The Stavelot ReliquaryTriptych, champlevé and cloisonné on copper gilt
Morgan Library, New York
Stavelot is in Belgium, southeast of Liège. The triptych was created about 1156 at the abbey of Stavelot under Abbot Wibald. He had visited Constantinople, where the emperor, according to the placard at the Morgan Library, probably gave him the two pieces of the True Cross that are now in the center of the triptych.
The central panel contains two smaller triptychs, one above the other. The lower of these, which is larger, is divided into four quadrants by two slivers of wood. The upper left quadrant has the head and upper torso of a female saint with the Greek inscription “B¯P” The upper right quadrant has the head and upper torso of a male saint and the inscription “MIF” (but with a ¯ above the M, and the crosspiece of the F tilts down toward the right). Constantine stands in the lower left quadrant, and Helena in the lower right. An X shape, with pearls at each of the four ends, links the four quadrants.
The upper, smaller triptych shows the crucifixion, with Mary on the left and John on the right. On the left and right of the upper part of the cross are the sun and moon. The Greek inscription with John is “IAOVH—MERCOV”
The opened side panels use three roundels each for the story of Constantine’s conversion (on the left) and St. Helena’s discovery of the True Cross (on the right).
The lowest of the Constantine roundels shows him stretched out in his bed having the dream of the message, IN HOC SIGNO VINCES. His palace is suggested by a triple arch in the background, with a crown hanging from the central arch, directly below the cross that he is dreaming about.
The middle roundel shows Constantine's victory at the Milvian bridge. His army fills the left and center; its spears crowd Maxentius’ army out toward the right – a nice way to express movement without abandoning the still calm of the overall composition. Among the many horizontal spears of the victors is one cross, held at about 40°. There is a lower register with two dead bodies.
The upper roundel shows the emperor being baptized by Pope Silvester in a constructed above-ground stone pool that is big enough around to facilitate at least a partial immersion. (The Pope stands outside the pool.) Above Constantine, God’s hand points straight down from the central arch of another 3-arch representation of a palace, amid three rays of light. The hand is on the same axis as the crown in the bottom roundel.
In the lowest St. Helena roundel, she questions the Jewish leaders about the cross. One of them is labeled as saying, “JUDAS NOVIT.” The saint sits on an architectural throne whose base is a structure in the Roman basilical style (i.e., low-roofed side aisles flanking a high-roofed nave that has clerestory windows).
In the middle roundel St. Helena watches as servants dig up the cross on Mount Calvary.
The top roundel shows St. Helena testing the three crosses on the sick man.
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