A Tabernacle Inspired by a Medieval Masterpiece

Reproduction of notable artifacts aimed to perfect crafting techniques and deepen understanding of design is a well-established and commendable practice among artists and workshops alike. Granda Liturgical Arts has also engaged this approach, and its collection includes several tabernacles based on significant historic and artistic precedent. Among these, enameled tabernacle based on an 11th century reliquary is especially striking.

Granda's vibrant chest is modeled on a reliquary casket kept in the Treasury of the Collegiate Basilica Church of St Isidore in León, Spain - which happens to house one of the most important collections of Romanesque liturgical artworks in the world. The León collection includes invaluable liturgical and devotional artworks crafted in wood, leather, ivory and metal as well as a magnificent library of works on parchment and incunabula. This assemblage is an edifying testament to the generosity of royal patrons who commissioned and then bequeathed the precious works to the Treasury. Most of the works in the Treasury date from the 11th and 12th centuries.

The original reliquary consists of an inner oak structure to which seventeen gilt and enameled copper panels are attached. Notably, Granda’s adaptation of this model is crafted entirely in metal and the interior is also entirely gold-plated. The practice of making tabernacles entirely in metal stems from developments in goldsmithing and from improvements to the stability of tabernacle construction. Engineering received more attention once an option emerged to craft tabernacles as stand-alone elements rather than structures that are necessarily integrated with altarpieces.

Museo San Isidoro de Leon. Enamel Reliquary.

Also, it is noticeable that the Granda piece does not have extremities (legs) while the original does. The reason for this difference is a variance of purpose – reliquaries are meant to be mobile. Tabernacles, however, require permanent installation to the mensa of the altar or to its pedestal. Because they must be rendered immovable, practicality calls for a flat solid floor so that the tabernacle can be securely bolted.

The enamelwork on both pieces is executed in the champlevé technique and consists of decorative and figurative designs engraved in the copper sheets which are filled with vitreous enamel and then fired, polished and gilt. This style of enameling belongs to the acclaimed opus lemovicense and was popularized by the workshops in the French city of Limoges. It is also one of the most attractive and complex decorative techniques developed in the Middle Ages.

Abundant and colorful iconographic narrative continue on all visible surfaces of the tabernacle and includes abstract-geometric, organic, and figurative elements. The narrative on the obverse side concentrates on central representation of the crucifix with the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John. The reverse shows Christ in Majesty. The body of the tabernacle and its sides show stylized, almost Byzantine-like figures of the Apostles. The upper story and roof feature angels. The golden and glowing background is evocative of Eastern icons and is meant to manifest the radiance of God’s glory. Colorful stylized flowers and idealized architectural detail show creation, both that of the natural world and man-made, as entirely vibrant and alive – transformed by the redemptive suffering of Christ.

The origin and authorship of the casket are subject of some debate. Initially, the reliquary in León Treasury was attributed to the workshops of Limoges. However, recent studies propose that the chest was crafted either by a distinct workshop in the North of Spain or by one of the itinerant ateliers that traveled the Way of Santiago de Compostela. According to this scenario, the reliquary found its way to León as a gift or ex-voto offered to the basilica by a pilgrim.

An international team of researchers is currently investigating thirty-three pieces in the San Isidoro Treasury, working together to document the origins, authorship and history of these remarkable artifacts. Concurrently with these efforts, Granda’s team is completing restoration of a series of very fine Romanesque murals that adorn the vault in León, where the historic Treasury collection is housed.

Granda Art Dealer & Project Consultant: 
Kinga Lipinska

Image Credits
Granda tabernacle photographs: copyright Granda Liturgical Arts, 2018.
Museo San Isidoro de León. Enamel Reliquary. Web. 29 Jan, 2018.

Kinga U. Lipinska
Art Dealer & Project Consultant working with new liturgical art commissions, renovation planning and heritage restoration.

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