mosan reliquary triptych



Romanesque, Belgian, possibly from Stavelot, Liège
ca. 1160 AD
Wood, gilt copper and champlevé enamel with a small wooden relic and twine behind glass
Height: 10.6 inches (26.8 cm)
Width (opened): 11.5 inches (29.2cm)
Provenance: Archbishop of Liège; the dukes of Arenberg, Brussels and Schloss Nordkirchen; the Guennol Collection.

Published: La Collection Dutuit, exhibition catalogue, [Paris: n.d.], description for plate XXVIII; O. van Falke and H. Grauberger, eds., Deutsche Schmelzarbeiten des Mittelaltes und anderen Kunstwerken, [Frankfort: 1904] p. 68; J. Helbig in Art flamande et hollandais, V [1906], p. 89, fig. 90; M. Creutz, “Die Goldschmiedekunst des Rhein-Maas-Gebietes” in Belgische Kunstdenmἂler, ed. P. Clemen, [Munich: 1923], I, p. 133; G. Terme, L’Art Ancien du Pays Liège [Liège: 1929] I, p. 9; J. Compte de Borchgrave d’Altena, “Des Figures de vertues dans l’art mosan au XIIe siècle,” Bulletin des Musées royaux d’art et d’histoire, V, [1933] p. 16; A. Katzenellenbogen, Allegories in the Virtues and Vices of Mediaeval Art [London:1939] p. 48, note. 2; E. B. Garrison, Jr., in The Burlington Magazine LXXXVIII, [September 1946] pp. 217 ff, pl. 11 f; idem., Italian Romanesque Panel Painting, [Florence: 1949] p. 137; S. Collon-Gevaert, Histoire des arts du metál en Belgique, Académie Royal du Belgique, Mémoires VII, [Brussels: 1951] p. 188; J. Lejeune, Art mosan et arts ancien du Pays Liège, exhibition catalogue, mentioned under no. 84; The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, IX, [June: 1951] p. 253, ill. ; H. Comstock, “The Connoisseur in America: Treasury for the Cloisters,” The Connoisseur, CXXVII , [January: 1952] p. 212, ill.; H. Swarzenski, “Italian and Mosan Shows in the Light of the Great Art Exhibitions,” The Burlington Magazine, XVC, [May: 1953] p. 157; Y. Hackenbroch, “A Triptych in the Style of Godefroid de Clair,” The Connoisseur, CXXXIV, [December, 1954] pp. 185-188, ill.; H. Swarzenski, Monuments of Romanesque Art , [Chicago: 1954] pls. 170, 172, figs. 376, 379; The Brooklyn Museum Bulletin, XVII, [Brooklyn: 1956] p. 10, fig. 3; The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, XIV, [June: 1956] p. 244; H. Swarzenski, “The Trip Song of the Three Worthies,” Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, LVI, [Boston: Spring 1958] pp. 31, 37, fig. 11; Ida Ely Rubin (editor), The Guennol Collection – Volume 1 [Metropolitan Museum, New York: 1975] pp. 151-164.

Exhibited: Hotel Gruuthuuse, Bruges, “Exposition des primitifs flamandes,” 1902; Liège, “Exposition de l’art ancien au pays du Liège,” 1905 Class I, no. Ia, 16; The Cloisters Museum, New York, 1951 until acquired by The Merrin Gallery.


This masterpiece of the sumptuous arts of the Middle Ages may come from the workshop of Godefroid du Hoy (erroneously called Godefroy de Clair), who was active in the twelfth century in the valley of the Meuse, a center for the finest such works. The jewel-like triptych, a panel with hinged wings that can be opened or closed as the liturgy and devotion required, preserves a relic of the True Cross, here a fragment of less than one inch, bound with twine within a small, framed compartment in the central panel, now protected by glass but at one time probably by rock crystal. Relics such as this one served to consecrate both the church and the altar, despite the fact that their veneration was not, in fact, sanctioned by the Church.

The wings of the triptych would normally be closed, concealing the glorious image inside. Their outer surfaces are decorated with an elegant design of interlocking circular and diamond lattices with tracery of vines created by a technique called émail brun in which linseed oil was painted onto the heated copper surface to produce an adhering layer through which the design was carefully scratched. The contrast between these negative (removed) monochrome panels and the positive (applied) polychrome lunette at the top, which is visible whether the wings are opened or closed, correlates to the contrast between the mysterious closed state and the revelations within.

The tri-lobed lunette, with a ring for grasping or suspension, announces the theme of the Resurrection. This is made manifest by the depiction of a draped, half figure of Christ, wearing a cruciform halo, who rises from a lush blue sky band and is surrounded by a blaze of clouds. He extends his hands to show his wounds and gesture to the crown of thorns and cup of vinegar on either side. Thus this scene shows the second coming of the Son of Man after his crucifixion.

When opened the scene of Resurrection of the lunette is reinforced by the imagery below. Angels labeled “Veritas” (truth) and “Judicium” (judgment), holding the lance and sponge – elements of the Passion – flank the cosseted relic of the Crucifixion. On the bottom half of the panel, a robed and crowned female figure, labeled “Justitia”, the personification of justice, stands within a gold mandorla surrounded by clouds. She holds a balance scale, thus equating the image with “Ecclesia”, the personification of religion or church. Rather than a scene of judgment, therefore, this is a scene of salvation, as Christ’s sacrifice “balanced” the sins of mankind. The virtues, Misericordia and Elemosina (mercy and almsgiving,) are personified as kneeling figures on either side within the gold mandorla. Upon the appearance of the risen Christ in the lunette, two angels, depicted on the inner panels of the wings, blow trumpets to signal the Resurrection of the Dead, who are seen to rise below them from their underworld resting places. Thus resurrection and salvation are promised to the faithful.

Translucent champlevé enamel in blue, white, yellow, green, and brown lend a sparkling radiance to the vivid scenes. In an innovative technique of the later twelfth century, the artist conveyed modeling of the figure by using subtle tonal gradations, breaking away from the earlier convention of “continuous silhouette contour lines”. Fewer metallic elements are employed as framing devices, too, lessening the divisions that might otherwise interrupt the flow of the composition.

A master goldsmith/enameller – whether Godefroid du Hoy or a member of his studio – created an intimate jewel that preserves and presents the significant relic and proclaims its role in mankind’s salvation with vibrant illustrations. Despite its small size, the triptych displays all the grandeur of a large-scale altarpiece. It is an acknowledged masterpiece of the Romanesque.