The Reliquary

Historical stratification of the Reliquary

The Cathedral Reliquary

Today’s Reliquary is an example of the Baroque manner of presenting relics, in which two years played a key role, 1721 – the opening of the new and renovated Reliquary, and 1006, when the cathedral received reliquaries from the abolished monasteries, completing the idea that they should be presented as a whole.

The Reliquary has kept records from its conception. The oldest preserved list of relics dates from 1335. We have one fragment of a visitation from the early 15th century, whereas the records from 1346, 1350, 1418, 1450, 1500 and 1721 are missing. We do have a list by Crijevic from the 18th century, and several preserved versions of the record by Don Stjepan Skurla from the 19th century, which also lists the records by Don Vice Koporcic from 1836 and 1846, when relics from the abolished monasteries were transferred to the Reliquary. Although the 19th century was extremely unfavourable to the art heritage of Dubrovnik, this segment of the spiritual, artistic and overall cultural heritage remained intact and testifies to the amount of spirit and care by a state, small in terms of population and size, but with a community strong through wondrous spiritual strength.

Death is one of the central themes of Baroque religious thought and it is present in the works of almost all the mystics of the period, primarily reflected in the Latin phrase, Sic transit gloria mundi (Thus passes the glory of the world). The Reliquary – a space for safeguarding the relics of the cathedral – is fundamentally determined by the idea of death. Instead of paintings and statues of saints, the altar in the relics chamber hosts the material remains of their bodies, clothes and attributes. The allegorical paintings by the Dubrovnik painter Petar Mattei comple­ment the atmosphere of victory over death. Inscriptions with biblical quotations accompany the paintings: “The Lord keeps all their bones” and “Where, o death, is your victory “The paintings and sculptural decoration of the Reliquary, combined with biblical descriptions and the material remains of saints, explain the themes of death, faith and redemption, showing the reality of the afterlife for the believer. The theatrum sacrum of the Dubrovnik cathedral Reliquary was con­ceived as the centre of spirituality of the archdiocese and the state treasury.

The Dubrovnik cathedral Reliquary enables a developmental analysis of the style and form of saints’ reliquaries as numerous and valuable types of liturgical objects, primarily in the territory of the present-day Diocese of Dubrovnik, but also in a much wider temporal and spatial scope. The Reliquary developed as the result of the spiritual maturity of the Late Antique episcopal seat, which developed from a cathedral Treasury to the state Treasury. From today’s point of view, it is difficult to analyse the origin of the old Reliquary, what happened to the Bishop of Epidaurum, Joannes (639), and when exactly the episcopal chair was transferred to Dubrovnik, together with the relics of saints. However, one thing is certain: the Byzantine Emperor and writer Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (905 to 959), In Chapter XXIX of his work De Administrando Imperio (On the Governance of the Empire), titled “On Dalmatia and its people”, writes: “In this city (Dubrovnik) lies St Pancras in the church of St Stephen, located in the city center.”

Another historical source important for the development of the worship of holy relics is the aforementioned chronicle by Miletius, written in clumsy hexameters, whose fragments have been preserved in the Annals by Niksa Ranjina, Miletius claims that the relics of Saints Nereus, Achllleus, Domitilla, and Petronilla (Petrunjela) are preserved in Dubrovnik, where they had been brought from Rome by fugitives.

Certainly there was an original record of a memorial character describing the Church of Dubrovnik that was later used as a source of Information. It must have originated before 949 when it was used by the Emperor Constantine Porphy rogeni tus. This is important as the inhu­mation of the oldest saintly relics will prove to give quite an accurate insight into the present state of the Reliquary. Imperial portraits are found on the relics of Sts Domitilla and Petronilla and the relics of St Nereus, St Achilleus and St Pancras have also been preserved While On the Governance of the Empire, the emperor undoubtedly used the authentic reports of his strategoi and church prelates. Just as his records of the church of St Donatus in Zadar or St Tryph on in Kotor have been confirmed, the record of existence of the relics of St Pancras should also be considered authentic, even though unfortunately they have not been preserved in the original reliquary. This is also confirmed by the two reliquaries of St Domitilla and St Petronilla, which are mentioned in Dubrovnik very early, together with the Imperial portraits.

