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The casket is cubical in shape and consist of six rectangular ivory plates bound together with metal nails and fittings. The top plate is fitted with hinges and serves as the lid. The front side is fitted with a rectangular lock decorated with an image of a tower and two persons: a woman with a large key in her hand and a man on his knees with his hands joined together. On the lid, there is a metal handle engraved in a diagonal checked pattern filled with simplified flowers. On the side plates, there are twelve figural scenes from medieval chance de geste, while on the lid, there are three court scenes. Narration in all of these images follows from the left to the right. The front side features the following images: Conversation of Alexander the Great with Aristotle, Phyllis and Aristotle, Thisbe and lion, Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, while the back side features: Lancelot fighting a lion, Lancelot crossing the Sword Bridge, Gauvain on the Dangerous Bed and Damsels freed by Gauvain. The left side features: Tristan and Iseult’s Meeting in the Garden, the Hunt of the Unicorn, while the right side features: Enyas’ fight with a savage and Old Porter Welcomes Galahad. The lead features a Knight Tournament in the centre, flanked by two scenes which together depict the motif of Siege of the Castle of Love.
The Kraków casket is one of seven so called complex caskets, which can be found in world’s most important collections of medieval art.

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The casket is cubical in shape and consist of six rectangular ivory plates bound together with metal nails and fittings. The top plate is fitted with hinges and serves as the lid. The front side is fitted with a rectangular lock decorated with an image of a tower and two persons: a woman with a large key in her hand and a man on his knees with his hands joined together. On the lid, there is a metal handle engraved in a diagonal checked pattern filled with simplified flowers. On the side plates, there are twelve figural scenes from medieval chance de geste, while on the lid, there are three court scenes. Narration in all of these images follows from the left to the right. The front side features the following images: Conversation of Alexander the Great with Aristotle, Phyllis and Aristotle, Thisbe and lion, Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, while the back side features: Lancelot fighting a lion, Lancelot crossing the Sword Bridge, Gauvain on the Dangerous Bed and Damsels freed by Gauvain. The left side features: Tristan and Iseult’s Meeting in the Garden, the Hunt of the Unicorn, while the right side features: Enyas’ fight with a savage and Old Porter Welcomes Galahad. The lead features a Knight Tournament in the centre, flanked by two scenes which together depict the motif of Siege of the Castle of Love.
In the inventory of the Wawel cathedral of 1563, the casket was recorded as a storage box for relic of various saints which needs to be repaired, carried on a portable altar during processions on the so called cross days (three days prior to Ascension). It was then placed inside a bigger casket – a reliquary. It was hidden aside, in Kraków cathedral, along with two other reliquaries, in unknown circumstances, most likely after the year 1620. It was found by coincidence during an inspection carried out by Kraków bishop Albin Dunajewski on March 18th, 1881. It was then placed in the main closet of the cathedral treasury, which was rearranged thanks to father Ignacy Polkowski, who was appointed as junior curate of the cathedral in 1877. This new closet, designed by Polkowski, inspired by the architecture of the Sigismund’s chapel, enabled exposition of the most valuable objects from the treasury to interested visitors. It must be mentioned, that it was the first and the only church treasury in Poland at that time, made available for ”tourist” purposes – on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 10.00 a.m. in groups of at least twelve people. Thanks to Polkowski, who also compiled a catalogue, surprisingly modern for that times, of the Wawel treasury, the casket became known outside Poland as well. In 1986, it was restored in Kraków-based studio of Wojciech Bochnak, it was also lent for a number of exhibitions in Poland and abroad.
The history of studies on the Wawel casket is long and complex. It was introduced in academic literature by father Ignacy Polkowski, as an Italian piece from the 13th century decorated with scenes from a poem by Ekkehart I of St. Gall, Waltherius manu fortis, known in Polish language version delivered by a Poznań bishop Bogufał (died in 1253). Jan Bołoz-Antoniewicz, a philologist and art historian employed at the Lvov University, in 1885 published a model and still up-to-date monograph on the literary sources of the scenes depicted on the casket. He identified correctly most of the scenes and described the piece as a French craft from the 14th century. It must be emphasised that this was a breakthrough work for the development of art history in Poland and showed a huge potential of modern approach to research on the content of works of art. Apart from that, the study made this work of art famous internationally; the monument has been well-known and discussed in works by the most important experts on court art of the 14th century and ivory sculpture. Findings of Bołoz-Antoniewicz were complemented in the 20th century by a number of researchers, mostly French and German, and recently, by a Polish art historian, Agnieszka Łaguna. Findings of Raymond Koechlin were decisive for the stylistic studies of the casket. He identified the piece as made in Paris in the 1st half of the 14th century and included in the so called group of complex caskets – with a compilation of images drawn from various literary works. A French art historian of Polish origin, Louis Grodecki, dated the monument more precisely to the 2nd quarter of the 14th century, while Danielle Gaborit-Chopin connected the casket to a Paris-based workshop called Atelier of diptych with arch frieze in Louvre, which operated in the 2nd half of the 14th century.
The Kraków casket is one of seven so called complex caskets, which can be found in world’s most important collections of medieval art: Walters Art Galery in Baltimore, British Museum in London, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence. It is the only one, however, with a beautifully decorated lock preserved in an excellent condition. Due to the structure and composition, it is the closest to the Florence casket, while the style resembles the one of diptych with scenes from the Passion of Christ and the Life of Mary in Louvre and diptych with Adoration of the Magi and Cruxiciction in Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which is connected to the so called atelier of diptych with arch frieze in Louvre.
The Kraków piece is one of the most interesting works of art preserved to-date depicting scenes from medieval chanson de geste. Similar caskets with decorations praising the notion of court love usually belonged to troosseau or were offered as jewel boxes to fiancées after engagement. The most exposed part of the casket – the lid – is decorated with a scene of knights jousting, which was the essence of medieval feudal culture. In the middle, a fight of two knights was depicted in a way typical for iconography related to such celebrations. The knights meet by the podium where young ladies and ladies-in-waiting sit and their favour is undoubtedly the desired prize. The most characteristic element of a tournament armour is a great helm, which became popular in the 1st half of the 13th century and were slowly becoming outdated throughout the next century. When they lost value in battle, there were transformed into elements of a tournament armour and full dress. The most often used great helms, whose bottom ridge rested upon a knight’s shoulders, had to be pierced in the front area for ventilation. Helmets from the 14th century are characteristic for expressive design with a number of broken lines. Also crests decorating tournament helmets were an important element and served to demonstrate the grandeur and high social position of the knights. In court of art of the 13th century, images of armoured men were quite popular. They depicted elements of armour in great detail; thorough knowledge of this field was an important part of “education” in that age. The same scope of court events, but of a more erotic character this time, is represented by the image of the Sieg of the Castle of Love, which was a courtly game consisting in throwing flowers at ladies and capturing a ”castle” they were defending. These motif is deeply enrooted in the French tradition, yet it might have been very attractive and clearly understood in Central Europe. The tradition of jousting was brought to Hungary by king Charles Robert d’Anjou and it dated back to the coronation of this ruler (c. 1310). The first tournament of which we know was organised on the wedding of Charles Robert with Beatrix of Luxemburg, while the subsequent tournaments accompanied his marriage to Elisabeth, the daughter of Polish king, Władysław the Elbow-high, in early July of 1320, as well as the first convention of Visegrád in 1335. In 1326, the first knight order in Hungary was established. St George was adopted as its saint patron.
