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

Chapter 5

This chapter explores the reliquaries that enshrined the Holy Tear. The most important and largest was a golden portable altar of German origins refashioned into the outermost reliquary.

When the Holy Tear was not displayed, it was kept in a chest that originally functioned as a portable altar, later retrofitted to serve as a reliquary for the Holy Tear. The chest was destroyed in the aftermath of the French Revolution. However, it is known to historians through a collection of Early Modern texts and images. Scholars believe that the chest was made in Germany in the first half of the 11th century, based on comparisons with examples of Ottonian metalwork. The presence of inscriptions on one of the chest’s short sides help to date it: HEINRICO NITKERUS DAT (Nitker gives [this] to Henry) and HEINRICUS REX NITKERUS EPS (Henry king, Nitker bishop). The inscription references to Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor (1016-1056) and Nitker, Bishop of Freising (r. 1039-1052).  

The chest of the Holy Tear fits within a corpus of known portable altars that were made in Germanic lands in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. These portable altars, with their sumptuous materials, workmanship, and physicality, help us to understand how theVendôme chest may have looked and its iconography within the context of Ottonian portable altars.

The portable altar-turned-reliquary bears witness to the networks of objects and their roles in establishing relationships among people and other objects. It no longer survives, but it is depicted in a late 13th-century stained glass image of Geoffrey donating the Holy Tear to the abbey. A detailed 18th-century engraving published in 1700 by Jean Mabillon depicts five of the six sides of the portable altar.


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