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Reliquary Adoration of the Magi enamels chasses

The Limoges artists’ style and that of their clients for the depiction of the Adoration of the Magi is therefore most probably linked to the 12th century Limousin liturgical customs which connected the Offertory during mass and the offering of presents by the Kings.

During the Feast of Epiphany, a costumed procession even evoked the procession of the three Kings. The theme, furthermore, was undoubtedly in tune with the courteous traditions of Aquitaine and the atmosphere at the court of the Plantagenêt, permitting the Limoges enamellers to bestow a secular and contemporary highlight to this depiction of one of the most famous episodes of Christ’s “Childhood”.


The murals in the crypt in the Limoges Cathedral contain depictions of the Magi. Furthermore a liturgical drama and some popular feasts prolonged over a long time, attest to the special veneration that Limoges nurtured for the Three Magi. Even the three Plantagenêt Princes, Henry, Richard and John, while young boys, acted as Magi in 1173, during a ceremony in tribute to the King of France..…The Limoges workshops therefore embrace this trend found throughout European courts in the XII century.Amongst the 26 reliquary caskets that are preserved, two main groups of Limousin caskets illustrating this theme can be identified. The first consists of a few pieces completed in the years 1175-1185, depicting “champlevé” enamelled images and ornaments on vermiculated backgrounds featuring the scene of the procession of the Three Magi presenting their gifts to the Child (Christ) held by the Virgin. (Copenhagen, Saint-Petersbourgh, Washington, the latter originating from Saint-Arnould of Metz).


The second group, to which our model belongs, is larger in quantity and in a later period by about twenty years. It differs through the inverted use of the previous décor: the images that are first engraved on copper in the background and then gilded, stand out on enamelled backgrounds adorned with rosettes.


Moreover, a second scene, earlier to the narration, is modified to the more traditional scene of the offering of gifts: the Kings also figure on the roof, riding at a joyful rhythm to worship the Child. The reliquary casket displays all the attributes of the finest Limousin enamelled art creations between the XII and XIII century.

Amongst similar and more well-known examples known to date can be mentioned the reliquary casket acquired by the British Museum in 1955 or that which was earlier kept in the church of Linard (Creuse) but today (is) in the Walters Art Museum of Baltimore.


Reliquary Adoration of the Magi enamels chasses
Reliquary Adoration of the Magi enamels chasses

In viewing Christ, acknowledging him as the Messiah, and presenting gifts to him, the three Magi provided a model of behavior for faithful Christians.

The gifts carried by the Magi would have reminded viewers of the sacred vessels used in the Mass, and the appearance of these crowned kings, mounted on horses, might also have resonated with members of the nobility. As with many other reliquaries of this type, the standing figures on the end panels are not identified as particular individuals, and should perhaps be understood as generic saints.


Many enameled caskets from Limoges have small doors that give access to the relics contained within, sometimes placed on the end panels, underneath the casket, or, as here, on the back panel. In this example, the door is complete with lock and key. The visibility of the door conveyed to pilgrims and other viewers that there was something inside worth protecting. Many medieval reliquaries have undergone significant repairs and refurbishments over the centuries, but this example appears to be unusually close to its original state, with only minor repairs made to the structural elements of the roof.


Kathryn B. Gerry

The Magi – or the Three Kings, the other name given in the medieval Occident, according to Matthew, to those who came to honour the Child King Jesus – representing the unique authority (and) the truly universal power in the New Testament.


Other observations followed. As Franz Cumont demonstrated a long time ago, that the first sculpted depictions of the Adoration of the Magi were Christian texts of plastic like depictions of the Roman imperial triumph.

Therefore it became clear that in the liturgy and in the arts, as well as in street performances in the Medieval Age, the Magi, on their way to the Adoration, were used to depict the very embodiment of Christianity’s triumph and the victory of kingdoms and cities, and that of men in a position of authority.


Thus, the Magi theme generally evoked power and control. It would seem, for example, that the Magi only appeared in Christian art after the bishops honoured Constantine as their King in early IV century; hence the Sign that Constantine saw in the sky could be assimilated to the Star of Bethleem.

One finds again previously, over periods of the ages, this symbolic association with power: in this way in the mosaics of Saint Vital de Ravenne,  Justinien and Theodora offer gifts to Jesus; the former is depicted with “The Star” of Constantine at his side; Theodora holds the gift in his hands and his robe is decorated with the image of the Adoration of the Magi.

During the height of Middle Ages, Nicolas de Bari praised his lord Frederic II as grand-son of Frederick Barbarossa and son of Emperor Henri IV, both dead.


 “These three emperors, said Nicolas, are like the Three Magi, who came with offerings to worship the God made man…and he is the youngest of the Three (“adolenscentior”), on whom the child Jesus placed his blissful hands and his holy arms”.


Thereafter, during the Renaissance, some artists depicted the Three Kings as members of the Hapsburg family and other dynasties, while some explorers left in search “of the country (countries) where the King who gifted gold to Jesus, came from”; once they had conquered, they staged processions of native Kings, on their way to the Epiphany Nativity Scene, so as to subjugate new nations to Madrid or to Rome.


 (Source - Les mages à la fin du Moyen Âge : un duo dynamique / Richard C. Trexler)

Reliquary Adoration of the Magi enamels chasses

Châsse de l'adoration des Mages de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

Besides the martyrdom of Thomas Becket and the legend of Saint Valery, the theme of the Adoration of the Magi is the most widespread narrative subject depicted on the reliquary caskets of the Work of Limoges . One may be surprised at the popularity of these thematic subjects in Limousin’s medieval goldsmithery during the Middle Ages.

The reliquary caskets were generally meant to preserve Christ’s relics or the relics of the Saint depicted in the decoration of the front panel. Should one then assume that the reliquary caskets dedicated to the Adoration of the Magi were purpose-built to receive the relics of the three kings or “the magi” ?


These relics, worshipped near Milan, were solemnly transported to Cologne Cathedral in 1164 and were placed shortly thereafter in a magnificent and monumental reliquary casket  attributed to the great enameller Nicolas de Verdun.



But there is nothing to suggest that a dispersion of relics would have, at the time or even later, fostered the manufacturing of more sober reliquaries by the Limoges workshops, similar to the type now kept in the Medieval National Museum.

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