Sides of the casket are decorated with scenes from the most popular chanson de geste, which had been created by travelling poets and singers – troubadours. Some of them settled in courts with time and achieved high status, while their songs were written down and repeated and enjoyed great popularity across the whole Christian world. They gave the most popular stories, e.g of Arthur and the knights of the round table, a sophisticated literary form. This is the source of the „career” of such knights as Gawain, Galahad, and Lancelot of the Lake, Arthur’s companions, who were considered as perfect knights for many centuries. Troubadours often drew their inspiration from ancient times in order to add authority to their stories and make them more universal. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe depicted on the casket originates from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Young lovers from two feuding families met a horrible fate. Due to a misunderstanding, Pyramus believed that Thisbe was devoured by a lion and committed a suicide. The miserable girl followed him soon to the grave. Among these stories, especially popular was the one of Aristotle, the greatest philosopher of the ancient times, and his humiliation by beautiful Phyllis, a mistress of Alexander the Great. When Aristotle tried to persuade Alexander to give up his passionate affair to return to science and warfare training, Phyllis lured the philosopher, with promises known to her alone, to let her ride him around the castle, which entertained the whole court greatly. This story appeared both in collections of exempla – moral stories used by preachers (in Jacques de Vitry’s works for the first time) and in lay literature as a warning against the power of female charm which leads even the wisest and virtuous men to the sin of unchastity. This theme was very popular in the art of the 14th century, including monumental sculpture and architecture. It was used in decoration of, for example, French cathedrals in Rouen – in the transept portal (Portail de la Calende, c. 1300) and Lyon – (façade, c 1310), town hall in Cologne (c. 1360), and on the stalls in the Cologne cathedral (1311). In Kraków, it was presented in 1360s, on one of the southern consoles in the chancel of St Mary’s Basilica at the Main Market Square.
The scene of the Hunt of the Unicorn is especially important in regard to the choice of scenes for the casket. It was believed in the Middle Ages that elephant’s tusks came from the biblical land of Sheba and were mistakenly considered (just like narwhal’s tusks) for the „corns” of unicorns. These mythical creatures had been perceived as symbols of purity (they allegedly preferred to died than stain their spotless white fur with dirt) since late ancient ages. Therefore, a belief that only a virgin was able to capture a timid unicorn was firmly established, which was reflected in numerous pieces of art. Therefore, this animal was associated symbolically with Virgin Mary. The hunt was executed in such a way that a unicorn was driven towards the maiden and when it sensed her presence, it would approach her voluntarily and rest its head on her womb. In reality, ivory was imported to Europe from Africa through harbours in Ethiopia, Alexandria, Acre, or Famagusta.
When the casket was found in 1881, a legendary connection of this item to queen Jadwiga d’Anjou was formed and express in art, for example in the series of pastel drawings Skarbiec katedry wawelskiej [Treasury of the Wawel cathedral] by Leon Wyczółkowski, 1907 (Warsaw, National Museum, inventory no 180841, 180842). It is not, however, supported by any written documents, just like it is in the case of an ivory diptych from the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków. It must be kept in mind that the casket was found at a very particular time. Kraków diocese had no leader for several decades, because after the death of bishop Karol Skórkowski, who was banished for supporting the November Uprising openly, no successor was appointed. An ingres of a new ordinary, Albin Dunajewski, took place as late as on June 8th, 1879, and was perceived as a symbolic rebirth of the ”ancient” Kraków diocese. On the patriotic wave, efforts for beatification of queen Jadwiga were doubled and all monuments of Poland’s part and grandeur became memorabilia deer to all Poles under the three partitions. The idea of connecting significant monuments and works of art with famous figures from Polish history was at its height then.
French family connections of the Hungarian branch of the d’Anjou dynasty might speak for the hypothesis that the casket was connected to queen Jadwiga. Presence of luxurious French goods at Jadwiga’s court is highly probable, because written sources confirm her interest in art. Most of her known foundations were of religious character, because the queen was renown for passionate piety in the sense of devotio moderna. The fact that she cared for the Wawel cathedral’s equipment is proved by the rationale of Kraków bishops (an element of liturgical clothing that emphasises a special status of the Kraków diocese in the Church hierarchy), which is in whole embroidered with pearls, and scyfus (Dresden, Grünes Gewölbe) – a representative cup (originally for layman use) with an inscription dedicated to St Wenceslaus. Jadwiga’s religious needs and high culture are also expressed in the Psałterz Floriański [St Florian Psalter] (Kraków, Jagiellonian Library), which was made on her request, richly illuminated, Including Latin version of the psalms along with their translations into Polish and German. The queen also possessed one of the oldest preserved manuscripts of the Visions of St Bridget of Sweden, decorated with miniatures and ornamental initials, made in Naples (Warsaw, National Library). The most interesting works of art in Central Europe include a huge wooden mystic-type crucifix (with exposed and even exaggerated traces of suffering, originally covered in realistic polychrome), preserved in Kraków cathedral. It was most likely imported from Italy. Queen Jadwiga played an important role in bringing Slavic Benedictines (who celebrated liturgy in the Slavic language) from Prague to Kraków. She founded the Holy Cross church (not preserved until present times) for them. She also supported the Carmelites, for whom she founded – together with Jagiełło – huge churches in Kraków and Poznań (in the latter one, a beautiful stone console with a carved Anjou coat of arms was preserved). Numerous works of craft mentioned in written sources were related to her court. It is known, for example, that a new crown was made for her coronation because the royal insignia founded for the coronation of Władysław the Elbow-high were taken to Hungary by king Louis the Great and were returned to Kraków only as a result of Władysław Jagiełło’s efforts in 1412.
The Wawel casket is a typical example of works of art imported in the Middle Ages because of their high artistic value. Valuable items were assigned a secondary function of reliquaries, regardless of the decorations, whose themes were drawn from sources other than religious art. For example, an Arabic ivory casket from the 11th century, preserved in Burgos (Museo arqueologico provincial), was turned into a reliquary in the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos. Another great example of such practice is related to a casket of silver plate, preserved in the Wawel cathedral treasury, called Saracenic-Sicillian, whose sides are decorated with images of wild animals fighting and knights fighting with wild beasts. It was made in the Middle east or Sicilly, most likely in the 12th century, and after remodelling (lock and hinges were added later, in the 12th/13th century), it started to be used as a reliquary.

