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Altar plates and Frontal

An Altar is a monumental and essential component of liturgy and Limousin artists worked to decorate it with enamelled plates. Unfortunately, very few amongst them reached us in a complete condition; most often, theyare found  as a few scattered plates.


The Altar is the major venue for liturgy, it is situated over the Saint’s relics, or failing that, a smaller table, holding the relics, is nested under the larger altar table; it is the Consecration Stone without which divine mysteries cannot be performed.



The extensive production of Limoges workshops during XII and XIII centuries, The left its mark on the treasures preserved in Galician Churches and Cathedrals. It was facilitated by the geographic location of Limoges, at commercial and religious trading roads in this medieval space, open to traffic, to commissions and diffusion of enamelled objects like the Altar Frontal of the Cathedral of Orense (Galicia, Spain), subject of study of the present Committee and which is actually preserved in a partitioned state.


This piece was commissioned by Bishop Alphonso who governed the episcopal seat of Orense for thirty nine years. Despite the doubts that could be raised on the possible origin of this model, one can assume that it was commissioned for a specific purpose with a very special agendagiven the fact that this enamelled work of Limousin manufacture depicts althogether three great Saints, Saint patrons of major pilgrimage sanctuaries: Saint Martin of Tours, patron of the Cathedral of Orense, Saint Martial, Bishop of Limoges, and Saint Jacques of Compostel.


(Source- Louvre Josepha Gallego-Lorenzo)



(Sierra de Aralar)


The frontal altar of the Virgin Queen and the Three Kings, created and completed around 1170 for the Sagrario of the Cathedrale of Pamplune, displays two utterly Limousin innovations: enamel images outlined with light coloured stripes along the sides and golden background , in a vermiculé style pattern. This vegetal decoration traverses the decorated field without ever overstepping the single sphere where abound spires, their eyelets and their tendrils whose spirals never intertwine. The embossed heads, the small pillars and the arches, in openwork carving, reveal a piece of work and an architectural setting  similar to that of the Urna de Silos.


The restorations and transformations the frontal was subjected to , when it was transferred from Pamplune to the Sanctuary of San Miguel in Excelsis, redesigned its configuration and status to convert it in a retable.


(Source - “Work of Limoges” /Louvre Museum)


This is a major specimen of European medieval goldsmithery, listed as a “Protected Historical Monument” Attributed to a Limousin workshop, this XII century roman retable-altar is exhibited behind a window on the high altar of the Church of the Sanctuary of San Miguel in Aralar (Spain).


Thirty seven enamel pieces create a peculiar collection of characters, harmoniously set in this altar’s cladding made of metal and which measures 2m. wide by 1,40 m. high. In the centre, features the main character, a Virgin and Child, harboured in a mandorla. In keeping with the Roman Canon, The Virgin Mary acts as a throne for  crowned Infant Jesus, blessing with his right hand and carrying the Holy Book with his left hand. The Virgin’s feet rest on an artistic stool. Attention can be paid to both sides of the head, featuring the letters Alpha and Omega and, underneath, the Star of the Epiphany. A representation of the Tetramorph surrounds Mother and Son, instead of that of the traditional Saviour, which is unusual. It symbolizes the four Evangelists: an angel for Saint Matthew, an eagle for Saint John, a winged lion for Saint Mark and a bull for Saint Luke. On both sides,  welve arches symmetrically set, frame each character. Easily identified, are the Magi with their offerings; six Apostles, amongst them, features Saint Peter, holding the Kingdom key in his hand; the Virgin, and the Offering King. Between the arches, buildings representing the Heavenly Jerusalem, can be seen. One can admire the features and the attire of each character, individualized with great virtuosity. The gilded folds of tunics perfectly match the combination of indigo blue, green and other hints of white, black and red. The finely chiselled heads and feet of all the characters are also striking. The absence of medallions and of some arches are a reminder of the theft of many of these master pieces by the art thief Eric Le Belge, in 1979. Luckily, they are all recovered today.



Around 1231, these decorated plates depict Apostles Jacques (New York, Metropolitan Museum), Phillip (Saint Petersburg, Hermitage), Matthew (Petit Palais Museum in Paris). Exceptional through their workmanship and their refinement, these Apostles’ plates are specimens which portray the “1200” trend in Limousin.


Saint Matthew depiction plate as that of the five other plates is arch-shaped and pierced with seven mounting holes. These plates depicting Apostles, all identified by a caption, are thought to come from the Abbey of Grandmont, destroyed in 1790.


The altar would have comprised of thirteen plates as local tradition would associates Martial, Patron Saint of Limoges, to the Twelve Apostles. Saints are represented in high-relief. In a very plastic style, seating on a small stand and holding the Gospel in the left hand, they stand out on an enamelled background of scrolls. The monumental and exceptional scenery is enhanced by cabochon gems which decorate clothes, the book cover and the eyes. This powerful relief with gradual variations resumes in the engraving with much sophistication and is reminiscent of the beginning of  XIII century statuary.


The images of the Apostles of the high altar of Grandmont  are actually similar to some sculptures of grand gothic statuary, like the statues of transepts gates of the Cathedral of Chartres (around 1210-1230). Through their severe expression, the somewhat classic drapery processing and the halo reminiscent of a small cap, these large applique images make this artwork a testimony of the “1200” trend in enamel craft. This “1200” style, expanded to the North of France and in the valleys of the Meuse and Rhine but, as portrayed in the slender representation of the Apostles and the folds of their clothes, it expanded, at the beginning of the XIII century, in Limoges region as well.                


(Source - Louvre Museum)



The enamel cladding restored in the XVIII century, under the labelling “frontal”, which was removed from the Urna de Santo Domingo, is preserved in the Museum of Burgos.


Through its blatant range of colours and the style of its manufacture, the   Urna of Silos, illustrates the perfect consencus for the Abbey of Silos and in Silos, between the master craftsman and the sponsor.


The iconographic theme of the Apostolado, displayed as a tryptish depicts the parousic Majesty of the Lord in the middle panel and the Twelve Apostles in groups of six, on the side panels, their tall images feature under The Heavenly Jerusalem arches, standing on small pillars engraved in the domed copper. Hereafter, these highly embossed heads will be attached to the cladding plates, casted in various manners and in progressively smaller modules: they put the stamp on this “Work of Limoges”.


(Source - ”the Work of Limoges” / Louvre Museum)


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The Limousin enamel door, commissioned by Innocent III, for the Confession of Saint Peter was covered with enamel plates. This commission  for the enamelled Holy Door of the Confession of Saint Peter in the Vatican is the result of the Latran IV Council in 1215.

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