Examination of the Bobbio Reliquary/Chrismal

Central to the collection of the Museo della citta di Bobbio is a reliquary/chrismal of Irish origin discovered in a sarcophagus in the crypt of the Basilico di San Colombano in 1910 along with a quite eclectic range of objects (listed in Michael Ryan’s 1990 JRSAI paper).

Side view of the restored chrismal/reliquary. Like the Clonmore shrine it too is missing the two gable ends of the roof/lid. This is a curious detail that will require further reflection such as whether, if the object originally had a wooden core, could the wood have been exposed here? Cormac Bourke has established that the Clonmore shrine was strap- soldered together but such is not readily ascertainable in the case of the Bobbio specimen, except that the piano-hinge is soldered in place.

Side view of the restored chrismal/reliquary. Like the Clonmore shrine it too is missing the two gable ends of the roof/lid. This is a curious detail that will require further reflection such as whether, if the object originally had a wooden core, could the wood have been exposed here? Cormac Bourke has established that the Clonmore shrine was strap- soldered together but such is not readily ascertainable in the case of the Bobbio specimen, except that the piano-hinge is soldered in place.

It is the only definitively Irish object from Bobbio, being decorated in the insular curvilinear style, and is of considerable interest. A very similar (except in respect of its ornamentation) reliquary was found in material dredged from the River Blackwater at Clonmore, Co. Armagh, in 1990 suggesting that the one from Bobbio was made, if not in the same place, then at least in the same style. They are both dated on art-historical grounds to the 7th century and while a consensus seems to be gathering in support of a later 7th century date, it remains theoretically possible that the specimen from Bobbio was carried personally by Saint Columbanus, who left Ireland around AD 590 and died at Bobbio, the last of his monastic foundations, in AD 615.

Detail of the surface (photographed using USB microscope) showing hand-cut curvilinear lines and cross-hatching.

Detail of the surface (photographed using USB microscope) showing hand-cut curvilinear lines and cross-hatching.

Detail of cross-hatched field above the crystal ‘window’ showing surviving traces of enamel. We think that this is probably red enamel, which tend to degrade over time to a yellowish-green colour.

Detail of cross-hatched field above the crystal ‘window’ showing surviving traces of enamel. We think that this is probably red enamel, which tend to degrade over time to a yellowish-green colour.

The reason for the uncertainty in the dating of the Bobbio and Clonmore chrismal/reliquaries is that while sharing general traits with decoration on objects as diverse as the Derrykeigan stone, the Cathach and the Book of Durrow, it is surprisingly difficult to identify close insular comparanda.

The Clonmore Shrine (from Bourke 2009

The Clonmore Shrine (from Bourke 2009

Cormac Bourke is undoubtedly correct to draw comparisons with not just the vegetal styles of, for instance, the Beromünster and Tiel shrines, but also the layout of the ornament on these pieces: abstract though the ornamentation on the Bobbio and Clonmore objects may be, like the continental chrismal/reliquaries, it too is almost certainly guided by an iconographical scheme, though one that is much harder to see. Their shape, in particular their distinctive concave sides and roof-line, is also a characteristic of some early continental reliquaries (e.g. Ennabeuren, Wurtemburg), reinforcing the suggestion of some influence from there. Dating these two Irish examples as early as the late-6th or early 7th century might be problematic vis-à-vis the continental comparanda but should not be ruled out.

Detail of the surface showing the pointillé (carried out with a triangular punch) and some tool-slip in the curvilinear line.

Detail of the surface showing the pointillé (carried out with a triangular punch) and some tool-slip in the curvilinear line.

The Bobbio reliquary/chrismal has been recently re-assembled and was very kindly made available for examination by the project (Conor Newman and decorative metalwork expert Fiona Gavin) on June 23rd and 24th by Don Mario Poggi of the Curia Vescovile di Piacenza – Bobbio. It will be on display at the CREDO- Christianisierung Europas im Mittelalter exhibition in Paderborn (26 July – 03 Nov 2013 see: http://www.credo-ausstellung.de/).

