During the Middle Ages, religious travel was becoming popular. As more and more people began going on religious pilgrimages to seek out places that held religious relics, different churches and monasteries began working to draw visitors and thus gain additional funding through donations left by the devout. Since very few churches or cities could lay claim to such renowned relics as were in Canterbury, Jerusalem and Rome, many began to commission elaborate housings for the small relics they did have in an attempt to draw visitors. It was during this time, roughly 1156 AD, that a small abbey in what is now known as Belgium commissioned local Mosan artists to create a reliquary to hold their small, precious relics. This is now known as the Stavelot Triptych.
While it is not known who, exactly, commissioned the Stavelot Triptych or the actual artist was, it is commonly believed that it was the Abbot of Stavelot Abbey who requested its creation and it is conjectured that Godefroid de Huy, a prominent goldsmith during that time, was the one who created the work. Wibald, the Abbot of Stavelot Abbey from 1130 to 1159, had gone to Constantinople in 1154 and returned to the abbey with a piece from the cross on which Christ was crucified, known as the True Cross, and a small scrap of the Mother Mary’s robe. In order to show proper reverence to these items and to draw additional interest in seeing them, Abbot Wibald had a beautiful and ornate Romanesque reliquary made for them: the Stavelot Triptych.
A triptych is something that is made up of three pieces. In this case, it is a set of three ornately decorated panels that are hinged together so they can be closed and minimized for easy transport. The main panel of the Stavelot Triptych is set up like an ancient shadow box to display two smaller Byzantine triptychs which hold the relics Abbot Wibald brought back from Constantinople. Those triptychs date from the “11th or early 12th centuries” (Ross). On them we see depictions of the cross surrounded by images of Constantine and Helena, archangels and the military saints George, Procopius, Theodore and Demetrius along with four evangelists.
While the objects in the center panel of the triptych are fascinating and worthy of attention, the side panels of the triptych are also remarkable and warrant equal attention. For, on the side panels we find the stories of Emperor Constantine’s conversion and St. Helena’s quest to find the True Cross. These panels are designed in a way that is very typical of Romanesque art during this time period.
On the left-hand side of the triptych is the story of Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. The story begins at the bottom and is an idealized version of true events. In the very bottom medallion Constantine is dreaming of an angel who is telling him that he will be victorious if he goes into battle with the sign of the cross. The angel is bending over, gesturing up, while Constantine is laying down sleeping. This animated gesture is a contrast from the stoic poses used in Byzantine art as are the labels, details and speech bubbles, which are storytelling elements that are common of Romanesque art at this time. There are also various symbolic elements in the image. The crown hanging from the center shows that Constantine is destined for greatness and the curtain being pulled aside behind him denotes that he is a holy figure. There is a cityscape in the background which suggests that this takes place in a city in Rome.
The middle medallion depicts the end of the Battle of Milvian Bridge. In this battle, Constantine was victorious over Maxentious, who is seen running away from Constantine’s troops who are carrying a cross. Constantine became Emperor after this victory, which he believed came about because he used the cross. As an added dramatic element used by the artist, two soldiers lay dying at the bottom: one is speared while the other is bleeding out through the neck. This element was included because Romanesque artists wanted to tell stories in more lively ways and they wanted to engage the emotions of the viewer. The ground is represented, as well, which is an element which grounds them and gives them a more realistic and relatable quality.
The final medallion telling the story of Constantine’s conversion is on the top left. In this medallion, we see Constantine being baptized, which is a partial fabrication. Constantine really was baptized, but not in the manner depicted in the medallion. He was actually baptized by a heretic, which the church did not want represented. This picture depicts him being baptized by Pope Sylvester at the end of his life while priests and ministers witnessed the ceremony. The lines on his body represent ribs and muscles which was done in a typically Romanesque fashion as Romanesque art exaggerated muscles and strength. This baptism is shown to be blessed by God by use of the rays and God’s hand and is shown to have taken place in Rome.
On the opposite side of the triptych we see the story of Empress Helena, Constantine’s mother, seeking for and finding the cross which Jesus Christ was crucified on. This cross is known as the True Cross and is highly revered in Christian culture. It was sought after for years and is commonly believed to have been found by Empress Helena during her visit to the Holy Land from 326-328AD. Empress Helena is believed to have found the crosses for Jesus Christ and the two thieves who were crucified with Him and legend states that “a miracle revealed which of the three was the True Cross” (Wikipedia).
