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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Religious Treasures

( Orginally published 1962 )



WHEN the tomb of the great King Charlemagne was opened in the twelfth century, he was found sitting upright, completely attired in his imperial regalia like a ghost sovereign holding sway over an empire of dust and decay.

But the emperor was not the only thing they found, for in his tomb they discovered a fabulous reliquary, set with sapphires and allegedly containing a piece of the "true cross." The reliquary had rested there quietly for centuries, until 1804, when one of the most beautiful women in Europe visited the tomb at Aix-la-Chapelle. Josephine de Beauharnais took one look at the reliquary and wanted it.

There was consternation among the treasure keepers of the tomb, but Napoleon Bonaparte insisted and, reluctantly, the keepers gave the reliquary to Josephine. Where this reliquary is today is a mystery, although rumor has it that it is now in the hands of a French collector. If this is true then it does not belong on the treasure hunter's list. But there were other reliquaries made by the order of Charlemagne which really belong on the treasure hunter's list-for they are missing, completely lost to the world.

Among them are the twenty-four alphabet reliquaries, each of them encrusted with precious gems and each designed for a different letter of the alphabet. The last trace we have of these reliquaries is in the eleventh century, when the so-called "A of Charlemagne," the first of the reliquaries, belonged to a Church in Conques.

Since then, there is no trace of them, and not even the Vatican has any knowledge of the letters. Tiffany's in New York relegates them to the world of legend. Gump's in San Francisco has no information on them. Nor does the College of St. Albert the Great, Dominican House of Studies for the Province of the Holy Name, in Oakland, have any information.

They have become lost even to the historians, but, if you could find even one of the letters, it would be listed as one of the greatest religious treasures found in the last century. They could be anywhere -even in your attic here in America-for when the priests came to this country they brought with them as many of their treasures as they could.

It would not be incredible at all to find one of these reliquaries decorating the altar of some small church in one of America's backwaters. Or one may be in that old trunk in your basement which contains the souvenirs of an ancestor who had been to sea and collected many strange things in even stranger ports.

Or, perhaps, you might find a different reliquary there-even though it might not be one of the twenty-four reliquaries of Charlemagne. Numerous reliquaries were made in the time of the early Christian church, reliquaries made with loving care and decorated with the most costly materials and gems which the artisans could find. For these were the caskets which contained the relics of their saints-sometimes a bone or a fingernail or a piece of hair. Or sometimes even a piece of wood which was allegedly a piece of the "true cross."

These reliquaries were made in many forms, and one of these forms was that of a cross. Since these altar reliquaries were made to hold the relics of their saints, the churches made them with the finest workmanship and costliest gems-each of them a treasure-if you could find it.

There are, of course, reliquaries in the museums today, but there were so many made that there is no way of knowing, since the records are so vague, how many are missing. It is simpler to remember just what reliquaries are and to watch for them.

Remember also that there are so many objects in the world of religion to watch for, because it was here, in the church, where people poured out their hopes and dreams-and in so doing produced some of the world's most beautiful art.

Specialized works of art were also produced, eagerly desired by collectors. From twelfth-century Byzantine art, watch for the Black Virgins: art representing the Virgin Mary with her skin painted black to show her sorrow.

The color black, though again associated with lost religious treasures, is not always associated with sorrow. From the Middle ages watch for representations of Jesus clothed in black garments. Black in this case means death-death to evil. How many of these black Virgins or black Christs were made, or how many are missing, no one knows. One thing, however, is certain: they will be bought by museums-if you can find them.

They could be anywhere. Treasures travel to fantastic placessometimes right under your nose if you only know what you are looking for. It is to be hoped, of course, that, if you should find a lost religious treasure, it would be in fine condition, for this is important in evaluating any item.

This demand for fine condition also holds true for the wax figures of the saints made during the feudal ages-if you can find them. It also holds true for the stained-glass windows of Europe which even in the tenth century were used to beautify the houses of God.