Fiona Gavin (Dept. of Archaeology, NUIG) examines the chrismal/reliquary under microscope (x400 magnification) at the Vescovado, Bobbio.

Fiona Gavin (Dept. of Archaeology, NUIG) examines the chrismal/reliquary under microscope (x400 magnification) at the Vescovado, Bobbio.

Conor Newman and Fiona Gavin (Dept. of Archaeology, NUIG) at the Vescovado, Bobbio.

Conor Newman and Fiona Gavin (Dept. of Archaeology, NUIG) at the Vescovado, Bobbio.

A detailed account of the microscopic examination of the object will be posted here shortly. Perhaps the most significant discovery is the survival of enamel in the fields of cross-hatching and in some of the pointillé. Typical of decomposed red enamel, the traces are a greenish-cream colour.

An opaque white substance adheres to the grooves on one part of the piano hinge (the round end of the hinge-pin is also visible). Is this residue of some organic lubricant?

An opaque white substance adheres to the grooves on one part of the piano hinge (the round end of the hinge-pin is also visible). Is this residue of some organic lubricant?

Tiny blobs of enamel spill also occur on the tinned surface suggesting that the surface, including the curvilinear lines, was tinned before the cross-hatching was off-set against champlevé enamel. Originally, therefore, it would seem that the cabochon of crystal through which the relic might be glimpsed was surrounded by fields of marked reddish hue.

Signs of wear on one of the corners of the object, the bronze is worn thin and a hole has appeared.

Signs of wear on one of the corners of the object, the bronze is worn thin and a hole has appeared.

The object shows signs of considerable use and handling, the metal is worn thin in places, the back has lost most of its tinning; presumably from swinging to and fro across the chest of person around whose neck it was hung; and one of the corners is dented from a fall or impact.

Detail of the surface showing how the tinning has been worn away by use and handling.

Detail of the surface showing how the tinning has been worn away by use and handling.

A ‘piano hinge’ turns the gabled roof into a lid that opens and, as others have remarked, it too shows signs of wear. Though undoubtedly a venerable object, it was also in daily use and this suggests that it doubled as a chrismal (a container for consecrated host) and a reliquary.

Detail of the riveted tab on the right-hand end-plate used to attach the carrying strap. The circular perforation to the right of this is for a locking pin. Though missing in the case of the Bobbio specimen the Clonmore one was intact.

Detail of the riveted tab on the right-hand end-plate used to attach the carrying strap. The circular perforation to the right of this is for a locking pin. Though missing in the case of the Bobbio specimen the Clonmore one was intact.

Our thanks to Don Mario Poggi and Dr Eleonora Destefanis for all of their help. The research is funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and PRTLI4

Select Bibliography

Bourke, C. 1991 The Blackwater Shrine. Dúiche Néill 6, 103-6.

Bourke, C., Warner, R. and Ryan, M. 1991 From Blackwater to Bobbio―a coincidence of shrines. Archaeology Ireland 5(2) 16, 16-17.

Bourke, C. 1994/5 The early Irish Reliquary in Bobbio. Archivum Bobiense: Rivista degli Archive Storici Bobiense 16-17, 287-99.

Bourke, C. Ireland’s earliest Christian metalwork: the Clonmore Shrine. Minerva 12(6), 6-7.

Bourke, C. 2003 Clonmore and Bobbio: two seventh-century shrines. Dúiche Néill 14, 24-34.

Ryan, M. 1991 Decorated metalwork in the Museo dell’Abbazia, Bobbio, Italy. Jnl Roy. Soc Antiq. Ireland 120, 102-11.

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2 Responses to Examination of the Bobbio Reliquary/Chrismal

  1. Shane Angland says:

    Fascinating. I’m amazed that a Christian chrismal from the Middle Ages can be decorated with no visibly (to me at least) Christian symbols. Thanks for the great updates.

  2. Pingback: Examination of the Bobbio Reliquary/Chrismal | Columbanus’ Life & Legacy | Mujerárbol Nueva

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