The 12th century saw the rise of goldsmiths' and sculptural workshops in the Meuse and Lower Rhine valleys which, above all in Cologne, culminated in the production of now world-famous, highly elaborate shrines. The Passavant-Stoclet reliquary casket is a rare survival from this golden age of Rhenish workshops, and its appearance on the art market is highly significant. It counts among a handful of metalwork objects incorporating 12th-century walrus ivory reliefs that are extant today, almost exclusively in public collections. When published in Adolf Goldschmidt's seminal survey of medieval ivories in 1918, the casket was listed among only six other objects of its type, most being portable altars. While recent analysis has called into question the medieval origin of the casket's metalwork, the intricately carved Romanesque reliefs that form its centrepieces are extremely rare, particularly as a surviving set. As a whole, the casket is a valuable testament to the enduring legacy of the great goldsmiths' and ivory carving workshops in and around Cologne, whose precious treasures were revered and restored in later centuries.
The Passavant-Stoclet casket first came to public attention at the Frankfurt exhibition of 1914, in whose catalogue it was described as Cologne, circa 1160 (op. cit.). Four years later it received a more detailed analysis by the eminent art historian Adolph Goldschmidt (op. cit., no. 83), who considered the casket a medieval composite, with later alterations: the walrus ivory reliefs were dated to the second half of the 12th century, the enamels to the 13th century, and the bone plaque at the top of the lid was thought to be a fragment from a 9th-century pyxis belonging to the school of Metz. Goldschmidt hypothesised that the walrus reliefs and inscription panels originally formed part of a portable altar, which was transformed into its current form as a reliquary in the 13th century, at which time the enamels would have been added. Goldschmidt considered some of the supporting metal mounts, as well as the plate on the underside, as part of a later restoration, when the order of the apostles may also have been transposed – i.e. Saint Peter is not placed under his inscription. Referring to the casket's reputed provenance from Hamm, Goldschmidt believed it was made in Westphalia, citing a divergence from the known Cologne groups. Goldschmidt’s opinion on the casket was largely repeated in its subsequent publications in 1929 and 1958, by which time it was hailed as 'one of the rarest objects' in the medieval treasury of the Stoclet collection (Revel, op. cit., p. 95). Having remained in private hands until the present, the casket has now for the first time received renewed stylistic and scientific consideration.
In addition to the twelve apostles and two saints surrounding the body of the casket, the walrus ivory reliefs placed on the lid depict four rare narrative scenes. These illustrate Abraham and the Three Men, Christ’s Ascension, Christ in Majesty, and a scene with two figures interpreted by Goldschmidt as Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. Depicting a woman and a man with a halo holding unidentified objects, surmounted by the hand of God, this last relief’s enigmatic iconography does not seem to appear elsewhere in Romanesque sculpture and remains open to interpretation. Given the appearance of Christ on two of the other panels, it is perhaps more likely to depict one of Christ’s miracles.
Stylistically the reliefs are closely related to a group of morse carvings from Cologne, as Goldschmidt recognised in 1918. Characterised by a gestichelt (‘stitched’) treatment of the drapery, in which the lines are incised with small dots, this group survives in several examples held in museums such as the V&A (fig. 1 and Williamson, op. cit., nos. 72-73) and the Schnütgen Museum, Cologne (Goldschmidt, op. cit., nos. 10-11). Typically depicting scenes from the life of Christ, the majority of surviving gestichelte reliefs are detached from their original context, though some are mounted on (later) book covers, such as a set of reliefs with Christ in Majesty in the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt (inv. no. Kg 54:211). Considered to be the product of a single workshop, the gestichelte group is usually dated to the third quarter of the 12th century. While clearly related to this group, the reliefs on the Passavant-Stoclet casket are smaller in size and diverge stylistically in several aspects, notably their unincised drop-shaped eyes, undulating waves of hair, and highly schematic, elaborate drapery. Goldschmidt accounted for this difference by suggesting that the Passavant reliefs were a provincial, Westphalian adaptation of the Cologne style. It may, however, indicate that they were made earlier in the 12th century, as the figures' simplicity and drapery schemes are somewhat comparable to Lower Rhenish morse carvings from the preceding century (e.g. a set of Evangelists in the V&A, inv. no. C-1865, and a relief with the women at the tomb, Schnütgen Museum, inv. no. B 7). Such a dating would certainly be consistent with the carbon-dating of the raw material (AD 841-1021, 95% probability). Nevertheless, given their relation to the gestichelte group, an origin of the present reliefs in Cologne, or a Cologne-influenced workshop, around or just after the mid-12th century is likely. As such, they are a rare testament to a stylistically distinct group of Rhenish Romanesque ivory carving which, remarkably, survives as a set, and in what appears to be the original setting.