Elaborated by Marek Walczak, PhD (The Institute of Art History), editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums, © all rights reserved

 

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Principles of courtly love

In the late Middle Ages, popular romances and knight poems, as well as legends from the north, had an enormous influence on court culture. On their basis, court customs developed, an essential aspect of which was an image of ideal love. This was reflected in the ceremonies glorifying the figure of a lady. The decoration of a small case from the 2nd quarter of the 14th century is some kind of interpretation of the medieval world-view, centred around courtly love, which — interestingly — was an ethical problem. Its moralistic and didactic themes, having literary sources, evoked good and bad examples of behaviour, building the principles of proper behaviour.

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In the late Middle Ages, popular romances and knight poems, as well as legends from the north, had an enormous influence on court culture. On their basis, court customs developed, an essential aspect of which was an image of ideal love. This was reflected in the ceremonies glorifying the figure of a lady. The decoration of a small case from the 2nd quarter of the 14th century is some kind of interpretation of the medieval world-view, centred around courtly love, which — interestingly — was an ethical problem. Its moralistic and didactic themes, having literary sources, evoked good and bad examples of behaviour, building the principles of proper behaviour.

A chest lid: courtly entertainments
Middle scene: a tournament
A duel was an extremely important element of medieval knighthood culture. Special competitions were organized at court, which put the skills of knights to the test. The fight itself was dedicated to the ladies who closely watched the battle taking place in front of them. Staging various scenes derived from chivalric romance was also a popular form of entertainment during tournaments.

The scene on the left: conquering the castle of love

This game consisted in building a makeshift construction, which was the titular castle of love, in which ladies were imprisoned. The knights, using only flowers, were supposed to breach the construction and release the trapped ladies.

The lid lock: receiving the key to the castle
The efforts of the knights were rewarded: they received the key to the castle of love in order to free the ladies.

The scene on the right: courtship
Each of the knights released the lady of his heart, and then courted her. The scene presents different circumstances and methods for showing courtship to a lady, for example, during a joint ride or a boat trip.

The front wall: lustful love versus righteous love
Two scenes on the left: Aristotle and Filis
A moralizing anecdote tells the story of Aristotle, who instructed Aleksander to leave his lover — Filis — because she was the reason why he had neglected his duties as a ruler. Alexander plotted an intrigue with her in order to ridicule the teacher. He arranged Aristotle and Filis’s meeting in the garden, during which the beautiful woman seduced the sage, who fell in love with her to such an extent that he let Filis ride on his own back, which Aleksander observed with satisfaction.

Two scenes on the right: Pyram and Tysbe
The story of the lovers is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Pyram and Tysbe had been close to each other since they were children; however, they came from two feuding families, which forced them to meet in secret. During one of the meetings — when Tysbe was waiting for her beloved — a lion appeared, from which she hid on a tree, losing her coat in the course of the flight. Pyram, having arrived at the place, saw the lion tearing up the coat of his beloved and — thinking that she had died — stabbed himself with a knife out of despair. Upon seeing this, Tysbe, killed herself immediately after her beloved, using the same blade.

The rear wall: recognition of the knightly defence of a lady
Two scenes on the left: Lancelot
Lancelot was the greatest of the knights of the Round Table. His name was made famous by the adventures he had experienced during the search for the abducted Queen Guinevere — wife of King Arthur — known from the Arthurian Legends. The scenes from the chest present individual episodes of his story; namely, the tests which the brave knight had to pass in order to find his beloved queen. Those were, for example: fighting a lion and crossing a sword bridge.