Reliquary loincloth – Christ’s bandages

An extremely valuable description of the worship of relics in Dubrovnik comes from the pen of the renowned humanist Philip de Diversis in his Description of the famous City of Dubrovnik from 1440. This artium doctor and professor of rhetoric from the town of Lucca in Italy resided in Dubrovnik from 1434 to 1441. In the chapter ‘”On the Dubrovnik churches, primar­ily the temple of St Mary”, he writes: “The pillars above the side aisles carry vaults, and above one of them a chapel is built, not so much of great beauty, as it is filled with holiness, because it preserves many relics of saints enclosed in silver cases and, first of all, pure white swaddling cloth in which our Lord Jesus was wrapped as a child when the prophet Simon took him in his arms, uttering the words: Now Thou dost dismiss Thy servant, O Lord (…) These Most Holy Swaddling Cloth is kept in a small crystal chest. When thrown into fire, it glows, and when re­moved from the heat, it becomes whiter, cleaner and remains completely intact. The arms of St Blaise are carefully preserved here, among other holy relics. One of them, miraculously, shows a fresh wound from a spiked wheel, one would think it happened yesterday.” In the chapter entitled “Description of the temple of St Blaise”, Philip do Diversis mentions the worship of the holy brothers Peter, Lawrence, and Andrew, and the church of St Stephen, of which he writes: “There is another highly respected temple, the Temple of St Stephen the First Martyr, preserving the bodies of St Petronilla, the daughter of St Peter and St Domitilla, as well as many other relics of saints, in gilt silver. In the chapel where they are kept, people suffering from epilepsy and those tormented by evil spirits are often cured by the merits and intercession of these saints. Many people sometimes heal from various other infirmities, as I was often told by trustworthy noblemen and the old and learned canons.” In two chapters, the author describes the customs of the procession with the relics of the saints in Dubrovnik. The first one is titled “On the praise­worthy custom of religious processions attended by the Rector and the Dubrovnik Senate”, and the second “On the pious procession held in honour of the body of Our Lord Jesus Christ”.

The Dubrovnik Republic took substantial efforts in looking after the Reliquary: the Senate adopted regulations on its maintenance on 2nd December 1440, and that document contains the best archival description of the room itself.

The fame of the Reliquary surpassed the borders of the Dubrovnik Republic. Thus William Shakespeare (1564-1616) in his comedy The Twelfth Night mentions a city in Illyria renowned for numerous “memorials”, “things of fame” and “reliquaries”; the more recent literary critics consider it to be Dubrovnik with its reliquaries, based on English travel books (written by Sir Richard Guyldforde) from the 16th and 17th centuries.

The stylistic stratification of the Reliquary

After presenting the history of the Reliquary of the Dubrovnik cathedral, let us return to the art from this collection, to its oldest layer, prior to the acquisition of the reliquary of the head of St Blaise and the reliquary of the right arm of St Blaise. As the Christian liturgy developed, the reliquaries of martyrs were transferred to the altar, forming the allegory – the altar of the tomb. It was only after the 4th century that the Christian altar came into contact with reliquaries of saints. With the distribution of the relics of saints, tombs became smaller and were gradually placed above the ground. From the 5th and 6th centuries this process resulted in transferring the reliquaries to the altar mensa. Thus early Christian reliquaries from Lopud, in the overview of the development of reliquaries in the Dubrovnik region, inevitably occupy a fundamental place in the historical continuity of the Church in the area, starting from the early Christian era of the Diocese of Epidaurum, to the establishment of its successor, the Diocese of Dubrovnik, which became an archdiocese in the 10th century.

Unfortunately, the miniature marble sarcophagus for relics did not survive in Dubrovnik, as it did in Grado in Italy, in Zadar and in Kotor, because local reliquaries belong to a later stage in the development of saints’ reliquaries, from the 9th and 10th centuries. The most precious rel­iquaries have always been those associated with the Passion of Christ, and they were received as a special gift, such as the golden reliquary of the True Cross (staurotheke) from the 10th century, probably the gift of the Emperor (the representative of Christ on Earth) to Dubrovnik, as a symbol of the imperial presence in this city in the west of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Reliquary for wood from the True Cross

In the 4th century, a piece of wood from the True Cross was worshipped in the palatine chapel in Rome, and the worship was equal at the court of the Eastern Roman Empire. Thus worshipping the reliquary of the wood of the True Cross became an imperial privilege of pos­sessing extremely elaborate staurothekes, which developed in two directions: the manufacture of small, or large staurothekes, such as the one in Dubrovnik. In the Christian West – the territo­ry of the Western Church, the staurotheke always pursued the model of the Eastern, Byzantine models, mainly because of the imperial template that was preserved in the basilica of St Peter.

The reliquary of the wood of the True Cross-a golden staurotheke (XX) – is the oldest and most important item in the collection of reliquaries of the Dubrovnik cathedral. It is mentioned in the first preserved inventory of the Reliquary from 1335 as one of three tables (tabulae) – icons with three pieces of wood of the True Cross: Tres icone cu(m) tribus crucibus de Iigno XPI (Christi). The golden cross from the 10th century was inserted in a silver relief after the 12th/13th century, depicting the Madonna and St John under the cross, and two angels above the arms of the cross, in the Byzantine manner. Twelve stones originally decorated the edge of the tabula, with only five of them preserved today (blue and green).

