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

Nitker, Bishop of Freising, and Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor

The 1039-43 gift of the Vendôme Coffer solidified Nikter’s role within Henry III’s political-ecclesiastical scheme. Once invested by Henry III, Nitker had the episcopal authority to consecrate portable altars and celebrate Mass on them, thus rendering portable altars objects of episcopal authority and power. Cynthia Hahn (2014) has shown that portable altars often had very personal connections to their episcopal owners. For Nitker, a portable altar given upon his elevation to the episcopal seat highlighted the legitimacy of his power to consecrate a portable altar with holy oil and celebrate Mass on it. It was precisely by right of his new position that Nitker had the power to activate the mystical cosmos emblazoned on and embedded within the portable altar. 

Each aspect of the Vendôme Coffer—its materiality, iconography, and luxurious metals and gems—affirms the prestige of the Freising diocese and the relationship between the bishop and king. As an object of exchange between Nitker, the new bishop, and Henry III, now king regnant of Germania, the portable altar negotiated the physical and conceptual space between ecclesiastical and royal power. Given the timing and significance of 1039, Nitker’s gift of the portable altar to Henry III recognized the king’s authority over the Church, while manifesting Henry III’s divine right at the outset of his rule. Specifically, by placing the portable altar in Henry III’s hands, Nitker affirmed the king’s duty of protection and rule over the Church. Each detail of the Vendôme Coffer speaks to this powerful relationship between the Church and Christian rulers.

Set in the context of Freising around 1039, the Vendôme Coffer emerges as a symbol of mutual alliance between members of the Church and State in Ottonian-Salian culture. The Vendôme coffer as a portable altar manifests an unexpected tie between the two significant figures of the eleventh century, helping us deduce the political climate in eleventh-century Germany. Incised on gold foil on the coffer’s cover and one side, the inscription, HEINRICO NITKERUS DAT (Nitker gives [this] to Henry), alludes to a fascinating history of an eleventh-century alliance between Bishop Nitker of Freising and Holy Roman Emperor Henry III. The Vendôme coffer as a portable altar affirmed Nitker as an important figure in the Holy Roman Empire through his relationship with the Salian king. In turn, the portable altar’s sacred aura manifested Henry III’s status as rex et sacerdos, king and priest, and his role as Christ’s representative on Earth. Such designations were one of the hallmarks of Ottonian-Salian statecraft. 


In July 1039, Henry III’s father Conrad II died, making Henry the ruler of the Germanic Empire; in November of the same year, Henry III named Nitker the successor of Bishop Egilbert in Freising and personally invested him only six days later. However, Nitker’s promotion into this role was most likely not due to a vote by the cathedral chapter (as required by canon law), but rather his closeness to the king due to prior familial ties. Nitker and Henry III may have known each other in their youth when Henry was under the tutelage of Nitker’s episcopal predecessor Egilbert. Henry III’s elevation of Nitker immediately after the death of Egilbert would not have been unusual in the context of the Ottonian-Salian church, where often kings used their influence to determine episcopal elections. It would certainly be beneficial to instate one’s trusted friend in a place of power. In fact, Henry thought highly enough of Nitker to refer to him in a 1040 charter as a presul celeberrimus (most celebrated prince/prelate). 

Whether before or after Nitker became a bishop, we know that “the infamous Nitker of Freising was also a member of the royal chapel” of King Henry’s. Such a position held great status for clerics like Nitker, as David Warner posits in his essay, “Saints and Politics in Ottonian Germany.” A place in court warranted recognition, legal privileges, and an unceasing and profitable flow of patronage. Subsequently, in 1048, King Henry III spent his winter in Freising, not only to celebrate Christmas but also to endow the royal estate of Ardagger to Nitker. 

Once invested by Henry III, Nitker had the authority to both consecrate and celebrate portable altars, thus rendering portable altars as objects of episcopal authority and power. Cynthia Hahn asserts that portable altars often had very personal connections to their episcopal owners, as some bishops chose to be buried with their portable altars. For Nitker, a portable altar given upon his elevation to the episcopal seat highlighted the certainty of his power to consecrate it with holy oil and celebrate Mass on it. It was by right of Nitker’s new position that he had the power to activate the mystical cosmos emblazoned on and embedded in the portable altar. 

Towards the end of his life, Nitker traveled to Italy as the emperor’s authorized representative. He presided over the imperial court in Pavia in 1051 and then received an order from Henry to install the Archbishop of Ravenna the following year. Nitker died on April 6th, 1052 with this order left unfinished. It was a sudden death, and no accounts of his burial have ever been found. In fact, the chronicler XXX wrote that the people of Ravenna threw his body into the river. While perhaps a declaration of political Schadenfreude, it does tell of the state of social degradation that Nitker found himself in at the time of his death. All three accounts of his death view it as God’s just punishment. Perhaps this came from the monks because he was the reason for their lack of power. The biographer of Leo IX could have been influenced by Nitker’s supposed “anti-papal activities” in Ravenna, and Hermann the Reichenau described the bishop as a person who simply pretended to be pious when in reality he was haughty in nature. 


Since Henry III exerted great influence to promote Leo IX as Pope, any defiance against him would be a statement against Henry III himself. Whatever the reason for Nitker’s disgrace, no accounts suggest this directly affected the relationship between Nitker and Emperor. Theirs was a loyal alliance full of precious gifts and favors. 


The Vendôme coffer altar served as a physical symbol of s symbolic relationship. Given the timing and significance of 1039, Nitker’s gift of the Vendôme coffer to Henry III recognized his authority over the Church while strengthening Henry III at the outset of his rule. By placing the portable altar in Henry III’s hands, Nitker surrendered and bolstered the king’s duty of protection and rule over the Church as a vicarius Christi. Each detail of the Vendôme Coffer speaks to this powerful friendship and serves as a testament to the significance we invest in objects.



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