Relics & Reliquaries

Panels from a Window Showing the Life and Martyrdom of St. Vincent of Saragossa

The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Panels from a Window Showing the Life and Martyrdom of St. Vincent of Saragossa

ZoomSelect the image to zoom

The Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in Paris, was founded in the sixth century when Germain, or Germanus, the bishop of Paris (d. 576), persuaded King Childebert (r. 511–58) to build a monastery to protect the relic of the tunic of St. Vincent of Saragossa. Eventually, the abbey came to be dedicated to Germain himself, rather than Vincent, but the tunic continued to be an important relic, and in 1215 another relic of Vincent, his jawbone, was given to the abbey by the future king Louis VIII (r. 1223–26). When a new chapel dedicated to the Virgin was built in the 1240s, windows depicting the lives and relics of Sts. Vincent and Germain were installed; fragments of the Vincent windows, dispersed after the French Revolution, have survived in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the parish church of Wilton, Wiltshire, England. The bright colors of these panels are typical of stained glass produced in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and the geometric arrangement of the scenes was also common in windows from this period. Although only fragments have survived, the complete program of the Vincent windows has been reconstructed. It is likely that two windows existed: one recounted his martyrdom, while the other displayed scenes related to his relics. Many medieval stained glass windows depicted the lives and miracles of individual saints, but the relics themselves were an unusual topic; perhaps this choice at Saint-Germain-des-Prés was related to the near–contemporary Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, a royal chapel that housed several relics from the Passion of Christ, and included stained glass windows that depicted the purchase of those relics and their arrival in Paris.

The panels in Baltimore, although now displayed as a reconstructed lancet and a separate panel, were probably parts of a single large window showing the life and martyrdom of St. Vincent. As it stands today, the reconstructed lancet reads from bottom to top, a common arrangement for medieval windows with narrative stories. In the lowest panels, Vincent, dressed in red, preaches to a crowd, accompanied by his mentor, Bishop Valerius, dressed in yellow. Above this, Vincent is tortured over fire at the command of the provincial governor, Dacian (the right-hand portion of this scene is a modern replacement; the original panel is in the Victoria and Albert Museum). Above this, the panel on the left is a modern, abstract replacement of a lost episode in the story, and on the right, Vincent is imprisoned in a tower. According to a medieval account of the saint's life, the floor of the tower was covered with sharp pieces of broken pottery, but these miraculously changed to flower petals when Vincent was imprisoned. In the next set of panels, Vincent is shown on his deathbed on the left, his soul carried to heaven by angels, while on the right his body is left out in the wilderness, where it is protected from wild animals by an angel and a raven. In the uppermost panels, the saint's body is thrown into the sea, weighed down with a millstone to ensure that it will sink. Not depicted in these panels, the body was later miraculously washed to shore, where Vincent's faithful friends could bury him.

The separate panel shows one of the tortures endured by Vincent before he was martyred: the saint is being broken on a rack while two men tear his flesh with iron hooks. The extended hand of the governor Dacian, commanding the two torturers in their work, can be seen at the far left.

Kathryn B. Gerry