As with Constantine’s story on the left, Empress Helena’s story begins at the bottom of the panel. The bottom right medallion shows Empress Helena sitting on throne, talking to Jewish elders. She went to the Holy Land to establish churches and relief agencies as well as search for relics and bring them back to Rome. In this scene Helena is seated while talking to the Jewish elders as she tries to get them to tell her where the cross Jesus was crucified on is. They refuse to tell her and she threatens them with fire, which is shown behind the elders. The Jewish elders are labeled as Jews and also dressed with white hats which denote them as Jews. As was typical with artistic conventions of the time, Jews wear different kinds of clothing that sets them apart from Christians in art.
In the middle medallion on the right, we see Empress Helena giving direction while the Jewish elders dig a pit. After severe threatening, the Jews finally capitulated and told Empress Helena where they thought the crosses were. Empress Helena had the Jews dig up (and destroy) the Temple of Venus, which is where the crosses were. This act is shown to be blessed by God by use of the rays and God’s hand. There were three crosses underneath the Temple of Venus and they had to figure out which one was the True Cross.
The top medallion shows the story of how they figured out which cross was the one Jesus Christ died on. Soon after finding the crosses, they saw a dying person passing by and asked him touch each cross. Legend states that the True Cross healed the man. This act is shown to be blessed by God by use of the rays and God’s hand.
As a whole, the Stavelot Triptych is fascinating and very ornate, though that was not unusual for this time period. Since many churches were commissioning elaborate reliquaries for their magnificent relics, works of such ornate and elaborate craftsmanship were becoming common and held similar characteristics. The elements and conventions of the Stavelot Triptych, while detailed and beautiful, were very typical of Romanesque art. Within 50 years of the Stavelot Triptych being created, another famous work was created that held very similar elements. This was the Reliquary of St. Maurus.
Both the Stavelot Triptych and the Reliquary of St. Maurus were created by Mosan artisans and commissioned by churches in what is now known as Belgium. Mosan artists were craftsmen from the Meuse valley, which is on the modern-day border between Germany and Belgium. These artists were in high demand during the Romanesque era and created such works as the “Baptismal font at St Bartholomew’s Church in Liège, the Shrine of Saint Servatius in Maastricht, the Shrine of Saint Hadelin in Vise, the Shrine of Saint Remacle in Stavelot, the Shrines of Saint Domitian and Saint Mangold in Huy, the Shrine of Our Lady at Tournai Cathedral, Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral, Shrines of Charlemagne and Mary at Aachen Cathedral, the Barbarossa Chandelier at Aachen Cathedral, the Stavelot alter base, Retable of the Pentecost and the Reliquary with head of Pope Alexander I” (Wikipedia).
Aside from being created by artists from the same area, the Stavelot Triptych and the Reliquary of St. Maurus have several elements in common, which were typical of that time. Both works were made of wood, were heavily gilded, were decorated with enamelwork and were inlaid with precious stones. While one is a triptych and the other a chasse, a chest with slanted roofs, they both have the same purpose: to house precious religious relics. As such, they are both covered in depictions of saints and religious figures. In typical Romanesque fashion, the figures are shown in motion and with narrative qualities. Both pieces also contain medallions which tell stories of the persons important to each reliquary and have labels along with various indicative text. These works also have an increased amount of detail and depictions of the ground, which are typical features of Romanesque art.
When creating the Stavelot Triptych, the artist created a work that is mesmerizing and timeless. This work, while typical of its time, is fascinating and worth the esteem it receives. Aside from being the housing for religious artifacts, this work is important because it is a combination of two styles: Byzantine reliquaries housed inside a Romanesque reliquary. This was entirely unique and allows us to fully compare the two styles. The Stavelot Triptych is also important because it is evidence of a person being able to safely travel great distances during that era. Traveling great distances was new to that time period and the combination of two art styles from two different areas made during this era shows that people could travel successfully. And the final reason the Stavelot Triptych is important is because it shows that Romanesque art had an interest in the narrative of telling stories with lively characters, which was a big change from the stoic and stiff characters from Byzantine art, thus providing a segue between Byzantine art and Western Medieval art.
Overall, the Stavelot Triptych is a very important and stunning piece of Romanesque Mosan artwork that has retained its importance and veneration for generations. Whether or not we ever discover who commissioned it, who created it and whether or not the artifacts inside are truly what they claim to be, this work will always hold an aura of mysticism and reverence. Its significance as a religious artifact as well as the artistic skill used in creating this work have made it a timeless work that will maintain admiration and adoration for decades to come.
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