Two scenes on the right: Gawain
Gawain was a nephew of King Arthur, whom we also know from the legends of the Knights of the Round Table. He had many unusual adventures during the quest to find the Holy Grail. One of them is illustrated by the scenes presented on the chest. Once, Gawain stopped in an enchanted castle, whose host offered him hospitality. The knight prudently went to sleep in his armour, thanks to which he survived the night, because his bed turned out to be full of sharp swords. When he managed to escape unscathed, a lion appeared in the chamber, which he had to fight. Gawain’s efforts were not in vain, because, in consequence, he freed the ladies imprisoned in the castle.

Left side: false love versus pure (platonic) love

The scene on the right: a unicorn hunt
Legends related to the unicorn taken from Physiologus — an ancient treatise — were extremely widespread in the Middle Ages and repeated in bestiaries. The unicorn symbolized purity, hence — according to legend — only a virgin could tame it as the animal rested beside her, laying its head on her womb. Only then could the hunters approach it in order to seize it. The stories associated with the magical properties of the unicorn gained deep Christian symbolism, but — in the context of platonic courtly love — the animal embodied a medieval female lover.

The scene on the left: Tristan and Isolde

The story of the unhappy love of Tristan and Isolde was extremely popular in the Middle Ages. The lovers — bound together by passion thanks to magic — met in secret. When King Mark — Isolde’s husband — found out, he decided to eavesdrop on them during the next tryst. Tristan and Isolde fortunately saw the head of the king hiding in the water reflected in the surface of the water, so they conducted an innocent conversation, dispelling his suspicions.

The right-hand side: fighting for wrong reasons versus fighting for a righteous purpose
The scene on the right: Enyas
The figure of the old knight Enyas is known from chivalrous romances, such as Lancelot or Tristram. The depiction discussed here shows an episode in which Enyas rescues a girl from the hands of a wild man. After the debacle, they both meet a young knight who wants to duel with him over the girl. Enyas — being sure of her decision — decides to give her a choice. The girl, however, rejects the old man in favour of the young knight, which provokes Enyas to fight him. Defeating the opponent, the old knight abandons the girl in the forest.

Stage on the left: Galahad
Galahad is the son of Lancelot and the sorceress acting as the guardian of the Holy Grail. He was one of the Knights of the Round Table, whose story focused on the quest for the Holy Grail, and who — as the worthiest of all the companions — finally found it. During his journey, he experienced various adventures, including the fight with seven knights, whose defeat resulted in the freeing of the ladies trapped in the castle. The scene on the chest depicts the moment when Galahad is greeted by an old man and handed the key to this castle.

The scenes, created on the basis of the same literary sources and court customs, made use of decorated objects of everyday use made of ivory, produced in Parisian workshops in the 14th century. They were primarily boxes, chests, or mirror frames. Their numerous examples — from collections of institutions all around the world — have been brought together on the project website Gothic Ivories.

Elaborated by Paulina Kluz (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

Bibliography:
Agnieszka Łaguna, Gotycka skrzyneczka z kości słoniowej w Skarbcu katedralnym na Wawelu, „Studia Waweliana”, t. VI–VII (1997/1998), pp. 5–28;
Marek Walczak, Skrzyneczka, [w:] Wawel 1000-2000, t. 1: Katedra Krakowska – biskupia, królewska, narodowa, katalog wystawy w Muzeum Katedralnym na Wawelu, 05–09.2000, red. Magdalena Piwocka, Dariusz Nowacki, Kraków 2000, kat. I/12, pp. 43–45.

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History of enshrining relics

The history of medieval reliquaries begins with the 62nd decree of the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 where the issue of enshrining holy relics was raised. They were supposed to be enshrined and presented only in protective reliquaries. It was the reason why reliquaries took various forms throughout the centuries...

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The history of medieval reliquaries begins with the 62nd decree of the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 where the issue of enshrining holy relics was raised. They were supposed to be enshrined and presented only in protective reliquaries. It was the reason why reliquaries took various forms throughout the centuries.
A reliquary cross made of precious metal and with precious stones inlaid became most popular. Architectural forms resembling richly decorated miniature cases, small houses, or shrines were also common.
Reliquaries also started to take on a more anthropomorphic form in the shape of human body parts as well as herms. The origin of herms is very interesting as their history dates back to ancient times. A herm – from Greek ἕρμα – initially referred to representations of a bust or the head of Hermes which crowned a quadrangular column, narrowed at the bottom. In Greece until the 5th century BC, there was also a representation of a phallus placed in a herm. Subsequent herms depicted also other gods and heroes. In the Roman Empire, sculptured or cast bronze heads and busts constituted a common item in the houses of the rich Patrician class as well as being carried in funeral processions. Busts were also placed along roads and at street corners.
In 14th century Cologne, the most popular medieval type of herm that was produced is known as Ursulabüste; it was made of wood in the form of a young womans bust, with an open-work oculus which made it possible for the faithful to see relics. Its name derives from Saint Ursula who, according to one of the medieval legends, was a Breton princess slain together with the Eleven Thousand Virgins by the Huns in Cologne. It was the turning point during the siege of the city, which survived thanks to their sacrifice. The Saint and the rest of the virgin martyrs were buried in Cologne from where her cult started to spread. The relics of Ursula and her partners began to be sold or sent to different religious centres in Europe, which increased the demand for reliquary herms.
According to 14th-century tradition, herms were located on altars. They could constitute the completion of predella retabulum, as separate forms or groups consisting of several representations. Very often special altarpieces were made which also performed the role of a shelter for reliquaries. In time this solution was recognised as canonical for all reliquaries placed in altarpieces. Reliquaries connected to altars were supposed to remind one about saint martyrs and also gave weight to the creation of the human body in His image, after His likeness as well as the emphasised faith in the resurrection of the body and everlasting life.
At first, herm reliquaries contained skull relics but later constituted a framing for various fragments of saints bodies. Nowadays, herms usually do not contain relics any more but are still part of the tradition of veneration of saints.

