Sunday, January 16, 2011

THE ELEANOR VASE

I have recently become interested in an object generally known today as 'The Eleanor of Aquitaine Vase.' It can now be seen on permanent display in the Louvre, the museum having acquired the piece in 1793 after the French Revolution. The object is known to have belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine, who, having inherited it from her grandfather, William IX, gave it as a wedding gift to her first husband, Louis VII of France. In his turn, he gave it to Abbot Suger for his foundation of St. Denis, who used it as a communion vessel.

The vase has not always looked like this, and perhaps is not even a vase. The jewel-encrusted mountings at the top and base were a later addition and the original was a pear-shaped vessel with a neck two centimetres long. The rock crystal is carved in a 'honeycomb' pattern of about 22 rows of small hollowed out hexagons. Carved rock crystal containers have existed from antiquity, the Eastern Mediterranean appearing to be their source of origin at the outset. The craft flourished throughout the Middle East and was known in the Roman Empire. However, other than the Eleanor vase, the honeycomb pattern is only known to have been worked in glass, and as such, Eleanor's piece is utterly unique.
The Medieval world believed that rock crystal was fossilized ice and valued the material greatly. There are references from love poetry composed in Moorish Spain to rock crystal drinking cups, so perhaps the Eleanor Vase was originally one of these, or due to its great value, may have been a display piece. Indeed, it seems extremely likely that the object itself came from Muslim Spain as a gift to Eleanor's grandfather from the Emir Imad-al-dawla of Sarragossa, and would have come into William's possession in around 1120 when he was on battle campaign in Spain.
Experts are unsure of the dating of the vase, but suggest either the 6th or 7th centuries, or the 9th or 10th, but it was already an antique when it came into possession of the Dukes of Aquitaine. It was obviously highly valued by Eleanor for her to present it to her husband as a wedding gift.
On June 11th 1144, Louis bestowed the vase on Abbot Suger at the dedication of the magnificent new church at St. Denis. Suger had a fine collection of precious stones and art objects, and the vase was a fine addition. Illustrated here are two more items from the collection. An eagle-headed vase with a porphry body,

















and a Byzantine 7th century Ewer that found its way into his collection and bears the inscription DUM LIBARE DEO GEMMIS DEBEMUS ET AURO / HOC E (go) S (ugeri) US OFFERO VAS DOMINO” (Since we must sacrifice to God with gold and precious stones, I, Suger, offer this vase to the Lord).


Why did Louis give the rock crystal vase to him? Ralph Turner in his biography of Eleanor suggests that it was an offering to St. Denis in the hope that Louis and Eleanor's barren marriage might be blessed with a child (a daughter, Marie, was born the following year). It might have been that Louis valued Suger as an adviser and spiritual mentor and wanted to please him. Suger was to write that Louis had given him the vase 'as a tribute of his great love.' What Eleanor thought is not recorded, although I intend finding out!
Now in possession of the object, Suger set about putting his stamp on it. To beautify it perhaps and make it worthy of his treasury, or perhaps to make sure that it was never going to be given back! He had a base and a neck fashioned for the vase from gilded silver. On the base he put an inscription in niello, then a layer of filigree set with gemstones and decorated with more filigree work and fleurons. He had the neck of the vase similarly adorned. The inscription around the base reads: As a bride, Eleanor gave this vase to King Louis, Mitadolus to her grandfather, the King to me, and Suger to the saints.'

Suger died in January 1151, before Louis and Eleanor divorced. The vase, now a communion vessel remained in the treasury of St Denis down the centuries, but following the French Revolution came to its new home in the Louvre where, together with other items from the treasury of St. Denis, it can be viewed by visitors to the museum.

I have been doing some Akashic Record work on the vase and thought that blog readers might find it interesting to see what has come through from the non conventional side of the historical research. My comments are in bold black and I have pasted excerpts below following the bibiliography for the above article.

The Eleanor of Aquitaine Vase by George T. Beech in Eleanor of Aquitaine, Lord and Lady edited by Bonnie Wheeler and John. C. Parsons.

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Ralph V. Turner

The Louvre website http://www.louvre.fr/llv/commun/home.jsp

Akashic Record on the Eleanor Vase:

A tall man is stooping down to put this crystal vase in her hands She’s feeling good. Warm, excited. The vase is quite knobbly.. Alison is drawing it and it does have a strong look of the said vase but without the top and base that were added later.She feels very warm about this. She’s holding this precious thing in her hands and she is walking across to Louis and she’s walking across at a diagonal towards Louis, and because of the preciousness of this object, she is just walking with her feet, she’s not making her knees move. It’s as if she’s giving this delicate thing which is also her delicate self, her heart to him. She has no qualms about trusting. She is just doing what she needs to do and trusting in this exchange and this shows the level of her trust. Louis picks it up and holds it carefully, looks at it, and he kisses her right at the top of her brow. She feels satisfied. In fact it feels a bit of a relief because she no longer has to have responsibility for this vase and Louis calls someone to come and look after it.

And then Suger and the vase.

Why did Louis decide to give the vase to Suger?

