Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Medieval Gilt-bronze Reliquary Chasse Mount

This marvelous object turned up at the ploughed out site of a small medieval building I worked hard & long back in 2004/5. As mentioned in a previous post about an Edward Confessor penny, there were village rumours about a medieval establishment having have once stood nearby, a place the locals called, 'The Priory.'

Before this item was located, I'd found plenty of higher grade medieval material there — nothing spectacular though, just larger and more expensive buckles and brooches than were usual in the locality, and other clear signs of wealth. I had, of course, dismissed the local rumours of the one-time existence of this legendary 'priory' as the product of overactive imaginations and thought the site nothing more interesting than a house.

However, that all changed when this mount flipped out of the soil and saw the light of day for the first time in the best part of a millennium. I hadn't a clue what it actually was at first, the surface covered in impacted fine soil, though I thought I could see curvilinear decoration that appeared almost Iron Age in style.

I suppose the shape of the object conjured up mental images of a miniature celtic shield, and that, together with the fact that just a few weeks earlier I'd found an Iron Age potin nearby, led to my apprehending what the eye is accustomed to, and that is what it already knows well. However, on washing, the intriguing object, now free of much of the heavy soil it was caked in when found, began to take on an altogether different complexion. All thoughts of having found a really special Iron Age object fell away to be replaced with the equally special thought that I'd found something just as remarkable, but Medieval.

I knew that I'd seen something very similar before, but couldn't for the life of me remember exactly where. Trawling through the Internet and scanning through every book I could find on medieval art in search of similar, drew a resounding blank. The style of the decoration rang a bell though. Late saxon period inhabited vine-scroll ornament was similar, but this ornament had no beasts in it, so it wasn't that, but it was a start in the right direction...

Then, on one of my regular trips to the British Museum, after viewing just about every medieval thing in it, both early and late, I was suddenly confronted with the truth of the matter when I turned a corner, peered into a cabinet, and saw the very thing riveted onto a beautifully decorated and sumptuous reliquary chasse covered in enameled gilt-bronze panels.


Copyright © The Trustees of the British Museum

There it was, in all its former glory. The mount on the chasse was almost exactly the same size as the one I'd found, was nearly the same shape, had the same four rivet holes, and still had its original cabochon of a massive rock crystal gem, in situ. The only real difference was the decoration, where my find beat the BM example into a cocked hat, because it wasn't decorated in the same way or to the same degree, however, the gilt-bronze panels of the casket were decorated, and decorated in the very same style - with 'uninhabited' vine-scroll ornament of the 12th century.

Now, examples of medieval ecclesiastical metalwork of any type or form are excessively rare as finds from British soil. Hardly any come up each year, and those that do are usually very rare bits and pieces of altar or processional crosses, such as crucifix figures, figurines of saints, and other decorative elements, but parts of reliquary chasse are almost unheard of. To have found such a thing, a bona-fide item of ecclesiastical metalwork of very high quality and of high style too, in a place where once a priory is rumoured to have once stood, is either a miracle of chance, or clear material evidence that the rumours of 'The Priory' were, after centuries of degenerating folk memory, true after all.


12th Century gilt-bronze reliquary chasse mount, decorated with vine scroll ornament, cabochon of (probably) rock crystal missing. 4 rivet holes, reverse plain. Dimensions 58 x 36 x 6.5mm. Epping Forest District, Essex.

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