Stained-glass windows previous to the twelfth century were brilliant in their colors, but by the twelfth century the monks of the Cistercian order issued proclamations to the effect that the violent color of the windows must be subdued.

This edict greatly influenced the creation of stained-glass windows throughout all of Europe, and, in the fourteenth century, there was another stoppage to the making of fine stained-glass windows. This was that medieval phenomenon which was rightly called the Black Death.

The somber churches of the Middle Ages with their vastness and their feeling of immensity possibly needed the glory and brilliancy that comes from a sunbeam slanting through the rich purples and violets of these paintings done in glass.

Any of these fabled windows from any of these centuries is worth watching for, and while there may be little chance of finding a piece or a whole portion of a stained-glass window, still the treasures are there to be found. What museum would not want a fine rainbowhued window from the Middle Ages?

Think it impossible to find a stained-glass window in America? What, then, of the millionaire California gold-rush miners who shipped ~easure here by the wagonload-and then lost it. Or the show-off business tycoons of the '20's who bought treasure by the boatload when most of them did not even know art when they saw it. And many lost it after the crash of '29. Even a stained-glass window could be anywhere in America-if you only bother to look for it. And if you find a religious treasure-of fine craftsmanship and in fine condition-you have something which collectors and museum curators will pay for.

To the experts a bulto means a carved figure or a figure representing the Madonna, the Christ or the Saints. To the experts a retablo means a religious painting done on wood or skin. To the experts these are examples of very primitive art done in the lands south of the border by the peons. But to the treasure hunter they are lost treasures well worth searching for.

It all began when the conquistadores marched with heavy feet across the lands to the south of us, and the priests of the church went with them. The spilling of blood and the awareness of a new kind of God walked hand in hand.

As early as the fifteen hundreds, the people were helping to decorate their churches. The works of art which they created are to all purposes the art of the people themselves. No Raphaels or da Vincis here, but poor, uneducated people with a need to display their great love for their Church.

Many of these unknown artists were Indians, sometimes of mixed blood, and it was to these people that the Church looked for much of its art. Their works were simple, yet filled with the grandeur of their beliefs. They, from all parts of the Latin countries in our hemisphere, created works of art for the missions, the churches, the schools.

There was no building of religious significance which they did not beautify in some way. No matter how poor the people were, they glorified the Church. They spilled what wealth they had into its paintings, its statues and its decorations. They made bultos and retablos, altar pieces, wood panels, and crucifixes.

Part of this art has survived. Much has disappeared and may today lie forgotten in some peon's hut or even in the home of some American who traveled into the lands of the south and purchased some items from the "natives." Not knowing the value of what they had, it is possible that the peons sold for pennies objects which are actually very valuable. The Americans in their turn bought what they thought were oddities, never dreaming that they were buying works of art which belong in the museums.

How many of these works of art have survived at all is unknown. Some of them of course have been damaged. In the many revolutions which have rocked the southern nations numerous works of art were used as parts of tents, or the paintings were placed so that they gave shade to the tired soldiers. Some of the art was ruthlessly destroyed by soldiers in their revolutionary desire for destruction. Some was simply thrown away by revolutionaries who wanted something new and who looked down upon the primitive art of their own country. Many times some fine art was thrown on the junk heap while paintings and statues of far less beauty and merit were put in its place.

Sometimes they were simply put away, out of sight, because they were misunderstood and not appreciated properly. Some of them might still be found in the dark corners of Latin America, where they have lain waiting for someone who knows their value to claim them. What is the value of these items? Whatever the market will bear -depending upon the object's condition, the workmanship and the desire of the buyer.

Where to find them? In all of the countries to the south which knew the influence of the Church. Mexico is especially considered to be one of the finest hunting grounds for the art of these primitive artisans.

Perhaps the bulto or retablo or crucifix which you picked up on your vacation in Mexico might be one that satisfies the demands of the collectors in terms of beauty, workmanship, and age. So many of these primitive works of art have disappeared that your chances for finding one of them are very good.