The enamels adorning the Passavant-Stoclet casket consist primarily of intertwined Ranken (tendril-like foliage). These are more elaborate on the lid than on the plaques between the Apostles, which include one with a flame-like chevron design. Ranken motifs with serrated leaves, as those on the casket, are seen in a distinctive group of enamelled goldsmiths’ work from Cologne, dated between 1160-1180, at whose centre is the 'Gregorius' Portable Altar in Siegburg (Kötzsche, op. cit., no. 8). Related to this group are the celebrated domed reliquaries in London (V&A, inv. no. 7650-1861) and Berlin (Kunstgewerbemuseum, for a discussion of both see Kötzsche, op. cit.), whose elaborate decorative schemes are among the high points of Romanesque enamel work. In both design and colour scheme, the enamels of the present casket find perhaps their closest parallel in the domed reliquary now in Darmstadt, thought to have been made in Cologne around 1180 (fig. 2, Hessisches Landesmuseum, inv. no. Kg 54:239, Kötzsche, op. cit., no. 5). Compare, in particular, the Ranken decorating the spandrels.
Despite this similarity, the Passavant enamels are stylistically not so close to any works surrounding the Gregorius group as to suggest a common workshop. Instead, the present enamels could originate from a less prevalent Cologne workshop in the second half of the 12th century, or possibly – as Goldschmidt suggested – in the 13th century. The enamels on the Suitbertus Shrine of circa 1260, located in Düsseldorf-Kaiserswerth, still show similar Ranken motifs, as well as a chevron design similar to that of one of the side plaques of our casket. Scientific analysis of the components has indicated an accordance with enamels from the 16th to the 18th centuries while observing some minor deviation from typical Romanesque enamels. Though this analysis does not exclude a medieval origin for the enamels, it presents the possibility that they could be post-Romanesque.
In terms of its shape and object type, the Passavant-Stoclet casket has apparently no exact parallels in surviving 12th-century Lower Rhenish goldsmiths' work. It instead relates, as Goldschmidt noted, to similarly designed portable altars which, through the nature of their function, invariably have a flat top instead of the casket's raised lid. Examples comprising both enamels and walrus ivory carvings – usually depicting apostles – include a portable altar in St Petersburg, another in the Cathedral Treasury of Bamberg, and a third in the northern German artistic centre of Hildesheim (Goldschmidt, op. cit., nos. 82-84).
Goldschmidt’s hypothesis that the casket is a reworking of a portable altar is, however, unlikely. A C-14 analysis of the oak core of the lid has indicated a dating contemporary with the walrus ivory reliefs (AD 925-1027, 95% probability). It can therefore be assumed that the reliefs are incorporated in their original setting, which always functioned as a reliquary casket. Given their shapes and dimensions, there is little doubt that the enamel plaques on the casket were made specifically to surround the walrus ivory reliefs on the casket. This leaves two plausible scenarios for the construction of the reliquary in its present appearance:
The first, and most likely, scenario is that the casket survives in its original form, with both the carvings and the enamels being the product of a probably Cologne workshop around 1160-1180. Merely the bone plaque at the top of the lid would be a later addition – according to carbon dating, a work from the 15th century or later. Originally the top of the lid may have held a further walrus ivory relief, or – as is suggested by an oval indentation in the wood core underneath – a gem stone. It is further evident that there are some replacements in the metalwork supporting the structure, so the casket was clearly restored at a later date, which is when the order of the reliefs below the inscriptions may have been transposed.
A second hypothesis follows Goldschmidt’s theory to the extent that the enamel plaques may be later additions, while the remaining parts are as described above. It is not inconceivable that the reliquary was once adorned with older metalwork, and re-decorated using newly made enamels. This may have occurred as early as the 13th century. A portable altar in Darmstadt incorporates 11th-century morse reliefs and 13th-century metalwork (Jülich, op. cit., no. 19). The assemblage of this altar, however, may well have occurred later, and the same could be the case with the present reliquary. As such, it would not be unique: a notable example is the so-called 'Wolbero' portable altar now in the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt (fig. 3, Jülich, op. cit., no. 26). Thought by Goldschmidt (op. cit., no. 87) to be an associated work from the Romanesque period, the altar was revealed by later scholarship to be an early 18th-century pastiche. It incorporates elements from two pre-existing portable altars – including walrus ivory reliefs of apostles and enamelled inscription panels – with the addition of newly made enamel plaques surrounding the reliefs. It is possible, but not ultimately convincing, that such alterations occurred in the case of our reliquary. If this were indeed so, its enamellers were capable of a significantly more accurate rendering of the 12th-century Cologne style than those of the Wolbero altar.