Louis loves this man and there seems to be a flowering of this love as Louis gets older. It seems to be something that sustains him. He has been able to rely on Suger right from childhood as someone that sustains him. He just wants to show his appreciation for everything that Suger has done for him and his family in everything that he upholds. The way that he’s treated in the family. The way that Suger has dedicated his whole being and life to upholding the family. What more loyal member of state could you wish for? It almost brings tears to his eyes. So how can he show what he feels without bringing something that is very precious, fragile and more than that, luminous, to give to Suger. It’s something which appears transparent but in certain…ah this is interesting…but in certain lights gives off other colours like a prismatic effect. That’s why it would be so precious wouldn’t it? It would be like a real light show. It would complement the windows that Suger had put in his church – like a reflection. I can feel that Louis feels the emotional preciousness of it in the connection that he has with Eleanor. So it has that emotional resonance as well as the other resonances. And to give that, all his love, all this beauty, all his connection with Eleanor is an enormous gift. No wonder it brings tears to his eyes.

What does Suger think of this gift? He is taking it into his stomach, taking it into his treasury. Mmm, yum, nice.

But then he tarted it up, didn’t he? That’s to make it his. It can’t go back; it’s his now.

Yes, he made an inscription to that effect. So the tarting wasn’t because he felt it needed extra bling? No, he was putting his own graffiti on it. So he thinks it’s a worthy gift? Oh indeed, yes. Has he coveted it before? Yes, he has! Has he ever made mention before that it’s a nice piece? I’ve lost it now, but I just got the feeling he has commented on it before and seen it before, but said things like ‘If only it was a little bit here and a little bit there, it would be perfect, or it would be gorgeous. He certainly does like it.

What Eleanor felt, I have yet to explore, but it's on the agenda!

9 comments:

Marg said...

What an amazing piece, not only in appearance but to have survived this long!

Taylor said...

Wow what a great post! I really appreciate the Eleanore Vase because I'm so fasinated by her and her story. I can't believe it has survived for so long!

Taylor~ http://allthingshistoricalfiction.blogspot.com/

elizabethashworth said...

I would love to see this in its original form, without all the extra 'tarting up'. Its beauty must have come from the way that it held colours within it. There was no cut glass then and jewels weren't cut in a way that made them reflect the light as modern cut diamonds do so a piece like this must have seemed magical.

Gordon Napier said...

Interesting to discover that Suger modified the vase giving it its present look. That means my drawing of Eleanor holding it is unaccurate. There again she could have borrowed it back! I can't imagine she was very happy to have her husband giving away her wedding presents to him.

Susan said...

Please, please, please share with us how Eleanor felt about the vase being given away. I would love to know.

And it is amazing the piece survived so long, though i'd also love to have seen it in its original form.

Thanks so much for sharing!

Annis said...

Isn't it beautiful? I'd love to know what Eleanor thought as well- when Louis gave away he vase did it mark the point where she started to go off him?
How fortunate that it survived the French Revolution- so many treasures were casualties- even the Bayeux Tapestry was extremely lucky to survive.

George T Beech commented in his article "The Eleanor of Acquitaine Vase: William IX of Acquitaine and Muslim Spain" that aside from the Eleanor connection, the vase as tangible link between Christian Acquitaine and Muslim Spain is particularly significant. The vase is described as probably originating from Sassanid Persia- pity it can't talk!

Beech says:

But the earlier history of the vase, which is of early medieval, mid-eastern origin is obscure because until now no one has been able to identify the first named owner, Mitadolus. Spanish Muslim records make clear that this Mitadolus was Imad al-dawla abd al-malik ibn Hud, the last Muslim king of Saragossa (1110-1130). Forced to abandon his capital to the North-African Almoravids in May 1110, this Spanish Muslim king remained in power for twenty more years by allying with the Christian Aragonese under Alfonso I. Imad al-dawla must have met William IX of Aquitaine when both commanded contingents of knights under Alfonso I at the battle of Cutanda in Aragon on June 17, 1120 when the Almoravids were defeated. The precise circumstances for the transmission of the vase are unknown but it is highly probable that Imad al-dawla presented it to William in an attempt to win his support. The once enigmatic Eleanor Vase must now be seen as a spectacular memento of an unusual act of Christian-Muslim collaboration during a critical phase of the Reconquest.

Annis said...

Sorry for babbling on, but I was tickled to see that Suger was so taken with this vase that he had it immortalised in stone. It can be seen held by one of the Elders of the Apocalypse which Suger had sculpted on the central portal of the west facade of the St Denis church.

A picture of "Patriarch T" holding the vase can be seen here:

"Early Gothic Saint-Denis"
Chapter 7, pg 107

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Fascinating Annis. He must really have wanted this piece and considered it a great treasure. He was known to have been in touch with Eleanor's gaurdian Geoffrey de Louroux before Eleanor's marriage. I wonder if he was angling after the vase even then?
I've just done another Akashic Record session this afternoon to find out what Eleaor thought about giving Suger the vase and when I get around to transcribing the recording, I'll add a post script to the blog.

Annis said...

Oops, sorry- I seem to have got the wrong Patriarch! Even though Patriarch T is holding a vase which looks very similar to the Eleanor Vase, apparently Patriarch B is supposed to be the one holding the replica. Unfortunately I can't find a picture of Patriarch B, darn it!

Quote from the "Early Gothic Saint-Denis" book

"The vials held by all but two of the elders also reflect the artist's interest in accurate imagery. The vase carried by patriarch B—a well-preserved example with only the lightest recutting on its rounded bowl and none at all on the long neck encircled with jeweled bands—closely resembles the famous royal justa (ceremonial vase) given by Louis VII to Suger, who eventually presented it to the patron saints of the abbey. The similarities in form and decoration seem more than coincidental and suggest that the artist deliberately chose the royal gift as his model".

I think Suger might have had a serious case of vase-envy! I wonder if he quietly nagged Louis into handing it over? I'm looking forward to Eleanor's take on the subject :)