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3.3: Precious Materials, Spolia, and Borrowed Glory

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  • Objects made for sacred or royal use were often wrought of such lavish and treasured components as vellum, silk, linen, wool, ivory, gold, silver, gems, and rare stones and minerals. Frequently crafted for further refinement, such works show their precious properties to advantage. In ancient Rome/Byzantium, there were quarries for porphyry, a rich purple marble stone (the basis for the association of the color purple with royalty). Because it was restricted to royal purposes, its very appearance carried connotations of the imperial significance of any work made from it. It was often used for columns and other architectural components that thereby accentuated important structures or parts of them. Once the imperially controlled mines were abandoned in the fifth century CE, new items could not be made of porphyry, so older monuments were sometimes pillaged and re-used, with the royal significance transferred to the plunderers, implying not only the replacement of the old order by the new, but also the superiority of the conquerors.

    Porphyry burial containers were especially prized in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Constantina was the eldest daughter of Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 CE), the Roman ruler who in 313 CE decreed early Christians could practice their faith without persecution and confiscated land should be returned to the Church. Although Constantine considered himself a Christian, he did not abandon the Roman gods and religious rituals. For example, in 321 CE he stated that Christians and pagans alike should observe the day of the sun (later named Sunday); the cult of the sun god had been popularly observed in Roman culture for centuries, and associations of the sun as the source of light, warmth, and life had been adopted by those of the Christian faith. Constantine, according to legend, was baptized a Christian on his deathbed in 337 CE.

    When his daughter Constantina died in 354 CE, she was entombed in a porphyry sarcophagus, or stone coffin, that was richly carved with motifs from both the pagan Roman and Christian faiths. (Figure 3.12) There are small, winged cupids gathering grapes among garlands of grape vines with peacocks and a ram below on the front and back of the coffin, and cupids treading on grapes on both ends. In Roman mythology, such scenes were associated with Bacchus (known to the Greeks as Dionysus), the god of the wine harvest and wine making who as a baby was reborn after having been slaughtered by the Titans. Interpreted as Christian motifs, the cupids, who became known as putti or small, winged angels, are seen as preparing the grapes for the Eucharist, the sacrament commemorating the Last Supper by consecration of the bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Such re-imaging and re-purposing of motifs and their meanings were frequently seen at this time of transition from paganism to Christianity; further, having been adopted by Constantine and his family, they were associated with imperial power and carried connotations of the Christian conquest of paganism.


    Figure 3.12 | Sarcophagus of Constantina. Author: User “Jean-Pol GRANDMONT” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

    Figure 3.13 | Aachen, Palace Chapel of Charlemagne. c. 800. Author: User “Velvet” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

    Later, in the eighth and ninth centuries CE, Charlemagne (r. 768-814 CE) used pillaged porphyry columns inside arches on the upper level of his imperial chapel, a building intended for his own entombment. (Figure 3.13) The Palatine Chapel (c. 796-798 CE, consecrated 805 CE) was part of the palace complex Charlemagne had built at Aachen, in what is now Germany. The interior of the chapel is an octagon topped by a dome supported by heavy piers with arches on the second level, where the imperial throne is located, with a view to the high altar (the table or other surface where religious rituals are carried out) located across the church on the first floor below. (Figure 3.14) The design of the building is modeled on mausolea, or buildings containing tombs, and churches from the late Roman, early Christian, and early Byzantine periods (fourth-seventh centuries), such as San Vitale (526-647 CE) in Ravenna, Italy. (Figure 3.15) Charlemagne, who was not only King of the Franks and King of the Lombards but was also crowned as the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800 CE, used that design and the plundered columns to signify the revival and replacement of the old Roman Empire with his own reign as a Christian world ruler.


    Figure 3.14 | Cross-sections of the Palace Chapel of Aachen. Author: User “Sir Gawain” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain


    Figure 3.15 | San Vitale, Ravenna. Author: User “Väsk” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

    Among others, Holy Roman Emperor Henry (or Heinrich) II (r. 973-1024) similarly borrowed and supplanted Charlemagne’s glory by adopting his palace complex at Aachen and adding to its structure and furnishings with his own statements of imperial power. Henry II commissioned a lavish pulpit for the chapel that was completed in 1014. (Figure 3.16) The semi-circular pulpit has a smaller semi-circle to either side, a shape known as a trefoil. The center is made up of nine rectangular panels covered with chased gilt copper that has been formed by hammering into low relief images of the Four Evangelists. The panels are adorned with gemstones and embellished with enamel, powdered glass fused to the surface by heat, and filigree, beads or threads of gold or silver arranged in designs on a metal surface. The three ivory panels on each of the smaller semi-circles depict pagan mythological figures; the panels were made in Egypt in the sixth century CE. Re-used parts such as the porphyry columns, gemstones, and ivory panels are known as spolia, remnants that had been taken from older art and architecture and incorporated into new art objects and places with the implications of conquest, superiority, and heritage for the new patrons.


    Figure 3.16 | Ambon (11thcentury) of Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor. Aachen Cathedral, Germany. Author: User “HOWI” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0


    Figure 3.17 | The Barbarossa chandelier. Author: User “Lokilech” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0


    Figure 3.18 | Shrine of Charlemagne, Interior of palatine chapel in Aachen Cathedral, Germany. Author: User “ACBahn” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

    Figure 3.19 | Shrine of Charlemagne. Author: User “HOWI” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

    Figure 3.20 | Cross of Lothair Author: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

    Another, later Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I (r. 11551190), and his wife, Beatrice, commissioned a chandelier to hang below the octagonal dome in the chapel. (Figure 3.17) This was called the Barbarossa chandelier, reflecting the emperor’s nickname after his red beard; it was installed between 1165 and 1170 in honor of the Virgin Mary and as a tribute to Charlemagne. The chandelier’s forty-eight candles cast a tremendous spread of light in an age when artificial illumination was costly, emphasizing its association with earthly wealth and heavenly light.

    As a continuation of the work undertaken by his grandfather Frederick I, which also included exhuming Charlemagne’s bones, Frederick II (r. 1220-1250), following the plans Barbarossa had made, completed the creation of a lavish, new jeweled and gilded shrine for the remains of Charlemagne, seeking to elevate him to the rank of sainthood. These statements in rich material forms, imply the surpassing glory of their imperial predecessor, shared by those who followed in his lineage. Moreover, the associations of royalty and honor for earthly rulers was often intertwined in very pointed ways to artwork associated with the Christian God and saints. Notable in this regard


    Figure 3.22 | Screen of Charlemagne. Artist: Piersac. Source: License: Public Domain


    Figure 3.21 | Augustus cameo. Author: User “Absalypson2” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

    is the shrine for Charlemagne—clearly a statement of imperial power—made of rich materials that reflect popular Christian notions of the Heavenly Jerusalem, where these saintly rulers were thought to act as intercessors for the believer. (Figures 3.18 and 3.19) Often such imperial works actually featured objects or significant decorative details from imperial Roman works, such as the antique cameo of the Roman Emperor Augustus that was applied to the Cross of the Emperor Lothair II. (Figures 3.20 and 3.21) The gilded cross, dated to c. 1000, is covered with 102 gemstones and thirty-two pearls

    and has a rock crystal seal near its base bearing a portrait of Lothair II (r. 835-869). Including the portraits of earlier emperors further emphasized the wealth

    and power of the ruler who had it made, believed to be Otto III (r. 983-1002). In addition, gemstones on such devotional works were selected for their qualities associated with healing, good fortune, the ability to ward off evil, and their mystical translucence, that fostered spiritual illumination.

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