At the intersection of the lower arm of the two-barred Patriarchal cross beneath the gold­en horseshoe, there is a minute wooden cross with a carved Corpus Christi. This piece of ex­ceptional technique, elegance, and dimensions in the design of the human body was made in the imperial workshop in the second half of the 10th century, modelled on Antiquity, which was rediscovered in the Macedonian Renaissance of Byzantine art. The silver casing is associ­ated with the “Adriobyzantinism” of the 12th century, with a distinctive Comnenian sensibility, similar to the reliquary of the True Cross from the church in Jaucourt, which is now kept in Lou­vre. In addition to the silver casing of the other reliquary of the wood of the Holy Cross (XIII), the only comparable examples in Croatia are the somewhat later bindings of the Split missal and the Split evangeliary from the 12th/13th and 13th centuries respectively.

The Dubrovnik staurotheke – the most valuable liturgical object preserved in its original form in Croatia, made of precious metals of the Byzantine stylistic expression – placed Dubrovnik as one of the key sites on the world map for preserved examples of Byzantine enamels.

Reliquary for the head of St Blaise

The oldest image of St Blaise is on the reliquary of the head of St Blaise (II). According to local tradition, the reliquary of St Blaise arrived at the time of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VIII (1025 to 1028), the descendant of the great Basil II, who established the boundaries of the Empire by means of sword and diplomacy, during the era of the city judge Lampridius and Arch­bishop Vital. The period of Archbishop Vital was important for the fate of Dubrovnik as a regional centre, and its mutual political and ecclesiastical interests. The arrival of the reliquary of St Blaise in this period confirms its exceptional importance for Byzantine politics In the Adriatic area. To­day we can only imagine the moment of the arrival of the silver reliquary with golden enamels into the city of Ragusium on the basis of rather scarce historical sources, since the first preserved record of the reliquaries, in 1335 only states: Capud Beati Blasij epi. in bacino argenti.

The reliquary received its present appearance with the restoration by the Venetian gold­smith Francesco Ferro in 1694, during which the goldsmith respected the old form of the Byz­antine cauldron-shaped crown {bacino). Ferro worked in Dubrovnik In the 17th and early 18th centuries, the archival records mention him for the first time In 1678. In 1684 he renovated the reliquary of the leg of St Blaise, in 1712 he restored the reliquary of the arm of St Blaise, and he restored the aforementioned damaged reliquary of the head of St Blaise in 1694, in the tradition of Venetian filigree.

The older literature has so far mostly analysed the possible local origin of the reliquary of the right arm of St Blaise or that from the Venetian workshops of the 12th century. This was still the general opinion in 1999, when the reliquary of the arm of St Blaise was roughly dated between the 11th and 12th centuries, and attributed to an unknown Adriobyzantine artist. Ten years ago, it was revealed that we should look for parallels in Norman art.

However, we should highlight the fact that the reliquary of the arm of St Blaise remained completely unnoticed in the Croatian and Italian scientific literature until the last decade, be­cause the renowned expert on the history of metal forging Angelo Lipinsky, in his book from 1975 Oro, argento, gemme e smalti, tecnología delle arti dalle origini alia fine del medioevo 3000 a.C. – 1500 d. G, attributed this reliquary to the Norman goldsmithery. More specifically, to workshops associated with the Norman royal court, called by the Arabic name tiraz or the Greek ergasterion.

Here we primarily analyse the application of the filigree technique that Lipinsky called filigrana a vermecelli and Marc Rosenberg Würmchenfiligran. This type of filigree is typical of the Norman goldsmithery of Palermitan tiraz workshops.

The Dubrovnik arm should be dated in the 1100s or 1120s, and associated with south-ltalian Norman workshops, namely the royal workshop in Palermo. The Dubrovnik reliquary of the hand of St Blaise is of the highest quality in its group, and there are no similar examples of such a high quality of craftsmanship.

The reliquary of the right hand of St Blaise is mentioned in the list of 1335 as Brachiü. Bti. (beati) Blasij, then recorded under number twelve; later lists until the present day record it under number XXXII. Chroniclers do not indicate that it arrived in Dubrovnik in 1026 together with the relic of the head, but it is still certain that it happened within a short time span. It has the shape of the episcopal golden glove, covered with extremely high-quality gold filigree, and thirty fields along the glove. The round base of the brachial decoration comprises of stylized floral filigree in eight fields and the central ninth field, which contains an eight-petal rose and a golden umbilicus. Around the base of the reliquary is a bracelet with alternating rosettes and precious stones placed in basket-like forms in fine filigree background. The central section of the reliquary is divided into fields, which is mostly missing enamel reliefs. On the lowest tier, of the six fields only the relief depicting St Paul remains. The square golden plate has an engraved inscription in two columns: SANTVS PAVLVS, around the schematised figure of the saint with a blonde beard and blonde hair. The emerald green halo has been partially preserved, and the stylized folds of clothing have well preserved the dark enamel. The saint is giving his blessing with one hand, holding the Holy Gospel in the other. The figure of St Peter was probably next to this figure, now embedded in the reliquary of the saint’s head, like the enamel reliefs of St James, St Matthew and St Blaise.

Vinicije B. Lupis

From the monograph The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin in Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik – Zagreb 2014