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The herm is a name for reliquaries taking anthropomorphic forms, especially busts with a place at the front called a reservaculum , where the relic was placed. The presented object depicts an unidentified saint. 

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The herm is a name for reliquaries taking anthropomorphic forms, especially busts with a place at the front called a reservaculum , where the relic was placed.
The presented object depicts an unidentified saint. This is a bust of a man shown en face. His face is very expressive, long and slim with the softly carved features of an old man with highlighted cheekbones. His large eyes with deepened corners are clearly cut off with a strongly prominent line of frowned, oblique brow ridges. The nose is straight, tapering at the base. The upper lip is obscured by a moustache while the lower one is prominent. The face is framed by a long, forked beard falling on the chest, wavy in the upper part with flowing and symmetrical tresses at the end. Mid-length hair falling on the shoulders and back, textured in symmetrical waves, and curled into thickly carved curls near his face. The man’s shoulders are covered with a smooth coat with a trimming, which has the remains of a rosette at the fastening point on the chest used as a reservaculum for the relic.
The stylistic features of the sculpture, including the particularly characteristic way of sculpting the face and hair, means that it may be assigned to a group of Małopolska’s sculptures made in the workshop of an anonymous Master who created works in the Upper Rhine-Munich style. The sculptures attributed to him so far include the enthroned figure of St. James (National Museum in Kraków), two sculptures of apostles from Jerzmanowice (currently in Saint Mary’s Basilica in Kraków) and perhaps the figure of St. Christopher from the church in Iwanowice. All these works, probably created in the same workshop, can be dated back to as early as c. 1500, although they were more likely created at the beginning of the 16th century.
The figure of St. James, whose features are closest to the discussed herm, was found in a chapel near Biecz, but it is presumed that it comes from a parish church in Biecz. Thus, the identified activities of the anonymous Master in this area may also confirm this attribution.
The discussed gothic herm is characterized by an extremely soft modelling of the face with a strong emotional charge, which points to the master’s skilful hand. Unfortunately, it has been poorly preserved. It has a wide crack at the front which runs through almost the entire sculpture. At the same time, the bottom is partially broken, so that only half of the reservaculum remains. Some remnants of mortar are visible on the sculpture, which proves that it used to be entirely polychromous in the past.

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.

Bibliography:
Walanus Wojciech, Późnogotycka rzeźba drewniana w Małopolsce 1490-1540, Kraków 2006.

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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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Gothic reliquary herm

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