Medieval Enamels Radiate Religious Zeal and Chivalry

Luminous relics from Limoges, France, make their first appearance in the US

Throughout the Middle Ages, alchemists endeavored to change base metal to gold. An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York shows how medieval metalworkers accomplished this - or at least the effect. By enameling pools of powdered glass in jewel-bright colors on sheets of gilded copper, they transmuted copper boxes into radiant works of art.

More than 150 objects from premier collections at the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan - the first such show in America - are on display in "Enamels of Limoges, 1100-1350" through June 16. Works are also on loan from churches all over France. To see them in their permanent homes requires feeding coins into a slot. The door opens, a spotlight illuminates the treasures as minutes tick away, then the door snaps shut. Seeing them in vitrines at the Met is considerably easier. Some, like the huge "Chasse of Ambazac," shine so brightly, you almost squint when examining this cupboard-sized repository for holy relics.

Although Limoges, a town in south central France, is today associated with fine china, in the Middle Ages it was famed for enamelwork. Examples decorated the tomb of St. Peter in Rome and church altars in Spain, Scandinavia, England, Italy, Bohemia, and Russia. The objects made of enamel on gilt copper have the appearance of jewel-encrusted gold, but they were sturdier and more affordable. The fact that they were not fabricated of gold, which was pillaged during the French Revolution, accounts for their survival.

The standard version of art history highlights tapestries, portal sculpture of cathedrals, stained glass, and illuminated manuscripts from this period. It's evident that enamelwork deserves equal recognition.

Many of the objects in the show are chests (called "chasses" or "coffrets"), which contained the remains of saints or their personal effects, such as hairshirts. In an age of illiteracy, enamelwork was not merely decorative; it was used to "paint" storytelling scenes of religious iconography.

The "Reliquary of Saint Valerie" (1175-85) is covered with pictorial panels on the martyrdom of a virgin princess who refused to marry an infidel. Wearing a blue, polka-dot silk gown with leg-of-mutton sleeves and fur lining - all executed in detailed enameling - the pious maid is shown being beheaded. As an angel flutters above her, the 4th-century princess carries her severed head like a loaf of bread to her bishop celebrating mass.

A chasse (1180-90) containing relics of Thomas Becket tells the tale of his murder in Canterbury Cathedral. Stylized Romanesque figures of knights sent by King Henry II are shown murdering Becket as he approaches the altar.

Over the course of 250 years, the style changed from flat, elongated Romanesque figures with pointy toes to a more naturalistic Gothic style. Gilded high-relief figures of five apostles, which decorated the altar at Grandmont monastery outside Limoges, are sculpted with rounded, individualized faces, and softened forms.

Their garments have fluid folds suggesting the Renaissance sculpture to come. Many enamel pieces share the celestial blue palette of illuminated scriptures and stained glass - a cobalt color associated with the doors of heaven.

While the majority of objects narrate religious events, others illustrate scenes of courtly life. The "Funerary Plaque of Geoffrey Plantagenet" (1151) shows the grandfather of Richard the Lion-Hearted (King Richard I of England) in enamel on gilt copper. Like Buffalo Bill Cody, the Plantagenet pioneer (also known as Geoffrey the Fair) had flowing blond hair, a beard, and piercing blue eyes. His detailed costume shows him wearing an ermine-lined cloak and holding a blue shield rampant with lions - the earliest representation of a knight's coat of arms.

The "Coffret of Saint Louis" (1234-37) is studded with 36 different enameled medallions. The shield-shaped escutcheons are emblazoned with coats of arms like the Bourbon fleur-de-lys and a bestiary of fantasy animals.

Even clerics got into the spirit of chivalry, as the "Coffret of Cardinal Bicchieri" (1227) shows. Basically a valise to hold liturgical equipment like chalices, this coffret included the cardinal's bones when it was found embedded in the wall of an Italian church. Its medallions portray decidedly secular scenes like hunting with falcons, singing troubadours, and kissing lovers.

The objects are not just of historic interest but masterpieces of meticulous enamelwork, from miniature medallions to life-sized tomb effigies. A book cover showing "Christ in Majesty" (c. 1185-1210) is a tour de force of vigorous composition, inventive form, and technical mastery.

Production from the workshops gradually decreased in the 14th century. Limoges enamelwork, which flowered like knighthood in the Middle Ages, received its deathblow when the Black Prince - Edward, Prince of Wales - sacked the town in 1370. Six hundred years ago, devout pilgrims visited churches to venerate relics in beautiful enameled containers. Now art lovers can examine them in a museum and appreciate a high point of medieval civilization.

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