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

Project Summary

“Jesus wept.” The shortest verse in the Christian gospels inspired devotion to one of the most significant and unusual objects in the Middle Ages: a tear believed to have been shed by Jesus Christ at the tomb of Lazarus, known to medieval believers as the Holy Tear. 

The Holy Tear was kept at the abbey of La Trinité in Vendôme, France,and is the focus of my forthcoming book titled The Holy Tear of Christ: Visual and Performance Culture at the Benedictine Abbey of La Trinité, Vendôme, ca. 1150-1550. In this book, I explore how the cult of the Holy Tear was created around the relic, which was actually a small piece of crystal imprisoning a moving drop of liquid. In promoting the Holy Tear, the monks of La Trinité developed a relic narrative, liturgical offices, pilgrimage rituals, as well as material and visual culture around the Holy Tear. This scalar companion compliments the book by providing pathways for exploring the medieval and Early Modern sources that were created by the abbey of La Trinité for the cult of the Holy Tear.

This Scalar companion aims to foster an understanding of how humanities research is carried out in libraries and archives. By making these sources accessible in an interactive form, students can discover how these sources can be used to help us make sense of the past.

In the printed book, chapter 1 traces the theological meaning of the tear that Christ shed at the tomb of Lazarus. In the Scalar companion, viewers can see the text of the mass of the Holy Tear, bound in a missal from the abbey. Chapters two and three explore the development of the legend of the Holy Tear as it grew out of the powerful cults of Mary Magdalene and Lazarus that developed in France from the twelfth-century onwards. The Scalar project presents the material culture associated with the development of the Holy Tear legend, including a drawing of a sculptural program of the legend.

The second part of the book explores the material culture of the Holy Tear, including what it was as a relic and the reliquaries that enshrined it. Chapter 4 examines the evidence pertaining to the Holy Tear’s material composition. The Scalar project addresses the evidence that may help us to reconstruct what the lost object was. Chapter 5 explores the shrine that was erected in the abbey’s choir to safeguard the Holy Tear. The Scalar site invites the viewer to comment on and suggest possible reconstructions. Chapter six places the display of the Holy Tear within the abbey church.

Part 3 demonstrates how the cult of the Holy Tear was activated in performance and ritual. Chapter 7 considers the performance of the Office of Lazarus.
The scalar companion includes the offices found in the abbey’s manuscripts.  Chapter 8 considers the pilgrimage experience of the Holy Tear and the rituals associated with the tear.  The Scalar site offers images of pilgrim ampullae and documents describing rituals to the tear. Finally, Chapter 9 examines the unfolding narratives of the Lazarus story for pilgrims.

Each of these chapters utilizes different types of evidence ranging from manuscripts and inventories, to drawings and fragmented material culture. All of these elements, architecture, visual art media, music played together in creating an ethereal experience of the relic of the Holy Tear. We invite you to explore in the following pages the evidence from which we can gain an understanding of the dynamic visual and performance culture of a late medieval abbey.

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