Relics & Reliquaries

Portable Altar

The British Museum, London
Copyright © The Trustees of the British Museum

Portable Altar

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This altar contains the relics of forty saints whose names are inscribed on the reverse. As with the St. Eustace head reliquary, the relics within (which include hair identified by its label as that of St. John the Evangelist and semiprecious stones associated with St. Christopher) are wrapped in textiles and labeled. A range of materials have been used in the decoration of the altar, partly for variety and also to show the expense of the object. The central stone is bordered with a sheet of gilt copper, engraved with symbols of the Evangelists (angel, eagle, ox, and lion) and the figures of Sts. Peter, Andrew, Stephen, and Lawrence. This is held in place by silver nails with floral heads. Four compartments are cut out of this panel. The top and bottom hold walrus ivory carvings of the Crucifixion and the Virgin and Child. Painted miniatures on vellum, covered with rock crystal, depict two bishops of Hildesheim: on the left St. Bernard (r. 993–1022) and, on the right, his successor, St. Godehard (r. 1022–38). The rock crystal covers protect the images and magnify them. Detailed portraits such as these were easier to execute on vellum than enamel or ivory. Manuscript illuminations were expensive, prestige items; these paintings were cut down from larger pages that were recycled for their value.

The multiplicity of relics stored within the altar served to increase its sacredness. The altar was blessed, so that it became a traveling consecrated space itself. This was also a way of helping those who could not undertake pilgrimages or reach places that housed relics come into contact with this holy material.

Naomi C. Speakman