Sicily (?)

Reliquary of St Helena

c. mid 12th century

    This precious reliquary was brought to light in Rome in the chapel of St Helena, at Sancta-Maria-in-Ara-Coeli. The casket is made up of carved sandalwood tablets. Set into the lid decorated with the cross and dove are precious stones, ancient jewels that have been reemployed. The side panel ornamentation is divide into three frames depicting birds either addorsed or affrontee on one side, with a gazelle between two griffins on the other. The eyes of all the animals are inlaid with garnets or emeralds. The casket is painted with a polychrome coating with traces of gold leaf showing. All the stylistic features point to a production of the workshops of 12th c. Palermo or, through them, an item imported from Fatimite Egypt.

The casket contained the relics of Helena, the mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor. It was commissioned by Pope Anastasius IV in c. 1154, and it is interesting to see him calling upon the most famous Norman workshops of Sicily for these precious relics.

Dimensions of the object
17 cm x 28 cm x 14 cm

I Normanni, popolo d'Europa, Roma, Venezia, 1994, a cura di Mario d'Onofio, n 326.

Rome, church of S. Maria-in-Ara-Coeli

Photography : D.R.