Sunday, January 16, 2011


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.

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