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Reliquary Saint Martial enamels chasses

The Abbey of Saint-Martial benefits from the workshops’ proximity and of the enamellers’ expertise to propagate the Aurelian legend. Through its orders, it promotes its Saints and their iconography to promulgate their “vita” and heighten their eminence. The dissemination arises predominantly from the illustrations on the reliquary caskets which are distributed throughout Europe.


The promotion of the Limousin Saints, particularly that of Saint Martial is amplified by his shift from his confessor status to that of Apostle. The abbey’s monks want to enhance their Saint’s fame and henceforth that of their shrine by achieving recognition of their Saint as the thirteenth apostle. The task of acknowledgement will be carried out through a change in the iconography and a status featured on equal terms with the other apostles.

With the “Vita Prolixior”, Saint Aurelian makes Saint Martial a young parent of Saint Peter. New and essential fact: hereafter he accompanies Christ and witnesses most miracles at the end of his public life. In this way, he is present at the resurrection of Saint Lazare, attends to the washing of the feet  and acts as cup-bearer in the scene.


Better still, he witnesses Christ’s resurrection, which sends him, with the other Twelve Apostles to preach the Gospel all over the world. He consequently attends to the Ascension and receives the Holy Spirit during Pentecost. For the first time, with this tale, an Abbey dares making its local Saint a Jew from Palestine.


 Thereupon, the “Proxilior Vita”  will exert a considerable influence on hagiographic production since, as early as the end of XIth century, the “Vitae d’Austriclinien”, from Saint Front de Périgueux or Saint Ursin of Bourges, make these individual Palestinians, companions contemporary of Christ, the oldest preserved manuscripts of the “Vita Proxilior” still describe Martial as “Confessor” and not as “Apostle” 


The finest illustration is an enamelled copper, champlevé and gilded reliquary, dated back to the years 1170-1180 (here below). It features amongst the finest amongst the Work of Limoges: through the way the clothes fall and through the facial expressive power, it relates to the “Plantagenêt’ style”, which greatly influenced the Limoges production. Furthermore, this creation, named the “Saint-Martial reliquary casket” is the only model entirely dedicated to the first Archbishop of Limoges.

Limoges enamels chasse of saint Martial - Louvre Museum

Chasse saint Martial, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Limoges enamels chasse of saint Martial - Louvre Museum
Limoges enamels chasse of saint Martial - MET Museum

On the sides, the characters, which are enamelled in a rich polychromy on gold backgrounds decorated with scrolls, create a large narrative imagery which depicts, in the “Vita Proxilior” sequence, the totality of the episopes narrating Martial’s task in Limoges. The first event features the Saint exorcising a possessed person.

According to the Vita, the characters are in a certain Suzanne’s house, specified as a “noble Lady” and particularly as Saint Valery’s mother. Saint Martial surrounded by a halo, and escorted by one of his companion standing behind him, casts the demon out of the possessed as he kneels in front of him with his hands chained as to emphasize the intensity of his possession and spits the demon out of his mouth.

A feminine character, most certainly Suzanne, stands behind him. Athough she most probably was never had cult status, Suzanne is considered a Saint by Geodffrey of Vigeois who specifies that “Suzanne’s relics” were kept in Limoges and also refers to her as Saint Valery’s mother.


It cannot be denied that the miracle performed by Saint Martial granted him a proven success: as the possessed is freed from evil, the entire household converts and is baptised. The cycle continues on the left of the same side, where Martial is depicted constrained and accompanied by a warrior on his way to jail.


Indeed, the Vita clarifies that after the miracle at Suzanne’s house, Saint Martial and his companions Alpinian and Austriclian were maligned, whipped and thrown in jail by idol-whorshipping priests, Andrew and Aurelian.

As soon as Martial reaches his jail, the Vita recounts how Andrew and Aurelian are immediately striken by a thunderbolt while the Saint and his companions are miraculously released. 


On the other roof panel, the reliquary casket depicts the rest of the story, featuring Martial resuscitating Andrew and Aurelian. Both men are featured as Bishops, in anticipation, as certain traditions regard them as successors of Martial on the episcopal seat.


Nothing though can ascertain this for Andrew, although he is regarded as a Saint by Geoffrey of Vigeois who specifies that Limoges “still preserves the remains of Saint Andrew” but who makes him the “prefect of Saint Peter’s Basilica” without clarifying whether he is a successor of Saint Martial.


Moreover, there are very few mentions of this character, who does not appear to have attained a true cult status Aurelian is better known. Considered from the very onset, to be the author of the Antiquior Vita, there is nothing concrete to support the hypothesis of his actual existence. However, in 1028, the Bishop of Limoges, Jourdan of Laron, makes him the direct successor of Saint Martial, despite the fact that Aurelian inserted Austriclinian and Alpinian between them.


At the end of XII century, Geoffrey of Vigeois confirms and writes that “after his master Martial, Aurelian held the episcopal seat of Limoges. In the XIVth century Bernard Gui adds that he would have died on a certain 17th November and that he is not buried any more in Saint-Peter-of-the-Holy-Sepulchre’s Basilica, in the Abbey of Saint-Martial, (but) in a certain Saint-Cessateur Church, outside the town walls.

On the body of the same side panel, is then depicted the baptism of Valery. The kneeling Saint, faces a blessing Saint Martial crowned with a halo. Behind him, stands one of his companions, also surrounded with a halo. According to the Proxilior Vita, after the death of her mother Suzanne, Valery takes chastity vows and donates all her belongings to the Church.


It could also represent, in the story, an allusion of this episode which preceeds the beheading of the Saint. In what follows, yet, later in the scene also features, as a matter of fact, Valery’s fiancé, the name of the Duke of Etienne, ordering his equerry Hortarius, to behead her.


The Duke of Etienne is featured as a King. Lushly dressed, he sits on a throne and carries a sceptre, and what appears to be a crown. One must say that the Proxilior Vita portrays him as a very powerful man.


The Duke of Etienne was renowned for having “Power over regions spreading from the Rhone to the Oceanic sea and to govern Basque and Goth nations as far as the Pyrenees”. With the right hand, he appears to give an order his equerry, that to excecute Valery. Hortarius who stands facing the Duke, wields his sword and heads towards the killing spot.


The Duke of Etienne and Hortarius are saints, as attested in Geoffrey of Vigeois’ writings while relating to the relics that were preserved in Saint-Martial Abbey “Us, not only do we have the first Bishop of Limoges…with devotees…Etienne, Duke of Gauls…ortarius, equarry of this Duke…” Both, as a matter of fact, will make amends after Saint Valery’s killing. The so-called Aurelian, clarifies Hortarius, as soon as he was struck by a lightning after committing his crime, is resuscitated by Saint Martial and converts straight away. As far as the the Duke of Etienne is concerned, he also embrasses Christian faith after the miracle of his equerry coming back to life.

 The entirety of his army does the same in a manner which is not without reminiscing of the Peace of God. Besides, the Proxilior Vita associates closely the character of the Duke of Aquitaine William V (990-1031), one of the strongest advocates of the Peace of God movement, with the character of the Duke of Etienne.


 (Source- Jean-Christophe "Les saints du Limousin")


Casket Champagnat The Metroplitan Museum of Art New York

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