simone. "Les Châsses de Thomas Becket en émail de Limoges." In Raymonde Foreville, ed., Thomas Becket: Actes du colloque international de Sédires, Paris, 1975, p. 234.
Mickenberg, David. Songs of Glory: Medieval Art from 900-1500. Exh. cat., Oklahoma Museum of Art, Oklahoma City, 1985, pp. 172-74.
Caudron, Simone. "Les châsses reliquaires de Thomas Becket Émaillées à Limoges: leur géographie historique." Bulletin de la Société archéologique et historique du Limousin 121 (1993), pp. 72-73, 76.
Kibler, William W. and Grover A. Zinn, eds. Medieval France: An Encyclopedia. New York, 1995, pp. xxii, 790.
Caudron, Simone. In Émaux méridionaux: Catalogue international de l'oeuvre de Limoges. Edited by Marie-Madeleine S. Gauthier and Genevive Franois. Vol. 2: L'Ecole de Limoges 1190-1215. Paris, forthcoming.
The eight copper alloy panels are affixed with metal tacks to the faces of a wood (oak?) core or chest. Several tacks are missing and others are modern replacements. The panels are decorated with champlevé enamel; exposed metal surfaces are decorated with incised lines, stippling, and gilding. The heads of six of the seven figures on the front lower and roof panels (excepting that of the body of the saint on the roof panel) are separately cast in relief and fastened to the substrate with studs projecting from the reverse of the appliqués. The lower back panel is hinged at the bottom and fastened with a key-operated lock (apparently original) at top center. The bottom of the chasse, including the feet, is covered by a metal plate that is probably of a later date. The gilding is abraded in many places, and there are some losses to the enamel, especially along the edges of each plaque and across the lower portion of the back panel.
1. On the life and death of the bishop martyr, see David Knowles, Thomas Becket (London, 1970) and Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket (Berkely, 1986). On representations of the saint in art, see Tancred Borenius, The Life of St. Thomas Becket in Art (London, 1932).
2. See Simone Caudron, "Les châsses reliquaires de Thomas Becket émaillées à Limoges: leur géographie historique," Bulletin de la Société archéologique et historique du Limousin 121 (1993), pp. 55-82; and idem, in Marie-Madeleine S. Gauthier and Genevi?ve Fran?ois, eds., ƒmaux méridionaux: Catalogue international de l'oeuvre de Limoges, vol. 2, L'Ecole de Limoges 1190-1215 (Paris, forthcoming), for a survey of extant Becket chasses.
3. Simone Caudron ("Les Châsses de Thomas Becket en émail de Limoges," in Raymonde Foreville, ed., Thomas Becket: Actes du colloque international de Sédires [Paris, 1975], p. 240) and Marie-Madeleine S. Gauthier ("La Meutre dans la cathédrale, thme iconographique médiéval," ibid., p. 253) have suggested that the chasses may relate in some way to fund-raising for a new shrine dedicated to the saint, a project begun in 1185 and completed in 1220.
4. For a more complete description of variations and combinations of motifs, see Charles Parkhurst, "Preliminary Notes on Three Early Limoges Enamels at Oberlin," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 9, no. 3 (Spring 1952), pp. 100-104; and Simone Caudron, "Les Châsses de Thomas Becket en émail de Limoges," in Raymonde Foreville, ed., Thomas Becket: Actes du colloque international de Sédires (Paris, 1975), pp. 233-41.
5. M.-M. S. Gauthier, "La Meutre dans la cathédrale, theme iconographique médiéval," in Raymonde Foreville, ed., Thomas Becket: Actes du colloque international de Sédires (Paris, 1975), p. 254; and Raymonde Foreville, "La Diffusion de la culte de Thomas Becket dans la France de l'ouest avant la fin du XXIIe sicle," Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 19 (1976), pp. 363-64.
6. Simone Caudron, in correspondence dated 26 February 1997 (museum files), notes that the use of this motif occurs in only one other Becket chasse.
7. Simone Caudron, in correspondence dated 26 February 1997 (museum files).
8. Simone Caudron, in correspondence dated 26 February 1997 (museum files), notes that the average width and depth of contemporary Becket chasses are 13-15 cm (about 5-6 in.) and 5-6 cm (about 2-2 3/8 in), respectively.
9. For a survey of the stylistic and technical development of Limoges enamels, see Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye, "Beginnings and Evolution of the Oeuvre de Limoges," in Barbara Drake Boehm, Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye, et al., Enamels of Limoges 1100-1350 (exh. cat. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995-96), pp. 33-39; and Isabelle Biron, Pete Dandridge, and Mark T. Wypyski, "Techniques and Materials in Limoges Enamels," in ibid., esp. pp. 49-54.