Elaborated by the Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums,
Licencja Creative Commons

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

See:
Reliquary with St. Stanislaus’s hand

Gothic reliquary herm

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Medieval femme fatales

In the 2nd quarter of the 14th century in Paris, the manufacture of luxury items, which were decorated with depictions carved in ivory related to courtly culture and secular literature, flourished. A set of caskets (preserved in whole or in fragments), decorated with compilations of scenes from medieval romances, is particularly interesting. Among them, there is also an artefact from the treasury of the Cracovian cathedral, which is exhibited today at The Wawel’s Cathedral Museum. Other items with a very similar decorative pattern can be found at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, at The British Museum in London, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, at the Musée de Cluny (Musée national du Moyen Âge ) in Paris, at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Some researchers also include the so-called the Lord Gort Casket, stored today at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, in this group.

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Magdalena Łanuszka

In the 2nd quarter of the 14th century in Paris, the manufacture of luxury items, which were decorated with depictions carved in ivory related to courtly culture and secular literature, flourished. A set of caskets (preserved in whole or in fragments), decorated with compilations of scenes from medieval romances, is particularly interesting. Among them, there is also an artefact from the treasury of the Cracovian cathedral, which is exhibited today at The Wawel’s Cathedral Museum. Other items with a very similar decorative pattern can be found at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, at The British Museum in London, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, at the Musée de Cluny (Musée national du Moyen Âge ) in Paris, at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Some researchers also include the so-called the Lord Gort Casket, stored today at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, in this group.

Ivory casket decorated with scenes from chanson de geste, 2nd quarter of 14th century, The Wawel Cathedral treasury (The Wawel Royal Cathedral).
Digitalisation: Terramap Ltd., public domain


The decoration of these artefacts guides us through the story of love – in various guises – in medieval culture. In addition to the caskets, similar contents decorated other medieval ivory items, created mainly for ladies: mirror covers, combs or plaques, which could have been notebook covers.

Ivory comb decorated with romance scenes, Paris, ca. 1320,
Victoria and Albert Museum w Londynie, A.560–1910


In addition to scenes illustrating motifs related to ideals of courtly love, faithful love or pure love, we will find in these luxury objects depictions that could be summarised with the cult quotation from the film Psy [in the English version known as “Pigs”]: “bo to zła kobieta była...” [“cos she was an evil lady...”]. And, by the way, it turns out that in medieval art beauty did not always personify good, because here young beautiful women could simply appear in the role of femmes fatales.

Abandoned for the younger

Ivory casket – detail (shorter right side: Enyas and the Wildman, and Galahad by the castle), Paris, ca. 1310-1330,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art w Nowym Jorku, 17.190.173a, b; 1988.16


Not all the scenes decorating the above-mentioned caskets can be derived from medieval literary texts; some may be illustrations of oral traditions or romances not preserved to this day. The story of the knight Enyas belongs to such scenes. This story appeared in various works of art in the 16th century: both in ivory objects and on the margins of manuscripts (especially in the so-called Taymouth Hours, the 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson 13, British Library in London, where consecutive scenes have their captions). In this story, an already elderly knight Enyas rescued a lady out of the hands of a Wildman: a hairy beast, personifying brutal and unbridled urges. Soon afterwards, the lady and Enyas met a young knight who decided to win over the beautiful lady. Unfortunately, the woman chose the young man, preferring his beauty over the virtues of her saviour. This insolent knight also demanded Enyas’ dog; the animal turned out to be more loyal than the ungrateful lady and did not abandon its master. However, the young man was stubborn and attacked the old man, and experienced Enyas killed his opponent. He also abandoned the lady, leaving her alone to her fate.

The Taymouth Hours, England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, The British Library in London, Yates Thompson 13.
The story of the knight Enyash in subsequent scenes on the bottom margins of 62-67v cards (selection)


The scene of the fight between Enyas and the Wildman was juxtaposed on most caskets with the depiction of the knight Galahad receiving the keys to the castle, where innocent maidens were imprisoned. This is a completely different story, but it is worth noting that the story of Galahad, who released these maidens, could be understood as a reference to the releasing of righteous souls from the Abyss by Christ. By means of this reference, the negative assessment of the ungrateful behaviour on the part of the wench saved by Enyas, was emphasised by contrast. On the other hand, Galahad released the maidens completely selflessly, while Enyas probably hoped that the rescued damsel would reject the young man’s favours and would remain his companion.

Ivory casket decorated with scenes from chanson de geste – detail (shorter right side: Enyas and the Wildman and Galahad by the castle)


Although in the recalled story, the old knight Enyas is rather a positive character, in other stories authors were not so gracious towards ageing men who succumbed to the charm of evil women. Even ancient men of authority could not avoid the role of an old man ridiculed by a young woman in medieval legends.

Medieval dominatrix

Ivory casket – detail (left part of the front, Aristotle admonishes Alexander and Filis on Aristotle’s back),
Paris, ca. 1310-30, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, 17.190.173a, b; 1988.16


In the high Middle Ages, during the development of universities in Western Europe, Aristotle enjoyed great respect – and at the same time, this ancient philosopher began to function as a character in stories that were somewhat mocking. Probably in the 13th century, the tale of Filis and Aristotle appeared: here the wise man was to admonish Alexander the Great that the ruler devotes too much time and energy to the beautiful Filis. However, in fact, the philosopher desired the tempting woman – and she, aware of his weakness, decided to take revenge on him for trying to break her relationship with Alexander. By conveying to Aristotle that perhaps his desires would be satisfied, Filis ordered him to act as a steed: carry her on his all fours, while she, putting a bridle on him, stirred him up with a whip. Alexander the Great witnessed this humiliation of the great philosopher – on the caskets we see the ruler when he makes fun of the observed scene, standing on the walls of the castle in the background.

