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The Byzantine Treasury of the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena

November 28, 2009

Stephania Gerevini  is taking a PhD covering the transportability of Byzantine art to 14C Italian city states at the Courtauld Institute of Art. I was able to hear her present on her work so far at King’s College, London on Tuesday 24 November to an audience of Byzantists including Judith Herrin. The following is a write up of my notes which I hope you will find of interest.

The Hospital was founded in the 10C and is located opposite the Cathedral. It performed three key roles: a hospital to treat the unwell; as a charity; offering accommodation to pilgrims.

View of the fresco cycle in the Pellegrinaio - Domenico Di Bartolo

View of the fresco cycle in the Pellegrinaio - Domenico Di Bartolo

The Pope established a direct relationship with the Hospital; sometimes the effects of this relationship ran contrary to the wishes of the Commune and even the local Bishop. The Black Death of the 14C placed the Hospital centre stage in the life of the Commune and resulted in increased wealth through many legacies.

In 1359 a Tuscan merchant, based in Venice, but trading with Constantinople, attended an auction in Constantinople and purchased a number of Byzantine relics on behalf of the Hospital. These were purchased for 3,000 florins specifically to create a treasury in the Hospital. (NB a florin contained 3.5 grammes of gold).

The relics included a complete set from the Passion (nail of the cross, fragment of the cross), the veil, bonnet and girdle of the Virgin, and relic bones of Apostles, Saints and martyrs including SS Paul, Peter and Bartholomew.

At each stage the purchase was certified and authenticated by documents made in Constantinople and Venice. A witness who attended the auction, which took place in the official residence of the Venetian representative in Constantinople, attested that the relics that arrived in Venice were the same as those sold at the auction.

The arrival of the relics in Siena was transformed into a major civic event, with a procession of citizens leading the relics to the Hospital. There was a civic reception paid for by the Commune which cost 1,625 florins. This is the first indication that the state wanted to play a role in the management of the relics, and likewise that the relics were to play a role in the civic life of the city. Did the City authorities upstage the Hospital?

A specially dedicated chapel was built and completed by 1370 to house the relics. However, they were not kept on public display. There is no evidence that the relics were used in any way to ‘promote’ miracle cures amongst the sick in the Hospital. Although not on display, the mere presence, and their once a year outing, may have generated large revenues for the Hospital so that this can also be seen as an economic transaction. There were numerous Papal visits to Siena and to the Hospital, reinforcing the link with the Papacy. Despite the tensions with the Byzantine church and state, there seems to have been no comment by a Pope about the presence of these Byzantine relics.

The relics became the focus for a new religious festival for Siena. It took place on 25 March which is the Feast of the Annunciation. It is said that this was also the day of Christ’s Passion, hence the legitimate display of relics associated not only with the Virgin, but also with Christ.

The 25th March is also the Patron Day of Santa Maria della Scala, the start of the Sienese year, and marked an important political date – the ‘Fall of the Nine’, or ruling council, in 1355 and the ascent of the ‘Council of Twelve’. This event took place during a visit by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV and his wife in 1355.

The purchase in 1359 enabled the relics to be presented the following year which marked 100 years of independence from Florence following the battle of Montaperti on 4 September  1260.

During the new festival, a large crowd gathered on the Cathedral steps facing the Hospital and were addressed by the Bishop. The crowds became so large that a pulpit was erected on the wall of the Hospital and by 1379 low stone benches were added below this so that the civic dignitaries could be seated.

The possession of this unique treasury elevated the Hospital, and the city, to a high status.

The relics were purchased during the reign on John V Paleologus  precisely because they were Byzantine relics. The possession by the Sienese then involved active reinterpretation of their role and significance. In Byzantium these were small relics for personal use and devotion. In Siena, they became civic symbols, emphasising the importance of the independent city and its Hospital.

The relics are quite small. The largest is a reliquary being less than 10 cm high (2” in old money). The fragments of the bones of the saints are just a few cm long. As mentioned they were almost certainly meant for private devotion. The reliquaries have at their tops chain links, indicating that they were probably worn around the neck, perhaps under clothes. Some show possible wear due to being rubbed by the fingers of their owner. Many inscriptions are in the first person, again indicating the private and personal nature of the relics:

“Before the golden mouth of Chrysostom / my mind is paralysed and my word is unworthy” and on the side of this reliquary are the words:

“The blessed golden relic Chrysostom is hidden in gilded silver (within)”

During the production of the provenance documents a Byzantine royal princess was interviewed. We don’t have her name but she is believed to have been either Irene, wife of the future John VI, or Helena the wife of John V. The document is confusing, but quotes the princess as saying “No losses in my life have been greater than the loss of these objects.”

This gives (some) of the relics a personal touch, tinged with sadness. Byzantium was now in serious decline and the sale of such items was probably becoming more frequent. However, such things also ran in the family as John V was the son of the Empress Anne of Savoy who infamously sold the Byzantine crown itself to Venice for 30,000 Ducats. There is also a line of thought that believes that there could have been a cottage industry to make these items specifically for sale to create income for the Byzantine treasury and royal family. We shall never know for certain.

What is clear is the Sienese took private devotional objects and turned them into items for public display, and stored them in a dedicated chapel. The Sienese viewed these objects as coming from the Byzantine treasury developed from Constantine the Great onwards. This link was important. A Sienese civic cult developed around the relics, reforging them to create new meaning and identity.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2010 5:11 pm

    Advantageously, the post is really the best on this notable topic. I totally agree with your conclusions and will eagerly look forward to your incoming updates. Saying thanks will not just be enough, for the exceptional clarity in your writing. I will instantly grab your rss feed to stay abreast of any updates.Pleasant work and much success in your business enterprise!Thank you very much.

  2. proverbs6to10 permalink*
    March 21, 2010 5:41 pm

    And thank you for your nice comments. I love the topic of Byzantium and each week more or less brings a new perspective or topic. There is much more to come, just not enough time! But don’t forget on this particular topic we are indebted to the work of Stephania Gerevini which I was reporting.

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