Mosan Masterpieces: Phylacteries of Hugo de Walcourt

The D’Oignies Treasure is a 13th century collection of liturgical artworks that belonged to the Priory of St. Nicholas in D’Oignies. All religious artefacts that are part of the Treasure represent finest Mosan art accomplishment, a splendid regional variety of the Romanesque. The design is exemplary and coherent; it could be argued that it signals a gaining stylistic momentum that later flowered into a full-blown Renaissance. The authorship of the Treasure is attributed to an outstanding goldsmith Hugo de Walcourt and his workshop in Oignies, on the River Sambre. (Belgium). The materials used to realize the objects are gold, silver, gems, ancient intaglios and cameos, Byzantine enamel, ivory and even Egyptian glass. It appears that most if not all of these materials were donated to the monastery by its principal benefactor Jacques de Vitry, who travelled extensively in his lifetime. Jacques de Vitry was himself a veritable treasure: a bishop, a writer, a spiritual director, an avid pilgrim, and a discerning patron of the arts. Vitry secured substantial financial means and materials for all artworks that comprised the Treasure despite the fact that he rarely could afford to spend any time in the Priory. He also located and gifted suitable relics. And in the talented person of goldsmith Hugo de Walcourt, Vitry found a remarkable and worthy collaborator for the project of endowing the Priory with important religious and artistic assets.

Reverse St Andrew Phylactery

During the Middle Ages reliquaries held a special place of pride and any religious house was keen on having a collection of relics. It was precisely the arrival and installation of relics as well as consecration of a new altar in the Priory (1228) that became an occasion to commission an ensemble of luxurious liturgical and religious artefacts that included chalice and paten, ciborium, altar cross, candlesticks, a festive Evangeliary as well as a number of special reliquaries. Of these objects, of special interest and focus here are the splendid and rare specimens of phylacteries for the relics of saints venerated in the Priory of D’Oignies. Phylactery is a special type of a large reliquary that was suspended from the ceiling (proximate to the altar), sometimes phylacteries might be carried in processions. It does not seem that they were meant to be worn – the way Jewish phylacteries or Byzantino-Greek amulets or medals might be worn on ones person. Although it is interesting to consider that a sanctuary or a church might ‘wear’ its own phylactery. This seems to have been the case with D’Oignies.

St. Andrew Phylactery

Since late Antiquity, reliquaries were often fashioned in the shape of the head or another relevant body part of a saint; sometimes, they looked like small treasure chests. However, when Hugo designed a set of phylacteries for D’Oignies, he moved away from common practice and resorted to an abstracted geometric design. The principal shape he used was quatrefoil. This shape, so familiar to our eyes, was virtually unknown in the Middle Ages until the 12th century. It had origins in Late Antiquity, was later appropriated by Islamic artists, became dormant for many centuries and resurfaced as a Medieval architectural detail becoming one of the most ubiquitous Christian design forms. It is very likely, that Hugo saw first Medieval examples of quatrefoil in the facsimile of the Villard Portfolio. The Villard was a visual reference book for numerous artists and builders in the Middle Ages. As a form or pattern, the quatrefoil is an abstracted cruciform which made it so attractive to Christians. In an inspired move, Hugo chose this shape for a set of amazing phylacteries he designed and made for the Priory.

St Hubert Phylactery

Hugo de Walcurt arrived at the Priory of D’Ogines at a young age – probably around 7 or 8 years old. The Priory itself was founded by his three much older brothers and was well established by the time of his arrival. Hugo became a lay brother in D’Oignies and trained to become an artist. We do not know in which of the art centers he studied and apprenticed – Liege, Namur, Cambrai are all possibilities. What we do know is that by the time he returned to D’Oignies, he was an accomplished miniaturist, goldsmith, and jeweler as well as a founder of a successful artistic workshop where he not only produced outstanding artwork but schooled future artists. It is possible that Hugo fist started as an assistant in the Scriptorium in D’Oignies and showing prodigious talent was intentionally directed to train outside the Priory in order to later carry and direct its artistic projects.

The Treasure of D’Oignies lists five amazing phylacteries that are featured in this article. These were unusual and splendid objects even during the time they were fashioned. Hugo’s creative enterprise can and should be an encouragement to contemporary artists who wish to make an impact in the field of religious and liturgical arts. Prior to Hugo’s project, phylacteries were not designed as he envisioned them – just look at Jewish phylacteries or Greek amulets. Neither were phylacteries this large or as luxuriously decorated. Hugo’s boldness set the tone for what history of liturgical art regards as standard for what an ideal phylactery / reliquary can be. The front includes a theca depository and a splendid decorative program consisting of gems, intaglios, filigree, and enamel. The reverse feature chased representations of the saints whose relics are enshrined in the reliquary. The phylacteries are quite large, each one about 40 cm in diameter.

St. Martin Phylactery

Integrity and balance are two distinguishing marks of Hugo’s design and craftsmanship. He uses all metalworking techniques available in his lifetime yet he clearly emphasized design over ornament – a markedly new direction in Medieval art. He used niello, filigreeing, chasing, repoussé and stamping to achieve his aesthetic goals. In terms of ornament, Hugo was able to accomplish what could be described as painterly effect in chasing – an unprecedented feat. Anyone who works with precious metals knows how difficult it is to create even a handsome straight line; meanwhile, Hugo drew / chased vines, leaves, and well-modelled figures that compete in expressiveness with best illuminated manuscripts of any historical period. His use of stone and ancient materials was exquisitely discerning and surpasses earlier usage. Refined, elegant and exhibiting freedom of design and execution only masters possess, Hugo’s metalwork is truly in a class of its own.

St. Margaret Phylactery

For about 400 years, the Treasure of D’Oignies was kept in the Priory of St. Nicholas. However, the Priory was destroyed during the French Revolution and the Treasure had to be safeguarded by the monks in various hiding places during that time, including in a local barn for 24 years. Around 1818, the Treasure was secretly entrusted to the care of nuns in Namur – Soeurs de Notre-Dame. The value of the Treasure of D’Oignies is priceless and the responsibility of caring properly for this collection proved too demanding for a community of nuns. For this reason, the Soeurs bequeathed the Treasure to the King Baudouin Foundation in 2010. Currently, the artworks are in the care of the Musée Provincial des Arts Anciens du Namurois, where they are cared for and can be admired by the public. Ideally, liturgical objects created by Hugo de Walcourt would still be in use by the Church. However, Diocesan care is not always feasible. In such cases, role of museums in preservation of important liturgical metalworks has been essential to the preservation of very many priceless artworks that otherwise would have been lost forever.

Reverse St. Martin Phylactery

Photography credits: all images in this article are sourced from The Treasure of Oignies. King Baudouin Foundation, 2013.

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