The scene of Filis riding on Aristotle’s back functioned in medieval art as an allegory of the sin of promiscuity. Therefore, this motif, despite its erotic message, often appeared in sacral art: in the decorations of Gothic churches (for example, the presbytery of St. Mary’s Basilica in Kraków) or on the margins of prayer books.

Obscene revenge

Virgil in the basket and revenge on the emperor’s daughter, the upper part of the ivory plaque,
Paris, ca. 1340-1360, Walters Art Museum w Baltimore, 71.267

 

The story of Filis and Aristotle was often juxtaposed with another story, also popular mainly in the late Middle Ages; that time its main character was the Roman poet Virgil. Admittedly, the subject did not appear on the Cracovian casket, but we can find it, for example, on the Lord Gort Casket (Winnipeg Art Gallery) or on ivory plaques, kept at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and in the British Museum in London (Paris, the middle of the 14th century). It is a scene showing Virgil in a basket: the poet was supposed to have fallen in love with the emperor’s daughter, who mocked him cruelly. She offered him a night together in a room at the top of the tower: the poet was to get there in a basket, pulled through the window by the emperor’s daughter. Unfortunately, halfway the girl stopped pulling the rope and Virgil got stuck: in the morning he became a laughingstock when the citizens of Rome saw him hanging in a basket against the tower wall. Yet, Virgil was a wizard and he remembered his powers, albeit a touch later. Escaping from Rome, he put a curse on the city, as a result of which none of the residents was able to light a fire. To put an end to this catastrophe, the Romans followed the instructions of the offended Virgil: they brought the mean emperor’s daughter to the square and stripped her naked. Then they lit candles and torches from the fire which, as a result of spells cast by Virgil, leaked from her intimate parts.

Complementary scenes

Certainly, the juxtaposition of scenes on individual walls of these caskets is not a random compilation. Interestingly, at the same time, the examples preserved until today show us that the artists decorated these objects according to several slightly differing patterns. For example, the story of Filis and Aristotle in some cases (e.g. on caskets in Kraków, Birmingham, Florence, New York) was juxtaposed with the story of the tragic love of Pyram and Tysbe, while on others (in London and Baltimore) with the depiction of the Fount of Youth, the bath in which was supposed to reverse the flow of time and undo the signs of ageing.

Ivory casket – detail (front: the story of Filis and Aristotle and the Fount of Youth)
 Paris, 2nd quarter of the 14th century), Walters Art Museum w Baltimore, 71.264


The analysis of the decoration patterns on the discussed caskets allows us to draw the conclusion that the scenes were compiled to complement each other in terms of the message conveyed, usually following the principle of contrast. Therefore, it seems that the story of Aristotle could have functioned in several slightly different contexts. Its juxtaposition on some caskets with the story of unhappy lovers who committed suicide as a result of a misunderstanding (Pyram killed himself out of despair, thinking that his beloved had been devoured by a lion, and then Tysbe, witnessing his death, took her own life) was probably aimed at highlighting the contrast between pure and true love, stronger than death (Pyram and Tysbe), and lustfulness, which leads the lust-driven sage to animalism (Aristotle and Filis).

Ivory casket decorated with scenes from chanson de geste – frontal part (the story of Filis and Aristotle and the story of Pyram and Tysbe)


Meanwhile, the combination of the same story about Aristotle and the Fount of Youth focuses on another aspect: it is a combination of old age and youth in contrasted approaches: positive (spiritual) and mocking (bodily). On the one hand, we see older men who regain their youth, immersing themselves in a wonderful fountain – such a bath could symbolise the purification of soul from sins. On the other hand – we have a lascivious sage, who can be ridiculed by a young woman because – being oblivious of his age and social position – he wanted to feel like a young lover.

Old age ridiculed

Nowadays, we often say that we live in a culture of youth: commercial and entertainment visual messages promote the paragon of an energetic, successful young man. The analysis of this phenomenon sometimes goes hand in hand with the assumption that this cult of youth is characteristic of our time, while in the past centuries higher value was attached to wisdom and experience which could only be achieved with age. However, medieval literature shows us that in those times old age was not so much respected as we would want to think today. Old men very often appeared in ridiculous stories: infirm and often cheated on by young wives. A very clear example of the negative perception of old age in medieval culture can be the 13th-century poem The Romance of the Rose. In the first part, which Guillaume de Lorris probably wrote in 1225–30, the character (Lover) reaches a garden surrounded by a wall; paintings of personifications of weakness are visible on the wall. Next to Hatred, Greed or Hypocrisy, there is also Old Age, treated as one of the vices that do not have access to the garden of courtly love.

The Romance of Rose, 2nd quarter 15th century, Czartoryski Library in Kraków (National Museum in Kraków), manuscript of Ms. Czart. 2920 IV, p. 7 (Vieillesse – “Old age”) and p. 201 (Sicom la vieille enseigne belaccueil – “How the Old Woman admonishes the Friendly One”)

In the second part of the poem, which Jean de Meun wrote 40 years later, there appears a figure of an Old Woman, who is an experienced lady advising young girls. Her speech is full of cynicism: the old woman appears to be calculating, and her advice seems surprisingly immoral. Therefore, the negative image of old age in this poem is not a critique of old age, but rather of this cynicism that arises from life experiences gathered over the years. The crone in The Romance of Rose gives young girls, for example, such advice:

“Briefly all men betray and deceive women; all are sensualists, taking their pleasure anywhere. Therefore, we should deceive them in return, not fix our hearts on one. Any woman who does so is a fool; she should have several friends and, if possible, act so as to delight them to the point where they are driven to distraction.”

And so, the medieval old woman brings up another generation of femmes fatales ..., who then, perhaps, will humiliate other old men. And we, several hundred years later, will be able to discover these disturbing aspects of the culture of those days, enchanted in the delightful masterpieces of Parisian craft and medieval literature.

