Twenty Objects for Twenty Years: Reliquary Diptych, 1300 – 1350

To celebrate our past twenty years, between now and the end of the academic year in July I’ll be posting a weekly blog featuring twenty Medieval and Renaissance objects from the period 1250-1500 in the V&A.  They won’t always be the most famous ones – in fact this will be an opportunity to encounter some less obvious pieces, which will hopefully lead to journeys of discovery within the museum and beyond – and perhaps even to the Year Course itself. Here is my first choice from our collections…

Reliquary Diptych, Italy

Reliquary Diptych, Italy (Umbria?), 1300-1350, Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, Room10: Museum Number 19-1869

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This small reliquary diptych was made in central Italy, probably Spoleto, during the first half of the fourteenth century for use in private devotion, and although comparatively modest in appearance, in form and function it is a rare and fascinating survival.  It is small enough to be portable, and hinged to open and close like a book; the reverses were originally painted to imitate marble.  It opens to reveal a selection of holy figures identified by inscriptions below each, with the Virgin and Child and the Crucifixion in pride of place to left and right.  Kneeling at the base of the cross is a tiny figure of a Benedictine monk, presumably the donor.  A central strip has been hollowed out of the panel, and covered with glass.  Here, still carefully wrapped in pieces of paper and labelled, are relics of the individual saints portrayed.   

The veneration of relics was an important aspect of late medieval devotion, as was the use of imagery as an aid to prayer.  One can perhaps imagine the diptych’s owner beginning his devotions by focusing on Christ’s incarnation, looking at the image of the Virgin and Child, before going on to contemplate his death in the Crucifixion, and mentally picturing himself below the cross, sharing in Christ’s suffering.  He might then have addressed prayers to each of the individual saints portrayed, whose relics were an important aid in procuring their intercession. 

It has been suggested that the owner’s collection of relics was still being assembled at the time that the diptych was made.  Although St Bartholomew and Mary Magdalene (at bottom left) are portrayed with their customary attributes (St Bartholomew with the knife, the symbol of his martyrdom, the Magdalen as a penitent, covered in her long hair), the others are generic figures, without their saintly attributes, and the female saint on the far right lacks an identifying inscription.  The names were possibly added to these holy figures once the relics – mostly fragments of bone or cloth – had been acquired.

The diptych has been likened to the work of a painter known as the Master of Sant’Alo, active in the Umbrian town of Spoleto around 1320.  The figures attest to their roots in the Byzantine style that had been prevalent in Italy in the previous century, but which was increasingly giving way to greater naturalism, evident in the rounded forms and the highlights on drapery folds, and the blood spurting from Christ’s side – itself intended as a prompt to meditation on his sacrifice and its promise of redemption.

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