This portable container for holy oils is decorated with incised circular patterns, some of which may have a cosmological meaning. Used for both baptisms and confirmations, the container could also be suspended from a chain or strap worn around the neck.
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Title:Container for Holy Oils
Geography:Made in possibly Northeastern France
Medium:Bone, with paint and metal pins
Dimensions:Overall: 3 1/2 x 4 7/16 x 1 3/4 in. (8.9 x 11.3 x 4.5 cm)
Credit Line:Rogers Fund, 1965
This small rectangular box with a vaulted cover is probably a chrismatory, a portable container for carrying holy oil. Although few chrismatories survive, medieval sources tell us that clerics wore them around their necks when ministering or traveling outside of their religious communities. There is additional evidence to suggest that consecrated hosts and relics could also be transported in this manner. Chrismatories were therefore essential for performing the sacraments, including baptism, confirmation, and the anointing of the sick. Because of their sacred contents, chrismatories were also believed to protect the individual who carried them.
Although art historians long referred to this container as a tenth- or eleventh-century reliquary from northern Italy or Germany, recent radiocarbon dating proves that the bone from which it was made actually dates between 400–570 A.D. The geometric designs and shape of the container support this earlier date. One side of the container features an enlarged, six-petaled rosette within a double circle, a motif found on Frankish liturgical objects and sarcophagi. The barrel-vault cover is also characteristic of early Christian sarcophagi.
Dots surrounded by concentric circles appear in rows along the container’ edges, at the corners of the recessed base, and in decorative patterns on the sides and cover. Common to late antique and medieval art, circle-and-dot motifs were easily incised in bone using a compass-like tool with a fixed radius. The number of repetitions and the patterns formed by the motifs probably held cosmological or numerological significance. Although this meaning is largely unknown today, the cross-shaped patterns on the cover and long sides of the container would have reminded Christian viewers of the salvation offered by the sacraments within.
This container is comprised of several smaller pieces of bone that are held together with tongue and groove joints. Rectangular outlines and mounting holes on the container’s short sides indicate that plates were also attached, perhaps as decoration, fasteners, or locks. Additional holes on the short sides indicate that the container was suspended from a chain or strap. This strap seems to have rubbed repeatedly against the sides of the cover while it was in use, leaving scratches around each hole.
Dieter Quast, "Christian Relics in Early Medieval Graves," Gausac 34/35 (2009), pp. 35–44.
Erika von Erhardt-Siebold, "Aldhelm's Chrismal," Speculum 10, no. 3 (1935), pp. 276–280.
Catalogue Entry by Nicole D. Pulichene, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial and Research Collections Specialist, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, 2020–2022
Ruth and Leopold Blumka, New York (until 1965)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Patterns of Collecting: Selected Acquisitions, 1965–1975," December 6, 1975–March 23, 1976.
Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University. "The Carver's Art: Medieval Sculpture in Ivory, Bone, and Horn," September 9-November 21, 1989.
Raggio, Olga, ed. "Medieval Art and the Cloisters." Notable Acquisitions (Metropolitan Museum of Art) no. 1965/1975 (1975). p. 153.
Elbern, Victor. "Scrinium Eburneum Avibus et Animalibus Circumsculptum: ein neues romanisches Reliquienkastchen." Aachener Kunstblätter 50 (1982). p. 164 n. 17, fig. 12.
St. Clair, Archer, and Elizabeth Parker McLachlan, ed. The Carver's Art: Medieval Sculpture in Ivory, Bone, and Horn. New Brunswick, N.J.: Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, 1989. no. 17, pp. 52–53.
Elbern, Victor. "Scrinium Eburneum Avibus et Animalibus Circumsculptum: ein neues romanisches Reliquienkastchen." In Fructus Operis: Kunstgeschichtliche Aufsätze aus Fünf Jahrzehnten: Zum 80. Geburtstag des Verfassers in Verbindung mit der Görres-Gesellschaft, edited by Piotr Skubiszewski. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, 1998. pp. 383–4, fig. 12.
Elbern, Victor. "Ein frühmittelalterliches Chrismale in New York." Arte Medievale, n.s., 1, no. 2 (2002). pp. 9–24, fig. 1, 2, 13.
Elbern, Victor. "Frühmittelalter: Einführung ; Periodisierung - Probleme - Forschungsgeschichte." Kunsthistorische Arbeitsblätter 3 (2003). p. 4, fig. 3.
Elbern, Victor. "Baptizatus et Confirmatus: Ein neuer Beitrag zum frühmittelalterlichen Chrismale." Archiv für Liturgiewissenschaft 47, no. 1 (2005). pp. 31–4, fig. 5.
Galán y Galindo, Ángel. Marfiles Medievales del Islam: Volume 2, Catálogo de Piezas. Cordoba: Publicaciones Obra Social Y Cultural Cajasur, 2005. no. 06003, pp. 107, 506.
Elbern, Victor. "Das Kastenportatile St. Liudgers in Werden: Gestaltliche Tradition und liturgischer Bedeutungshorizont an einem frühmittelalterlichen Reliquiar." Ikonotheka: prace Instytutu Historii Sztuki Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego 19 (2006). pp. 44–5, fig. 13.
Elbern, Victor. "Frühmittelalter: Einführung ; Periodisierung - Probleme - Forschungsgeschichte." In Fructus operis III : ausgewählte kunsthistorische Schriften aus den Jahren 1961-2007, edited by Michael Brandt. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, 2008. p. 369, fig. 3.
Elbern, Victor. "Baptizatus et confirmatus. Ein neuer Beitrag zum frühmittelalterlichen Chrismale." In Fructus operis III : ausgewählte kunsthistorische Schriften aus den Jahren 1961-2007, edited by Michael Brandt. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, 2008. p. 439, fig. 5.
Elbern, Victor. "Das Kastenportatile St. Liudgers in Werden. Gestaltliche Tradition und liturgischer Bedeutungshorizont an einem frühmittelalterlichen Reliquiar." In Fructus operis III : ausgewählte kunsthistorische Schriften aus den Jahren 1961-2007, edited by Michael Brandt. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, 2008. p. 462, fig. 13.
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