The text quotes a fragment of The Romance of Rose, translated by Charles Dahlberg, Princeton University Press, 3rd edition, Princeton 1995.

Elaborated by Magdalena Łanuszka, PhD
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland.

 

Magdalena Łanuszka, PhD – a graduate of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków with a PhD in the History of Art, a specialist in the Middle Ages. She has cooperated with various institutions: in the field of didactics (giving lectures at, among others, the Jagiellonian University, the Heritage Academy, numerous Universities of the Third Age), research work (including for the University of Glasgow, The Polish Academy of Learning), as well as in popularizing science (e.g. for the Polish National Archives, the National Institute of Museology and Protection of Collections, the National Library, Radio Kraków, and Tygodnik Powszechny). She is the coordinator of the project Art and Heritage in Central Europe at the International Cultural Centre in Kraków as well as the editor-in-chief of the local RIHA Journal. The author of a blog on looking for interesting facts related to art: www.posztukiwania.pl.

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Medieval adulterous love

The ivory casket from the treasury of the Cracovian cathedral belongs to the group of artefacts made in Paris in the 2nd quarter of the 14th century – these objects are decorated with scenes from medieval romances (see the text Medieval femme fatales). The sets of individual episodes complement each other according to the principle of contrast: for example, stories about pure love were contrasted with legends about adultery. However, the snag is that many medieval romances are structured so that instead of condemning sinful lovers, we all root for their immoral relationship.

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Magdalena Łanuszka

The ivory casket from the treasury of the Cracovian cathedral belongs to the group of artefacts made in Paris in the 2nd quarter of the 14th century – these objects are decorated with scenes from medieval romances (see the text Medieval femme fatales). The sets of individual episodes complement each other according to the principle of contrast: for example, stories about pure love were contrasted with legends about adultery. However, the snag is that many medieval romances are structured so that instead of condemning sinful lovers, we all root for their immoral relationship.

Tristan and Isolde

The legend of Tristan was very popular in the Middle Ages: several versions of the story have survived, and there were probably more in circulation. The oldest texts constituting the basic story are dated to the 2nd half of the 12th century, while the later, 13th century The Prose Tristan expanded on the description of the character’s adventures, setting him among the Arthurian Knights of the Round Table. The scene in the garden, featured on the ivory caskets, does not illustrate the stories remaining in the preserved text records faithfully.

Ivory casket decorated with scenes from chanson de geste detail (shorter left side: fragment with Tristan and Isolde), 2nd quarter of 14th century, Paris, The Wawel Cathedral treasury (The Wawel Royal Cathedral).
Digitalisation: Terramap Ltd., public domain

 

Not coincidentally, the presentation of Tristan and Isolde next to a tree can be associated visually with the depiction of Adam and Eve when they committed the original sin. The lovers met in the garden in seclusion – however, they were followed by Isolde’s husband, King Mark, who hid in a tree to overhear their conversation and find out whether he was being cuckolded. Fortunately, fate favoured the lovers and they realised that they were being followed. The scene carved on ivory caskets contains two representations of King Mark’s head: one is visible up in the tree and the other one lies under the feet of Tristan and Isolde. In fact, that other head is a reflection: Mark’s face, which the lovers saw in the stream flowing under the tree. Of course, in that situation, Tristan and Isolde – pretending not to notice the presence of the king – conducted an innocent conversation, as a result of which Isolde’s husband concluded that the rumours about their romance were only a vicious rumour.

Isolde holds a small dog in her hands, which is a symbol of fidelity (yet marital fidelity it is not!). Tristan has a falcon in his hand, which is a very popular attribute in the case of the depictions of medieval lovers.

Ivory casket – detail (left side: fragment with Tristan and Isolde), Paris, ca. 1310–30,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art w Nowym Jorku, 17.190.173a, b; 1988.16

Signs of virginity

The adulterous love of Tristan and Isolde was supposed to be justified by the fact that the couple had drunk a love potion by accident – therefore Isolde fell in love not with her future husband, King Mark, but with his nephew Tristan, who escorted her to her fiancé. The lovers consummated their relationship, which caused Isolde a problem with her wedding night: she wanted King Mark to think that he had married a virgin. Finally, Isolde’s honour was saved by her maid Brangien, who replaced Isolde in King Mark’s bed during the wedding night. But in fact, hardly any of medieval ladies had a maid ready to surrender her virginity on behalf of her mistress ... apparently, Isolde’s problem was not detached from the medieval reality. Because in contemporary medical and cosmetic treaties we can also uncover recipes for recovering the signs of virginity! For instance, among the works connected with the 11th-century (female) physician Trota of Salerno there is a book entitled De curis mulierum (“On the treatment of women”), which contains, among others, information on how to “feign” virginity with a leech put in the right place before the wedding night. By the way, this treaty also contains recipes for curing lips, cracked from too much kissing.

However, while a husband may always be somehow deceived, according to medieval legends unicorns could not be deceived in the matters of virginity. These mythical creatures could only be captured by a genuine virgin, lured by her innocence. The scene with Tristan and Isolde was juxtaposed on the ivory caskets – by way of contrast – with the depiction of the hunt for a unicorn.

Ivory casket – detail (left side: Tristan and Isolde and The hunt for a unicorn),
Paris, 2nd quarter of the 14th century), Walters Art Museum w Baltimore, 71.264

Lancelot and Guinevere

The love triangle of Tristan, Isolde and Mark, in which there are simply no “good” and “bad” characters, is a repetition of the triangle formed by Lancelot, Queen Guinevere and her husband, King Arthur. Lancelot’s adventures, also related to his love for Guinevere, found a place too among the scenes decorating ivory caskets.

