Tuesday 24 November 2015

THE 'ELEANOR VASE' by Elizabeth Chadwick

Here's an interesting item that once belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Rather like Eleanor herself, it has been embellished by others, changing the original item into something interesting but different.
The item in question is known as the 'Eleanor Vase' - although it's probably not  a vase at all, and once more contributes to the fact that with Eleanor of Aquitaine, nothing is as it seems on first glance.

It is thought that the container began its life some time between the 6th and 10th century as a piece of carved rock crystal, very possibly a drinking cup of Muslim origin.  There are references to rock crystal drinking cups from Moorish love poetry and  perhaps it was one of these. Certainly by the early 12th century it was in the possession of the Emir Imad-al-dawla of Sarragossa. 

The original object was a pear-shaped vessel with a neck two centimetres long.  The rock crystal was carved in a 'honeycomb' pattern of about 22 rows of small, hollowed-out hexagons.  These sort of containers have existed from Antiquity and were known throughout the Middle East and the Roman Empire.  What is interesting about the 'Eleanor vase' is that examples of honeycomb carving are all rendered in glass. Currently the 'Eleanor vase' is the only specimen in existence of this technique in rock crystal.

According to the medieval writer and crafstman Theophilus who wrote an instruction manual in the twelfth century on various artistic techniques including how to polish gemstones,  rock crystal, to the medieval man was fossilised ice, just as amber was fossilised tree resin, and was a highly valued commodity.
How did this little drinking cup/vessel come into the hands of Eleanor of Aquitaine?   It was given as a gift by the above mentioned Amir of Saragossa to Eleanor's grandfather William IX Duke of Aquitaine during a battle campaign.  Duke William brought it back to his household and in due course it became part of Eleanor's inheritance.  Eleanor herself gave it to her husband the soon to be Louis VII of France on the occasion of her wedding when she was 13 years old and he was 17.  

The rock crystal 'vase' with the embellishments cropped off
Louis, in his turn, presented it to Abbot Suger one of his close confidantes and his spiritual advisers as a gift at the time of the consecration of the new church of St Denis, which was to be a mausoleum for the French royal house.  At the time Eleanor and Louis were childless and it is thought that they gave the vase both as a gift to commemorate the dedication of St Denis and also as a sweetener to an intercession plea that God grant them an heir.  If so, it appears to have been successful for 9 months later Eleanor bore a daughter, Marie.  If not the son that Louis desired, it was a start.  Some historians and novelists have seen Louis' donation of the vase as a sign that all was not well in the royal marriage - that he would give away his wedding present - but that is to misunderstand the medieval viewpoint on patronage and gift giving. To present a rare and fabulous object to the Church was to elevate one's status and store up kudos in Heaven.  Eleanor was more likely to have approved of the gift donation of the vase than to  have felt slighted. 

The ornate jewel-encrusted mountings that we see now on the vast were a later addition made by Suger to glorify his new possession which he used as a communion vessel.  The abbot was very keen on adorning material objects in order to serve God with their beauty and had a fine collection of containers, vases and ewers already.  To make this small, engraved cup worthy of joining his other pieces he had a base and neck fashioned for it from gilded silver.  On the base he had an inscription written in niello, then a layer of filigree set with gemstones and decorated with more filigree work and fleurons.  The same on the neck.  Around the base he had an inscription written - which is how we know its provenance. It reads in translation. "As a bride, Eleanor gave this vase to King Louis, Mitadolus to her grandfather, the King to me, and Suger to the saints.'

He had a base and a neck fashioned for the vase from gilded silver.  On the basse he put an inscription in niello, then a layer of filigree set with gemstones and decorated with more filigree work and fleurons.  He had the neck of the vase similarly adorned.  The inscription around the base reads: As a bride, Eleanor gave this vase to King Louis, Mitadolus to her grandfather, the King to me, and Suger to the saints.'

Having survived the centuries, the vase now resides in the Louvre, one of the precious few objects personal to Eleanor of Aquitaine, even if she did not originally own it in the form we see today.  And what a fabulous object it is, created initially fifteen hundred years ago by the hand of a skilled craftsman and valued and embellished ever since then.

You can read an excellent article about the vase in the book Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady edited by Bonnie Wheeler and John C. Parsons.  The article is titled The Eleanor of Aquitaine Vase and it's by George T. Beech.

Photo courtesy of John Phillips. 

Elizabeth Chadwick is the author of 22 historical novels.  She is working on a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine. The first novel THE SUMMER QUEEN involves the Eleanor Vase now in the Cabinet of Curiosities. The second novel in the trilogy, THE WINTER CROWN is published in paperback in the UK on November 17th.


DLM said...

It's difficult not to think of the legend of Clovis and the Vase at Soissons, especially its relationship to the Church. I wonder whether this symbol, attached to the birth of France, held any significance in the gift when Eleanor and Louis donated it, or in Suger's glorification of it to the Church to which Clovis had brought the Frankish throne ...

Ann Turnbull said...

Lovely to see this vase, which I've recently been reading about in The Summer Queen.

Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating history of a beautiful object!