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A small pouch made of a long piece of fabric sewn in half, reinforced on the sides with a silk tape, with a binding in the top part and a hole for a string used to tighten and loosen the pouch. At the bottom, there are decorative elements (tassels) consisting of gold circles made of thread and long single tassels. The whole pouch is embroidered with split stitch, long and short stitch and fishbone stitch. On one side, there are four human figures among thin trees with palmate leaves resembling oak leaves. On the other side, the same young woman is being led up a hill by the old man. Although interpretation of the scenes on the alms pouch is not certain, it is most likely they depict episodes from the story of Tristan and Iseult.  The tale of unhappy love of brave Tristan to beautiful Iseult, the wife of king Mark of Cornwall, was written down for the first time in the 12th century and has been reappearing since then in many countries and language versions. Scenes embroidered on the pouch, enrooted in the Arthurian tradition, depict the clash of a sophisticated world of courtly ways (young and beautiful lovers) with wild forces of nature (the old men). There are only several alms pouches with similar decorations preserved until now.

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A small pouch made of a long piece of fabric sewn in half, reinforced on the sides with a silk tape, with a binding in the top part and a hole for a string used to tighten and loosen the pouch. At the bottom, there are decorative elements (tassels) consisting of gold circles made of thread and long single tassels. The whole pouch is embroidered with split stitch, long and short stitch and fishbone stitch. On one side, there are four human figures among thin trees with palmate leaves resembling oak leaves. A young man grabs hair and hood of an older man. A young man behind his back accompanies him. The older man is running away with his arms extended in front of him. Above, another old man is leaning out of the tree crown, visible only from his shoulder upwards. On the other side, the same young woman is being led up a hill by the old man. Another old man is following her with an open book in his hands. There is clear distinction between the figures. The girl and the young man are a lady and knight, with their hair styled, dressed in elegant clothing, moving with sophisticated courtly elegance. She is wearing a sumptuous dress, too big in size, so that she has to hold it on her stomach to be able to walk without falling flat. He is wearing a short tunic with a belt and a sword and tights-boots. The old men have long hair and dense beards, they are wearing sweeping robes with hoods on their heads, they are also barefoot. The colour design of the embroidery, although most certainly faded, is still quite bright and vivid. The background was originally gold, so was the knight’s robe, while the composition is dominated by vivid greens, yellows, and ochres with pink, red, and blue accents. The decorative globes of thread were originally gold, while the tassels were red.
Church treasuries often include moneybag reliquaries called burse. It may be assumed that the said pouch is actually a reliquary mentioned in Inwentarz katedry krakowskiej [Inventory of Kraków Cathedral] of 1563, in the Chapel of Our Lady, as kalietka cum reliquis. There is no doubt however that it originally served as an alms pouch, that is a moneybag worn with a belt, used for safekeeping coins. It must have belonged to a wealthy person with a high position in social hierarchy, because the craftsmanship is of very high quality and the pouch is richly decorated in the figurative style. Although interpretation of the scenes on the alms pouch is not certain, it is most likely they depict episodes from the story of Tristan and Iseult. The tale of unhappy love of brave Tristan to beautiful Iseult, the wife of king Mark of Cornwall, was written down for the first time in the 12th century and has been reappearing since then in many countries and language versions. Scenes embroidered on the pouch, enrooted in the Arthurian tradition, depict the clash of a sophisticated world of courtly ways (young and beautiful lovers) with wild forces of nature (the old men). There are only several alms pouches with similar decorations preserved until now. The Kraków example is closest to two pouches from the 14th century XIV, one of which is stored in the cathedral treasury in Sens (inventory no C.106), the other in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg (inventory no 1956.137/St.21).
Due to the place of manufacture and relation to court culture, the alms pouch bears resemblance to another Wawel artefact, that is to an ivory chest decorated with a selection of scenes from chanson de geste. Both items might have found their way to Kraków thanks to queen Jadwiga. Family connections of the Hungarian d’Anjou court with the French dynasty speak for this hypothesis. Presence of luxurious French goods at Jadwiga’s court is highly probable, because written sources confirm her interest in art. Various traditions and sources of influence met at courts, thus, for example, exclusive fabrics made probably in Egypt and Spain were found in Jadwiga’s tomb 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 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.
Although the pouch was exhibited in two exhibitions in Kraków in 1883 and 1884, it had not been known to researchers and it had not been discussed in specialised sources. It was not even mentioned in catalogues, including the basic Katalog zabytków sztuki w Polsce [Catalogue of Monuments of Art in Poland]. It was described for the first time in 1991 in a monograph on medieval textiles written by German researcher in this field, Leonie von Wilckens. However, even such an event did not encourage Polish researchers to study this unusual work of art. As late as in 2000, a comprehensive catalogue entry was devoted to the pouch by Magdalena Piwocka, however, we still lack a thorough monograph study on this subject.

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

Bibliography: 
Katalog wystawy zabytków z czasów króla Jana III i jego wieku, Kraków 1883, p. 98, item 559;
Zabytki XVII wieku. Wystawa jubileuszowa w Krakowie 1883, Kraków 1884, s. tabl. XVII;
Leonie von Wilckens, Die textilen Künste. Von der Spätantike bis um 1500, München 1991, pp. 205–206, fig. 233 a–b;
Dariusz Nowacki, Skarbiec katedry na Wawelu w XIX wieku – zarys problematyki, "Studia Waweliana", III, 1994, p. 175;
Krzysztof J. Czyżewski, Muzeum katedralne na Wawelu, Kraków 1995, p. 7, fig. 7;
Magdalena Piwocka, Jałmużniczka, [in:] Wawel 1000–2000, vol. I: Katedra krakowska – biskupia, królewska, narodowa (Muzeum Katedralne na Wawelu, maj–wrzesień 2000), ed. M. Piwocka, D. Nowacki, Kraków 2000, kat. I/13, pp. 45–46.

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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 B.C., 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 woman's 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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