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

The Holy Tear of Christ at the Abbey of La Trinité de Vendôme: Project Summary

The project (in progress), for which this Scalar book serves as a teaching companion, discusses the history and development of the cult of the Holy Tear at the Benedictine abbey of La Trinité in Vendôme, France. Founded in the eleventh century, the abbey quickly grew in stature due to its possession of a precious Christological relic: a tear shed by Christ at the tomb of Lazarus as told in John 11:35. Such a precious relic required an environment that would make tangible the sacred nature and miracle-working power of the tear, by playing on sensory experiences, such as sound, vision, and movement that unfolded within the architectural space of the abbey.

The project traces the staging of this relic by the monks at La Trinité from the eleventh through fifteenth centuries. The relic is purported to have been brought to Vendôme from Constantinople by the abbey's founding patron, Geoffrey Maratel, sometime in the second half of the eleventh century. Although long destroyed, medieval and Early Modern descriptions of the relic claim that the tear was a drop of water entrapped in a crystalline vase. The vase was kept within three nested reliquaries. These were kept in a portable altar of German origins dating to the eleventh century.

In the thirteenth century, the monks built a stone shrine surrounding a wooden cabinet to house the relic. The shrine was installed  within the monks' enclosed part of the church, next to the altar dedicated to the Trinity. A staging area for pilgrims was set up on the opposite side of the choir screen, in a more accessible part of the abbey church in the north aisle. Each of these locations presented the relic in different ways that was tailored to its particular audience. In the fourteenth century, the abbey church was rebuilt in a highly refined gothic style that included stained glass and sculpture, which heightened the aesthetic dynamics of the environment. Over the course of these two centuries, an office for St. Lazarus was developed that survives in the abbey's liturgical manuscripts.

All of these elements, architecture, visual art media, music played together in creating an etherial 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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