What is the Guelph Treasure?

What is the Guelph Treasure?

The Guelph Treasure is a collection of medieval reliquary objects that is named after the house of Guelph, which had owned it since 1671. Today, forty-four of the 82 objects in the original collection belong to SPK.

A Medieval Reliquary Treasure

The collection of objects now known as the Guelph Treasure (Welfenschatz) was part of the reliquary treasure at the former Stiftskirche St. Blasius zu Braunschweig (now Brunswick Cathedral). It is one of the most important collections of medieval German ecclesiastical art. In 1671 it came into the possession of the princely House of Guelph, which sold the treasure, then comprising 82 objects, to a consortium of art dealers in 1929, just three weeks before the start of the Great Depression.

In June 1935, the Prussian state, acting via Dresdner Bank, acquired 42 works in the Guelph Treasure for the Schlossmuseum, now the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) operated by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin), from this consortium, some of whose members were Jewish. These pieces are owned by the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) along with two additional objects acquired in 1935 and 1937. The 44 objects in SPK’s collection are currently on permanent display at the Kunstgewerbemuseum’s Kulturforum location.

Most of the other pieces of the Guelph Treasure currently belong to museums in the U.S., Sweden and Germany. Three pieces were destroyed in 1945 in the Roseliushaus (Bremen, Germany). The whereabouts of four additional objects, which were acquired in 1930/31 by private buyers in the U.S., remain unknown.

Cultural Property of National Significance

The Kunstgewerbemuseum currently holds 44 of the original 82 pieces in the Guelph Treasure. That makes this remaining portion the largest German ecclesiastical treasure owned by a public institution. In light of this circumstance, the State of Berlin designated the Guelph Treasure as cultural property of national significance on February 6, 2015, after a several-month research process. Under the German Act to Protect German Cultural Property against Removal (Kulturgutschutzgesetz), removing the pieces from Germany – even for exhibition purposes – is now only possible with authorization from the German Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media.

The Most Important Items of the Treasure

The Guelph Treasure contains many outstanding objects, including magnificent crosses, reliquaries, and portable altars. Some of the best-known works are described below.

The Cupola Reliquary

The Cupola Reliquary, glowing golden and standing almost half a meter high, is the most important piece of the Guelph Treasure. Its form is reminiscent of a Byzantine cross-in-square church and it is richly ornamented. The reliefs on the ends beneath the pediments show the Holy Family, the journey of the Magi, the Crucifixion, and the women at the tomb. Under the other arcades are figures of the prophets. The Apostles are enthroned at Christ’s side on the drum of the dome. The inscription at the base of the drum contains the beginning of the Confession of Peter (Mt 16,13-16, “When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples”). In 1482, the cupola reliquary held the relic of the skull of St. Gregory of Nazianzus. The lack of any images or inscriptions pointing to its use as a reliquary, as well as other factors, have recently led experts to conclude that the piece was originally intended as a tabernacle for keeping sacramental bread.

The Cupola Reliquary
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum / Fotostudio Bartsch, Berlin
The Guelph Cross
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum / Fotostudio Bartsch, Berlin

The Guelph Cross

The Guelph Cross is an uncommonly exquisite reliquary cross. It is one of the chief works of art in the Guelph Treasure. Behind a square piece of rock crystal at the foot of the cross, it contains a fragment of the True Cross. According to the engravings in niello on the back, it also contains relics of St. Peter, St. Mark, St. John the Baptist, and St. Sebastian. The cross is decorated with extremely fine filigree work. An enkolpion, originally used as a pectoral cross, is attached to the front. It shows Byzantine influence and is presumably significantly older than the other parts of the cross. On its front are Christ on the cross, portraits of Mary and John the Evangelist to the left and right, and (most likely) the archangel Michael above. The base of the cross adopts Classical elements that impressively emphasise the role of the Guelph Cross as a repository of relics.

The Portable Altar of Eilbertus
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum / Fotostudio Bartsch, Berlin

The Portable Altar of Eilbertus

The Guelph Treasure includes the largest number of medieval portable altars to survive in a single church treasure. They include, to name just a few, the Portable Altar of Eilbertus, the Portable Altar with the Cardinal Virtues, and the Portable Altar with the Rock Crystal Columns. The Eilbertus portable altar is a major work of Romanesque treasury art and is named after its creator, the Cologne goldsmith Eilbertus. Exhibiting exceptional technical skill and great artistic maturity, it exploits the possibilities offered by a variety of copper enameling techniques in order to execute a complex theological iconography. Figures of the prophets appear on the sides, placed between columns, along with their prophecies. They act as Old Testament supports for the altar. Each end of the mensa (the top panel), left and right, bears four plaques depicting scenes from the lives of Mary and Christ . Representations of the twelve Apostles holding scrolls with text surround the altar stone of rock crystal. Visible beneath the rock crystal is a miniature painting of Christ as Judge of the World, along with the symbols of the four Evangelists.

The Arm Reliquary of Saint Sigismund

The Arm Reliquary of Saint Sigismund is among the oldest surviving examples of a common type of reliquary called a “talking” reliquary. According to an inscription carved into the underside of the base (which was not inscribed before around 1300), it holds relics of St. Sigismund, King of the Burgundians (d. 524). The arm reliquary stands on a square base which rests on lions' paws  and features a chased design of foliage on its top. The sleeves and hand were originally made of chased rolled silver. In the late 13th or early 14th century, the hand was replaced by one of cast bronze. In three fingers, it holds an orb surmounted by a fleur-de-lis. This was seen to be a shortened representation of a lily-crowned scepter. When the hand was replaced, the sleeve was made narrower, causing this arm reliquary to have unusually slender proportions. The thumb ring with the inscription “ciismundus” (Sigismund) in Gothic minuscule script was presumably added at some time afterwards.

The Arm Reliquary of Saint Sigismund
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum / Fotostudio Bartsch, Berlin

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