Relics & Reliquaries

The Franks Casket

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

The Franks Casket

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The Franks Casket was probably intended for use in a royal context. It is now incomplete; the lid lacks its framing inscription, and the right side-panel, separated from it in the early nineteenth century, is in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence. The casket's carved scenes draw on Roman, Jewish, Christian, and Germanic traditions and are accompanied by commentaries mainly in the runic alphabet (futhorc), in Old English and (briefly) Latin. The Adoration of the Magi on the front panel is set alongside the Germanic tale of the exiled Weland. Imprisoned by King Nithhad, Weland exacts a terrible revenge, murdering the king's two sons and raping his daughter. Weland is not an obvious parallel for Christ but both share the fate of exiles fleeing a tyrannical king and illustrate models of good (Christ) and bad (Nithhad) kingship. The lid depicts a siege from an unidentified episode in the life of the Germanic hero Egil, while the back shows the capture of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. This event was seen to symbolize the triumph of Christianity over Judaism, and the similar siege from the unknown Egil story probably echoes this theme. The left panel shows the legend of Romulus and Remus suckled by the wolf as a symbol of the mother Church offering succor. The enigmatic right panel is a wilderness scene identified by an encoded inscription that relates how Hos suffers at the hands of Ertae. These characters have not been identified, but in juxtaposition with the Romulus and Remus panel, which is representative of Christian salvation and life, this image is suggestive of paganism and death.

The casket resembles some fourth- to fifth-century ivory boxes such as that from Brescia, northern Italy. It served as a reliquary but was probably made to hold a holy text such as a Gospel, or the Psalms, and this may have been the original purpose of the Franks Casket. It has been linked to the cult of St. Julian at Brioude, where it may have served as a reliquary. In 1291, the lord of Mercoeur "made homage and swore loyalty to St. Julian, to the chapter and church of Brioude, and to the aforesaid dean, hand on the holy Gospels, and devoutly kissing a box of ivory filled with relics, as is the barons' custom." It has been suggested that the carved scenes might have been reinterpreted in such as way as to relate to the life of St. Julian, thus making the casket's conversion to a reliquary entirely plausible.

James Robinson