The Abbey of La-Trinité in Vendôme, France and the Cult of the Holy Tear: An Exploration of a Multi-Sensory Devotional Experience

Reliquary Sources



The Holy Tear cabinet at Vendôme is most often compared with the twelfth-century Saint Lazarus monument that was in the cathedral of Saint-Lazare in Autun. Autun had in its possession the head of Lazarus that was transported from Marseille to the Burgundian city. His place in the cathedral emphasized his legend after the events in Scripture, when he preached in Gaul and became the first bishop of Marseille.
 
The monument in Autun was large stone structure positioned directly behind the altar at the Cathedral of Saint-Lazare. It was nearly two stories tall and held within it a mise en scène of the burial of Lazarus. Shaped as a church, the monument was large enough for pilgrims to peer into the monument to see Lazarus and the mourning figures. Notably, the tomb that the pilgrims came to venerate was the tomb from John, chapter 11, thereby focusing attention on the Biblical account of Lazarus, and the culmination of his friendship with Jesus, before his preaching and ecclesiastical life in France.
 
While the monument in Autun has many thematic parallels to the Holy Tear armoire in Vendôme, the armoire's structure and engagement with the viewer derived from very different sources. Importantly the Holy Tear armoire engages the viewer not by peering into the monument, but through the liminal space of the doors that open and close to reveal its contents. Furthermore, the tomb at Autun and the Holy Tear monuments differ in that at Autun the emphasis is on the relics of Lazarus, whereas at Vendôme the relic is the tear shed by Christ.
 
The golden altar at San'Ambroggio in Milan combines the altar mensa and the grave with the interactive qualities of a reliquary. Constructed in the ninth century, the altar is positioned directly over the grave of Milan's first bishop and his two companions. On the back side of the altar (the side away from the congregation), a set of doors could be opened to give the celebrant direct contact to the relics below.  The opening is large enough for a person's head to enter and encounter the grave directly or a cloth could be lowered to touch the grave and become a contact relic.
 
An important antecedent to the Holy Tear armoire that shapes and glosses an encounter with a Christological relic is the altar of the Sancta Sanctorum, with a collection of the most precious relics in Christendom and the Christ icon, has with its parts, a conceal-and-reveal theme. The chapel's remodeling in the thirteenth century as well as the additions made to the altar and the Christ icon shows how possession of Christ's relics and image stimulate displays that are kinesthetic and rely on physical and visual interaction.
 
According to the twelfth-century Ordines, on Easter Morning the Pope opened the chapel to greet the Risen Christ, represented by the Salvator icon. The Pope approached the icon, opened the small door at the foot of the icon, and kissed the feet, after which he said in a loud voice three times, "The Lord is risen from the Grave!" Clad in its silver clothes and its doors opened, the icon transformed into the mysterious, the heavenly, sacra facies—a glimpse on Earth of the eternal Christ. When the chapel was remodeled later under Nicholas III, indulgences were offered for pilgrims to visit when the icon was revealed (i.e. the revetment open).
             
Aside from altars and they ways they could be dynamically constructed, the Holy Tear armoire functioned on its most basic level as a piece of furniture to hold the Holy Tear in its reliquary. Sacristy cabinets surviving from the thirteenth century are modest and functional structures. Made of oak and of modest size, such cabinets were for liturgical vestments and sacred vessels.
 
A thirteenth-century armoire from the cathedral of Bayeux was a large rectangle monument that had several separate cubbies within it. Each of the doors had in relief narratives from the lives of the saints whose relics were kept there. This armoire is made of wood and is kept in the cathedral's sacristy.
 
A later example that is closer to the display location and materiality of the Holy Tear armoire is the fifteenth-century stone reliquary armoire from the Cluniac priory of Souvigny. It is attached to the south side of the chancel in the church. Similar to the wood armoires, the stone example has four discrete openings protected by wooden doors. The monument is decorated with blind tracery, turrets, and niches.
 
The mirco-architectural elements in the Souvigny cabinet were like also part of the Holy Tear armoire. The seventeenth-century Benedictine G. Millet also reported the existence of a couronnement of a gable and sculpted scenes of the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment. Such architectural ornamentation was likely added to the armoire when it was reinstalled into the church's choir after it was remodeled in the fourteenth century. Isabelle Isnard has suggested that originally a base was provided to elevate the armoire, and she has pointed out that in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century drawings, the columns that frame the cabinet door rest directly on the ground without the mediation of bases, which strongly suggests the cabinet had been significantly remodeled and stripped down.
 
Turrets, spires, lattice-work, and other forms of Gothic micro-architecture developed in the thirteenth through fourteenth centuries in reliquaries, altarpieces, and sacrament houses. The upper work that developed on sacrament houses, and which later reached its full expression in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries on winged altarpieces, proclaimed the presence of the body of Christ in that very locus, the threshold of which was activated by the opening of its doors. It is tempting to imagine that the couronnement of the Holy Tear armoire proclaimed the presence of the divine within, and the visionary experience was realized in the interactivity between the relic, the armoire, and the viewer. The means by which this was accomplished was in the armoire's frontal doors. A fully developed example of a tabernacle that is positioned on the north side of the altar is the fifteenth-century tabernacle at the Jakobskirche in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Made of stone, an entombment scene carved into the monument's base depicts Christ's followers lowering the body of Christ into a sarcophagus. Above, the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist flank the doors to the sacrament shrine. Above and sheltered under a baldachin, an image of the Trinity is flanked by saints who also reside in their own niches. The meaning of the Eucharist is presented along a vertical axis from Christ's full humanity in his corpse at the bottom, stretching through the Eucharistic wafer in the cabinet, and finally the beatific vision of Christ's divinity in the Trinity above. 
             

 

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This page references:

  1. Tabernacle at Sankt Jakobskirche Rothenburg o.d. Tauber
  2. Tomb of St. Lazare, Autun
  3. Pala d'Oro San Ambrogio
  4. Sancta Sanctorum, The Lateran
  5. Reliquary armoire, 13th C, Bayeux Cathedral
  6. Reliquary armoire, 15th C, Souvigny, France