New Discoveries for the Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude

Submitted by Christine Edmonson on

In October of 2011, during the London venue of Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe a multitude of experts met at the British Museum to share their knowledge in the study of relics, reliquaries, saints and pilgrimage.  It was a three-day congress of art historians, historians, archaeologists, conservators and scientists, all gathered to give papers and create a landmark publication. The Cleveland Museum of Art was invited to participate.

Former Objects Conservator Shelley Paine called me to discuss the project she was undertaking with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's scientists, Linda Spurlock and David Saja.They chose the Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude (1931.462), a part of the Guelph Treasure. Said to contain the relics of Saint Bartholomew, it was opened a second time since purchase by the museum in preparation for the exhibition.The project was to analyzine the materials and contents (as best they could, as housed) and publish their findings in a British Museum publication to be titled: A Matter of Faith: An Interdisciplinary Study of Relics and Relic Veneration in the Medieval Period.  

What was needed, she explained, was a literature search on the components that made up the decoration of the portable altar: precious and semi-precious gems, including imitation pearls and gems. Here's the list: porphyry, purple amethyst, red garnet, red carnelian, purple fluorite, blue sapphire, jet, pearl, and shell. I was to gather published histories of them and on the Countess Gertrude altar, as well as create a bibliography for publication. Does this not sound like a bookworm's dream come true? So I mined the Ingalls Library collections and found plenty.

Things I didn't know: porphyry is found in a single Egyptian quarry (Mons Porpyritis) and was lost to sight for centuries until rediscovery in 1823.The purple stone abounds in the Pantheon and Hagia Sophia, and gives the color its royal association. Imitation pearls were around in the time of Pliny, and that glass imitation gems are backed with foil to fool the eye. Tiny gold nails were fashioned to fix the gold and cloisonné enamels to the oak box frame. Pretty cool, right? 

The publication finally arrived in the library this month, and is available as NK1652.2 .M38 2014. I'll let you, dear reader, discover their findings on your own.