British Museum blog

Limoges enamelled plaque: a dazzling object

Limoges enamelled plaqueNaomi Speakman, curator, British Museum

Decorated with jewel-like enamelled colours and covered in gilding, this Limoges enamelled plaque found on the Isle of Wight, would have been a dazzling religious item for its original owner.

Limoges enamelled plaque, shown from all angles.

Limoges enamelled plaque, shown from all angles.

The plaque bears the image of a winged man, standing on a wave-like cloud, who most likely represents Matthew, one of the four Evangelists who created the four gospel accounts of the New Testament, in the Christian Bible. The plaque is church shaped, formed of a steep roof topped with an orb and cross. On the other side the plaque is recessed, and pierced by a hole, indicating that this small piece may have been attached to something much larger – quite what, we don’t really know.

What we do know, however, is that enamelled plaques of this kind were very popular in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century across Europe. Two key ways to spot Limoges enamel work are its vibrant blue colour, and, in many cases, stylised rosettes, examples of which have been found in England.

Enamelled mount from Limoges

Enamelled mount from Limoges

Their namesakes come from the city of their making, Limoges in central France, which was one of the centres of enamelling in the Middle Ages. The industry of enamel making in Limoges boomed in the twelfth century, and particularly famous examples of these are reliquary caskets commemorating the murder of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. One of these is on display at the British Museum in Room 40: Medieval Europe and another in Room 1: Enlightenment.

Reliquary casket produced in the Limoges workshops after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170

Reliquary casket produced in the Limoges workshops after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170

Limoges enamelled plaques could be made for many types of religious objects, including book covers, portable altars and reliquary caskets. What this plaque was attached to we cannot be certain, but we do know that it was used for religious worship, perhaps forming part of an object used to decorate an altar or for other use in public worship.

Equally, we cannot be certain who it belonged to. An expensive item, the plaque was most likely owned by someone of a higher status with the necessary wealth to afford such an item. But, unfortunately, we will probably never know.

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Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure,

One Response

  1. naffréchoux-multon says:

    Very interested by this object and your comments. Although I quite don’t agree with your identification of this man with an evangelist. Evangelists usually are represented wearing a large book. The image of a person standing on a cloud and with wings is presumably intended to represent an angel, a mythical being – if i may say – not a man, not even a saved man in the paradise.
    You don’t give any information on the object from which this plaque was presumably taken, because of course you don’t have any quite sure piece of evidence about it. Should it be a part (lateral wall) detached from a casket ?
    A few suggestions:
    Why don’t you offer a link to the Limoges museum website ? It should help to compare with other similar objects (mostly produced in series).
    Why don’t say a word about the oriental ( Greek and Byzantin) origin of this craft? The travels (warlike and religious) – to the near-east during the middle ages and the large number of the goldsmiths of near-eastern origin (even in the Limoges workshops) seems to me a precious key to approach the multicultural aspects of this kind of craft : christian and anglo-norman but also – and before – oriental. Angels are not but ancient-iranian mythical figures or am I mistaken ?

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