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The Stavelot Triptych & the Role of the Reliquary

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  • 00:00 Religious Art in…
  • 1:00 The Stavelot Triptych
  • 3:15 The Stavelot Reliquary
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Stavelot Triptych is one of the masterpieces of the 12th century. In this lesson, we'll look at this object in artistic terms and explore its importance to medieval societies.

Religious Art in Medieval Europe

When we think of the medieval world, we may picture knights in shining armor, imposing castles, and don't forget, things like literacy, torture and the plague. We don't often think about art, but that doesn't mean art wasn't being made. It was, but frankly, there were only a few people in society who could afford to commission art. And most of those people were connected to the Christian church.

Medieval art was nearly always religiously focused, and tended to focus more on the crafts of medo working, than carving or painting. As for the results? Works that were obviously stunning in their complexity and artistry, were equal parts status symbol and religious objects. Basically, if you're thinking about Medieval Europe, art like this is definitely worth thinking about.

The Stavelot Triptych

So let's get to know this piece a little better. The Stavelot Triptych, was created around 1158 CE, possibly for Abbot Webald, head of the Byzantine Abbey of Stavelot. Today, in Belgium. In a culture where religion was central to daily life, religious leaders had a lot of power. It is a triptych, an altarpiece with three pieces, and the outside two wings could fold in, concealing the center section.

At about 19 inches tall, it's actually three triptychs in one. You've got the overall triptych, and then there are actually two smaller triptychs set into the center panel, each of which also open up. The entire piece in gilded, covered in gold, and inlaid with semi-precious stones and gems. So this was not meat to be a subtle piece of art. People were supposed to notice it.

Okay, let's break this down triptych by triptych. The overall triptych was made between 1156 and 1158 CE, by some very clearly talented Mosan goldsmith, or those who lived along the Meuse River, that flows from France, through Belgium and the Netherlands. On the two outside wings, are six enamel medallions that show the legend of the True Cross, the cross upon which Christ was crucified.

The medallions on the left wing show the Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity, based on a dream in which an angel points to the cross and tells the Emperor he will be victorious under that symbol.

The medallions on the right tell the story of Saint Helena, Emperor Constantine's mother, who was believed to have discovered the True Cross in the early 4th century. In the middle are the two smaller triptychs, which are Byzantine in origin. The top triptych shows Mary and St. John standing around a crucified Christ, with scenes of the Annunciation, Mary being told of her pregnancy, on the wings.

In the bottom triptych, the four evangelists are on the wings. In the center is a cross, surrounded by figures, the archangel Gabriel and Michael are on top, and Constantine and St. Helena are on the bottom.

The Stavelot Reliquary

Now, the Stavelot Triptych is more than your average altarpiece. It is also a reliquary, an object containing a sacred relic. In this case, that relic is a piece of the True Cross that St. Helena was believed to have uncovered back in the 4th century. Look at the bottom of the smaller triptychs; see that cross in the middle? The rest of the triptych is gilded, but that cross is undecorated wood and that's because that's the relic itself. Yes, the artist used the pieces of the True Cross to create a cross around which they placed religious figures.

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