Based on both stylistic and scientific analysis, it can be concluded that the Passavant-Stoclet reliquary is a rare 12th-century object in its original, and apparently unique, form. In terms of general design and function, its closest parallels are the domed reliquaries in London and Berlin, though there seem to be no similar extant reliquaries that share its small size and specific shape. It is thus a highly important survival of Rhenish Romanesque art, of a calibre that is rarely found in private hands.
An interest in medieval treasury objects as collectibles was pioneered in the 18th century by individuals such as Adolf von Hüpsch (1730-1805), a Cologne-based art enthusiast who amassed a collection of Romanesque works now in the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt. Such appreciation of medieval works of art reached its zenith in the 19th century. It was at this time, in 1868, that the present reliquary casket entered the von Passavant-Gontard collection, described by Georg Swarzenski as one of the last great old private collections in Frankfurt (preface to op. cit. 1929). Founded by Friedrich Moritz Gontard, who dedicated his life to the study and pursuit of art from antiquity to the Renaissance, the collection was continued after Gontard’s death in 1868 by his son-in-law, Richard von Passavant. It was he who developed a particular passion for the art of the Middle Ages, and it was under his presumed supervision that the reliquary casket was first exhibited and published. Having remained in the collection until after von Passavant’s death, the casket passed into the hands of one of the great collectors of the early 20th century, Belgian industrialist Adolphe Stoclet. Housed in the famous Stoclet Palace in Brussels, his extraordinary collection encompassed rare works spanning centuries but placed a particular focus on the medieval period, with the reliquary casket representing a jewel in the Stoclet 'treasury'. The unique, enigmatic quality that attracted these collectors to the casket remains palpable today. From the rare iconography and visual language of the reliefs, to the beautifully designed enamels, this is an object evocative of the mastery of Lower Rhenish workshops, as well as the long-lived fascination with their precious creations.
A. Goldschmidt, Die Elfenbeinskulpturen aus der Romanischen Zeit, XI.-XIII Jahrhundert, Berlin, 1918, vol. 3; Rhein und Maas: Kunst und Kultur 800-1400, exh. cat. Cologne and Brussels, Cologne, 1972; D. Kötzsche et al., Höhepunkte romanischer Schatzkunst: die Kuppelreliquiare in London und Berlin und ihr Umkreis, exh. cat. Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin, 2006, pp. 21-35 and cat. nos. 5, 6, 8, 10, 11; T. Jülich (ed.), Die mittelalterlichen Elfenbeinarbeiten des Hessischen Landesmuseums Darmstadt, Regensburg, 2007, cat. nos. 18, 19, 22, 26; P. Williamson, Medieval Ivory Carvings: Early Christian to Romanesque, cat. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2010, pp. 268-303; L. Lambacher, 'Romanische Goldschmiedekunst in Köln – Bestand, Bedeutung und Erforschung', in D. Täube et al. (eds.), Glanz und Grösse des Mittelalters: Kölner Meisterwerke aus den grossen Sammlungen der Welt, exh. cat. Museum Schnütgen, Cologne, 2011, pp. 91-105; D. Kemper, Die Goldschmiedearbeiten am Dreikönigenschrein: Bestand und Geschichte seiner Restaurierungen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Cologne, 2014
A Radiocarbon dating measurement report (ref. no. RCD-8945) prepared by J. Walker of RCD Lockinge, dated 31 August 2017, states that the walrus ivory of one of the reliefs dates between AD 841 and 1021 (95% confidence interval).
A second such report (ref. no. RCD-9083) prepared by J. Walker of RCD Lockinge, dated 30 May 2018, states that the wood of the lid dates between AD 925 and 1027 (95% confidence interval).
A third such report (ref. no. RCD-8995), dated 18 April 2018, states that the bone of the plaque on the lid dates between AD 1402 and 1440 (95% confidence interval).
An analysis report on the enamels prepared by the Centre for Archaeological and Forensic Analysis at Cranfield University is available from the department upon request.