Worshiping in Place through Art: The Hidden Gems of the Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude
By Amanda Mikolic, Curatorial Assistant for the Department of Medieval Art
In this time of being mostly housebound, one can still draw spiritual comfort by “worshiping in place.” It was a practice common in the medieval period; portable altars, personal shrines, and books of hours aided the personal devotion of individuals at home or unable to attend church.
Portable altars were much in demand, since attending Mass was mandatory for medieval Christians. The altars allowed parishioners to celebrate Mass in private homes, fields, prisons, or army camps, or while traveling or kept to sick beds. In use since the 600s, portable altars were considered sacred and were consecrated, usually via application of holy oil by a bishop. In 787 the Ecumenical Council decreed that all altars — both large, permanent altars in a church and small, portable altars — must contain sacred relics such as a venerated piece of a saint or an item of holy significance. This led to a flourishing trade in relics in the Middle Ages and the creation of many false relics.
Major relics were considered the most important possessions of medieval churches, even more so than the precious gold and silver objects and vestments used in the celebration of Mass. Cathedrals and churches across Europe vied with one another to hold the most prestigious relics. They were highly sought after by the devotee: pilgrims would travel across Europe to pray in front of important relics. The addition of relics to a portable altar not only increased its sacredness but also allowed those not able to undertake a pilgrimage the chance to encounter holy relics. Portable altars came to be a sign of wealth and power. They were donated, exchanged, and granted to individuals as favors.
One of the most spectacular early examples is in the Guelph Treasure, a collection of magnificent objects once belonging to the church of Saint Blaise in Brunswick, Germany. The church was founded in 1030 by Count Liudolf I and his wife, Gertrude. When Liudolf died in 1077, Gertrude donated a portable altar and two reliquary crosses dedicated to the memory of her husband. These three objects formed the core of what later became known as the Guelph Treasure, named after another aristocratic family who rebuilt the church and donated additional objects through the 1400s.
Now holding pride of place in the CMA’s gallery 106C, this treasure has delighted Cleveland audiences since 1931. In only one month of that year, 97,000 people came to view it, forming long lines that stretched through the museum, breaking visitor records. The hidden gems of the centerpiece, the Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude (c. 1045), were not on view, however; the altar was not opened until the 1980s, when the contents were photographed and examined for the first time.
The Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude, made of gold and sumptuously decorated with precious and semiprecious materials, is a masterpiece of early medieval craftsmanship. Although a great deal of the decoration is lost (only 46 of the original 92 large stones survive), the original wealth of the altar can be imagined by what remains. The mineralogy department at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History helped identify the stones as sapphire, garnet, fluorite, amethyst, emerald, and carnelian; also present are red, green, and blue glass, along with a piece of fossilized tar.
The outside decoration reflects the importance and sacredness of the objects contained within. Not visible in the gallery display are 10 small bundles of relics nestled inside a hollow cavity accessible through a small trap door on the bottom of the altar. Each bundle is accompanied by a small piece of parchment that identifies the saint associated with the bundle. Several are still wrapped in medieval textiles, including a precious silk bag from Spain made in the 1300s. An inventory from 1482, which includes the altar, lists the relics it contained at that time, many of which are still preserved in it.
Relics were likely moved in and out of the portable altar during its life as a sacred object. The script and text on the labels indicate that they are medieval. The staff of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History also helped to X-ray the relics and identify some of the specific bones:
A- “Saint Hermetis” — A fragment of a long bone from an arm or a leg (such as a humerus, femur, or fibula); exact identification is not possible using only X-ray.
B- “Saint Adelaide” — A fragment thought to belong to a finger (metacarpal) bone, but the bone’s curve is too prominent for a human; it is wrapped in silk, so visual examination cannot be conducted.
C- “Saint Vincent” — A portion of the occipital bone, where the spinal cord connects to the brain.
D- “Saint Gertrude” — An X-ray revealed no solid material wrapped in the Byzantine textile.
E- “Saint Marcian” — An X-ray revealed no solid material wrapped in the Byzantine textile.
F- 10 Saints (Stephen, Sophie, Perpetua, Paul, Barnaba, Philip, Simon, Thaddeus, John the Apostle, and James) — An X-ray revealed only small specks of solid material.
G- Stone — The accompanying parchment identifies the piece of limestone as a portion of the block used to support the Holy Cross on Mount Golgotha.
H- “Saint Gregory” — A fragment of the proximal tibia or the portion of the shinbone near the top that widens to form the knee joint.
I- “Saint Januarius” — A nearly complete ankle joint (talus).
J- “Saint Bartholomew” — Mummified flesh or tissue, which was originally housed in a silk bag decorated with lions, made in the 1300s in Spain.
Recently our textile conservator, Robin Hanson, created new housing for each of the 10 relics so they are safer and more secure inside the altar. Using only material approved to be in contact with the fragile relics for long-term storage, the new boxes fit perfectly in the reliquary’s cavity without putting pressure on the others. The process of inserting the relics back into the altar was put on hold by the COVID-19 crisis. When the museum reopens, the project will be completed, and the altar will return to the gallery with its invisible treasures on display only in photographs online.
During this time of upheaval, technology has created a lifeline to encourage interaction with the sacred world in new ways, whether by livestreaming Mass at home, by attending a virtual prayer group, or by practicing guided meditation. Sacred art has played a vital role in the church since the beginning of Christianity. Through the museum’s Collection Online, we can now interact with sacred art even when we are at home.
Gallery 106C is currently closed to visitors, but you can explore the gallery virtually through videos, exhibition history, and related content on the CMA’s Collection Online here.