The scenes shown on the caskets illustrate stories of Lancelot, so extremely popular in the Middle Ages: in the oldest version preserved in the texts of the twelfth century poet Chrétien de Troyes, probably created at the request of Marie, the Countess of Champagne, and popularised in a song called Lancelot in prose (so-called The Vulgate Cycle), created in the 1st three decades of the 13th century. It was in this prose (in some versions of the song) that Lancelot’s combat with the lions was mentioned, to which one of the scenes from the caskets may refer. However, the main element of this depiction is Lancelot crossing the sword bridge.

Ivory casket decorated with scenes from chanson de geste 
– detail (fragment of the rear side: Fighting the lion and Lancelot on the sword bridge)

 

Chrétien de Troyes described the story of the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere; it began with the fact that the queen was kidnapped by the villainous Maleagant, and Lancelot headed out to rescue her. It was precisely during this expedition that the knight was supposed to cross the sword bridge. He was so concentrated on his mission to save the queen that he did not even notice the wounds he had suffered on this occasion. Love made Lancelot the ultimate ideal of a knight – and yet, in Chrétien’s story, we also find elements of a critical evaluation of this relationship: Lancelot accepts humiliation for the queen, and in turn she treats him almost cruelly. However, eventually, the knight’s reward is a night spent in his beloved woman’s chamber. Some fragments of Chrétien’s story are somewhat irrelevant (for example, the daydreaming Lancelot fell into a stream, yearning for Guinevere, or his fainting at the sight of her hair tangled in a comb) – presumably because the author did not wish to explicitly glorify adulterous and sinful love.

On the caskets, the scenes with Lancelot are juxtaposed with Gawain’s adventure, who freed innocent maidens imprisoned in a castle, killing a lion and victoriously passing the test of the magic bed, which attacked him with swords and missiles. However, unlike Lancelot, Gawain did not pursue his deeds to win the heart and body of somebody else’s wife.

Ivory casket decorated with scenes from chanson de geste 
– rear part (left side: two scenes with Lancelot, right side: two scenes with Gawain)


Arthurian paintings at the court of the Piasts

It is estimated that the casket from the treasury of the Kraków cathedral might have belonged to Queen Jadwiga of Poland (Anjou dynasty) – Arthurian legends were doubtlessly known both at the courts of the Piasts and the Jagiellons. Excellent proof, and at the same time a unique relic thereof, are the decorations of the Ducal Tower in Siedlęcin (Lower Silesia Province) from the 1st half of the 14th century. The founder of the tower and the paintings adorning it was Henry I Duke of Jawor-Świdnik, whose wife was Agnes of the Premyslids.

The two stripes of decorations in Siedlęcin display the adventures of Lancelot: his victorious struggles with several opponents and the episode telling the story of how he divinely healed Sir Urry. Simultaneously, however, the upper part of the decoration in Siedlęcin shows the beginning of the sinful relationship between the knight and the queen, whom he had rescued from the hands of Maleagant. Guinevere and Lancelot were portrayed there as a couple holding hands; it is an apparently marital gesture, but in this case one detail is very significant: they are holding each other’s left, not right hand! This is because their relationship is adulterous.

Paintings in the Ducal Tower in Siedlęcin, the forties of the 14th century, photo by Pnapora. On the right – detail: Lancelot and Guinevere, photo by Ludwig Schneider


Unfaithful women

Similarly to the text about medieval femme fatales, the present entry can also be concluded with a quote from the Romance of the Rose, a thirteenth-century allegorical poem dealing mainly with issues revolving around love. Here, in the speech of an old woman addressing young maidens, we will find clear consent for marital unfaithfulness – most notably in the case of women who are advised by the Crone to have not only one, but several lovers simultaneously:

“women are born free. The law, which takes away
the freedom in which Nature placed them, has put them under conditions.
[…]
This fact must
give a good deal of excuse to Venus, since she wanted to use her
freedom, and to all ladies who play around, no matter how much
they are bound in marriage, for Nature makes them act thus be-
cause she wants to draw them to freedom. Nature is a very strong
thing; she surpasses even training.”

In another part of this poem, there appear words of advice for those who desire peace in marriage, from which it turns out that the recipe for a happy life is a large dose of leniency, which a man should show to his beloved:

“if he finds her
even in the act, he should take care not to open his eyes in that
direction. He should pretend to be blind, or more stupid than a
buffalo, so that she may think it entirely true that he could detect
nothing. And if anyone sends her a letter he should not interpose
by reading it or looking it over or trying to find out their secrets.”

Although while reading Arthurian romances we root for Tristan and Isolde or even Lancelot and Guinevere, we cannot expect a happy end: eventually, death seals the misfortunes of lovers. Perhaps if King Arthur and King Mark had followed the aforementioned advice and acknowledged their wives’ infidelity with dignity, the stories described in the romances would have taken a slightly less tragic turn.

The text quotes a fragment of The Romance of Rose, translated by Charles Dahlberg, Princeton University Press, 3rd edition, Princeton 1995.

Read also: Medieval femme fatales

Elaborated by Magdalena Łanuszka, PhD
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland.

 

Magdalena Łanuszka, PhD – a graduate of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków with a PhD in the History of Art, a specialist in the Middle Ages. She has cooperated with various institutions: in the field of didactics (giving lectures at, among others, the Jagiellonian University, the Heritage Academy, numerous Universities of the Third Age), research work (including for the University of Glasgow, The Polish Academy of Learning), as well as in popularizing science (e.g. for the Polish National Archives, the National Institute of Museology and Protection of Collections, the National Library, Radio Kraków, and Tygodnik Powszechny). She is the coordinator of the project Art and Heritage in Central Europe at the International Cultural Centre in Kraków as well as the editor-in-chief of the local RIHA Journal. The author of a blog on looking for interesting facts related to art: www.posztukiwania.pl.

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Ivory casket decorated with scenes from chanson de geste

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