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Coffret with the Legend of Guilhem,
count of Toulouse

ca. 1200–1225
Promised Gift of Sir Paul Ruddock and Lady Ruddock, in celebration of the
Museum's 150th Anniversary

Episode 11 / 2020
First Look

This work of art compels us to acknowledge the reality of things indefensible.”

With an armed assault on a great stone tower, a perilous fight against a two-headed beast, a dramatic joust, a threatening wild boar, and a daring secret mission through dark tunnels, this vibrantly painted coffret contains all the adventures one could ask of a medieval knight. These are episodes from the early life of Guilhem of Orange, sometimes called "William Short Nose" or "William Brave Arm," who lived in the late eighth century. A relative of Emperor Charlemagne, Guilhem was celebrated in larger-than-life legend that traced his path from the court to the battlefield and ultimately to the monastery.

Guilhem's story, so medieval poets claimed, was "contained in a roll in the [royal abbey of] Saint-Denis." Might this colorful box once have held such a manuscript, its vivid paintings hinting at the epic accounts stored inside? The tale of Guilhem played to enthusiastic audiences across France and beyond (even garnering a mention in Dante's Divine Comedy). Those who sang Guilhem's praises expected to be amply rewarded with "goblets and robes and tunics to wear," for this, they said, was "a good song about a proud family."

But on close inspection, the bold, insistently masculine imagery of this thirteenth-century strong box awakens us to painful realities. What are we to make of this fighting, the flying arrows, the splattered blood, the prison tower? What should we think of the deadly man-to-man combat between knights, one white and one Black, the Christian victorious, the Muslim defeated? Drawn in by this object's seductive artistry, we are confronted by scenes of religious, ethnic, and racial intolerance. This work of art compels us to acknowledge the reality of things indefensible.

Is there anything "good," then about the song of Guilhem, as the medieval poet claimed? Yes, but we must follow through to the story's end, beyond what the coffret portrays. Late in life, Guilhem laid down his arms on the altar of a church. Repenting for all the killing, he lived as a monk and founded a monastery. Its cloister is largely preserved today at The Met Cloisters, where the stones—suffused by the soft greys of "Saint Guilhem's" maturity—stand in pointed contrast to the bloody reds of the knight's youth.

Thus, the promised gift of the Guilhem coffret begins a powerful dialogue with the Saint-Guilhem cloister. Each represents a distinct chapter in a single, complicated human narrative worthy of the medieval poet's attention, and ours. Side by side, they oblige us to consider what defines a life. Was Guilhem the knight irredeemably scarred by his youthful embrace of war? Or is there such a thing as redemption, as, late in life, he fervently prayed from the sanctity of a cloister?


Quoted text is taken from English translations of Guilhem's legend:

Joan M. Ferrante, Guillaume d’Orange: Four Twelfth-Century Epics (New York, Columbia University Press, 1991)

Helen J. Nicholson, Medieval Sourcebook: Documents relating to the Military Orders: How William became a monk (New York, Fordham University, 2013)

Barbara Drake Boehm
Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator
The Met Cloisters
Made possible by Bloomberg

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