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

The Vendôme Coffer: A Portable Altar-turned-Reliquary of the Holy Tear

The appearance of the Vendôme coffer is known through a single visual source and a small group of Early Modern textual sources. In 1700, the Benedictine scholar Jean Mabillon (1632–1707) published a reply to a polemic written by Jean-Baptiste Thiers (1632–1703) disparaging the Holy Tear and its cult. In the book, Mabillon described the Holy Tear and the reliquaries at La Trinité, including the Vendôme chest. He also included a fold-out page featuring an engraving depicting the portable altar in five views, one from each side, except for the underside:

The views on the foldout show a chest-shaped portable altar. The Benedictine monk Simon-Germain Millet declared the dimensions of the chest: one foot long, one half foot wide and “4 poulces” high. The nineteenth-century antiquarian Achille de Rochambeau put these dimensions in modern measurements: thirty-five centimeters long, seventeen centimeters wide and ten centimeters high. 

This portable altar type includes the altar stone (mensa) on the top side and a wooden chest below that serves as the stipes, recalling a sepulcher. According to the Early Modern descriptions, plaques of gold (de boys, mais tout couvert avec lames d’or) covered the portable altar’s wooden core, and silver made up the underside. Pearls and gemstones fastened in gold borders encrusted the side panels. Gilded copper (cuivre d’oré) lions support each corner.

The top of the portable altar was made of gold or copper foil, with figures, identified by inscriptions. A pointed oval marked out by double lines circumscribes an empty field, which delineates the altar stone. Millet claimed the altar stone was jasper, but the monk Lanthenas identified the material as red porphyry with white specks.

The inscriptions identify the Old Testament figures that prefigure the Christian Mass. Abraham (sacrificing Isaac) and Melchizedek appear in the top corners separated by an altar with a chalice. On the left Abraham sacrifices Isaac in obedience to God; on the right, Melchizedek, king and high priest of Jerusalem, offers bread and wine to Abraham. Moses and Aaron fame the bottom corners. Between the upper and lower register, the decorative pattern of scrolled vines divides the upper and lower registers. These Old Testament figures that prefigure the Christian Mass frequently appear on portable altars.

The inscription along the bottom edge reads: HEINRICO NITKERUS DAT (Nitker gives [this] to Henry). Lanthenas said that the inscription was incised on gold foil and attached to the portable altar with an iron nail. 

The altar stone of the Vendôme coffer may have appeared like the altar stone of the Gertrude portable altar at the Cleveland Museum of Art:

Supporting the mensa, the sepulcher portion of the portable altar adds to the object’s sumptuous quality. The lower part of the engraving shows two long sides with borders encrusted with gemstones and pearls surrounding the golden panels with figures fashioned “in relief,” (plusieurs images en relief fort antiques).

One long side featured the four greater prophets, identified by inscriptions above them: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Below their feet, a second inscription reads: ASPICE LAETA TUOS FELIX FRIGISINSA PATRONOS (Freising, look with joy at your patrons). The Paschal Lamb appeared in the center beneath with an inscription “Agnus Dei” above it.

The other long side featured four saints identified by inscriptions appearing along the object’s upper edge: St. Tertulinus, St. Corbinianus, St. Maurice, and St. George. The inscription on the lower edge reads: BIS DUO SYNMISTAE TUA PANDUNUNT TEMPORA CHRISTE (O Christ, four of your holy ministers recount your mortal life).  The central medallion encircled a bird with open wings. This motif also appears on the ninth-century Ciborium of Arnulf. Mabillon identified it as an eagle; Lanthenas called it specifically an eagle of the Empire (L’aigle de l’Empire). 

However, such a motif would neither match the medallion of the Agnus Dei on the opposite side, nor the portable altar’s overarching Christoloigcal theme. The motif at the center of the eagle’s body appears to be an open book. A Christological interpretation of the eagle would be as the symbol of the evangelist John, the opening of whose Gospel describes Christ as the logos.

The two short sides continued the Christological themes of the medallions. On the right side of the page, the Maiestas Domini, Christ appeared as ruler of the world, enthroned on a rainbow within a gem-encrusted mandorla. He held an orb with one hand and blessed with another.

The other short side had highly unusual imagery. An eye encircled by gemstones likely reflected the coffer’s later purpose as a reliquary for the Holy Tear. Millet described the eye as “en bosse” encased in gold and “after nature,” but Lanthenas described it as an enamel, and Mabillon further suggested that it was a weeping eye (oeil plourant) inserted behind a piece of crystal. One indication that this eye was not original to the eleventh-century gold work is that Lanthenas critiqued the workmanship, saying it was of poor quality: “the other collateral face [is] enriched with an eye without beauty for its figure, its enamel and its stones. It has no character.” (Aux quatre coins du coffre sont representez des yeux, qui semblent y avoir esté ajoûtez.) Lanthenas likely picked up on both the technical skills of workmanship displayed on the short side, as well as the difference in craftsmanship to the other parts of the coffer. For this reason, scholars agree that the eye is a later addition to the portable altar.Along the bottom edge, the inscription reads: HEINRICUS REX NITKERUS EPS (Henry king, Nitker bishop). The inscription may have been embossed in gold, using a similar technique that appears on the Arnulf Ciborium, created in Metz or Rheims, c. 890,  and currently located in Munich in the Schatzkammer of the Residenzmuseum.

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