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

The Reliquary Armoire of the Holy Tear

The reliquary cabinet that was erected at the beginning of the thirteenth century was approximately two meters by four meters.  It was destroyed in 1803. Two drawings survive from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first is a drawing by Louis Boudan, an artist hired by the antiquarian Roger Gaignières for his important series of monastic visual culture. A later drawing was published by the Benedictine historian Jean Mabillon along with a textual description of the armoire from the eighteenth century. 

According to the two drawings, two columns on each side are surrounded by donor figures. They frame a central portal and  support a tympanum above.  The figures have been identified as the countess Agnes of Poitou, one of the abbey's founders, and her sons. 

The scene in the center of the tympanum depicts the moment of the tear's origins.  Christ, standing on the left, raises his hand in a speaking gesture and commands Lazarus to come out of the tomb, saying in a loud voice, "veni foras!"  Lazarus, shown in the foreground sits up stiffly in his coffin, rather than from a cave, as the Gospel specifically describes. From above, an angel swoops in from the right to collect the tear from Christ's eye. In the same moment, the angel then passes the vial to Mary Magdalene.

In the voussoirs above, scenes from Scripture surrounding the Lazarus story contextualize the central narrative.  Mary Magdalene washes Christ's feet on the left, the feast in the House of Simon occupies the central voussoir, and on the right, in a scene not from scripture, two figures present Lazarus's garments, unwrapped from the resurrected corpse.

The cabinet's architrave is likely a fourteenth-century addition, due to the architectural style of the church on the left panel. In these locations, the relic's post-Biblical history unfolds. On the right, Geoffrey stands among the Byzantine Emperor Michael IV of Paleologus and his courtiers and chooses the Holy Tear as his reward for defeating the Saracens and keeping Sicily in Byzantine hands. The narrative proceeds to the left arching over the tympanum. Geoffrey leads his entourage across southern Europe towards Vendôme, where, on the far left, in the abbey church an abbot dressed in a mitre awaits Geoffrey who presents the relic on the altar while the church bells ring.

When these drawings were rendered in the Early Modern period, the armoire had been greatly altered from its medieval disposition. The gothic tracery work and pedestal that likely framed the cabinet were removed, adhering to neo-classical taste. The armoire was surrounded by the new Renaissance choir screen that was erected in the early sixteenth century.



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