The Monymusk Reliquary in the National Museum of Scotland

Medieval Scotland

NEW BOOK: Early Medieval Scotland: Individuals, Communities and Ideas

The Glenmorangie Research Project began in 2008. It took its inspiration from the stunning Hilton of Cadboll stone on display in the National Museum of Scotland’s Early People gallery. This stone was found near the Glenmorangie distillery in Tain, Easter Ross and was later incorporated into the company’s brand logo. As a follow-up the Whisky Company has been supporting a large research project aiming at understanding life in Early Medieval Scotland and its material culture from the bottom up – that is through careful analysis of the many precious objects left in the care of the National Museum of Scotland.

The present book presents an overview of not only these precious objects but also the new insights, which have been reached through careful art-historical and archaeological analysis by curators, historians and archaeologists involved in this project. Sometimes, even, understanding has been achieved through working with modern craftsmen and artists charged with reproducing the splendor of some of these treasures.One example, of what these procedures have yielded, may be gleaned from a detailed presentation of the Monymusk reliquary.

The Monymusk Reliquary - open ©National Museum of Scotland
The Monymusk Reliquary
©National Museum of Scotland

The Monymusk Reliquary

The Monymusk reliquary is without doubt one of the most important objects from Early Medieval Scotland. Although perhaps best known for its doubtful identification as the “Brechbennoch”, which was said to have been carried into the battle fray at Bannockburn in 1314, it is in itself a very precious relic.

The Monymusk reliquary is a small-housed casket made out of yew wood around 750 AD. The back and sides of the box were covered with sheets of bronze, while at the front silver-sheets were used. Appended to these sheets were a series of circular and rectangular mounts; a pair of birds’ heads, interlaced around a central jeweled setting, acted as terminals to the reliquary’s roof-bar.

However, a careful analysis carried out in connection with the Glenmorangie project has shown that dating the reliquary may not  be as easy as has hitherto been thought. It is simply made of many different components, which might very well have been added consecutively. The circular mounts, for instance, have ben made from two pieces, one of which was perhaps originally cut away from another piece of art. The rectangular mounts, on the other hand were made in one piece.

It may also be speculated whether the wooden box was perhaps the original casket for the relics of St. Columba, while the metal-sheets and their decoration were later added.

Finally it may not have been a reliquary box at all. There are no surviving records listing of what the box originally contained; anyway it is very small – 8 x 3 x 4 cm – and can only have contained small bone fragments and the like.  Recently it has been suggested that such boxes were used as Chrismons, carrying the holy sacrament to the ill or dying. The fact that the box can be opened very easily points in this direction. Also, it was obviously meant to be carried by either a strap or a chain around the neck of the owner or caretaker. Finally it appears to have been continuously handled as witnessed by gilding, which has been rubbed off.

Unlike other box-reliquaries, the box does not present any narrative scenes. The decoration is purely ornamental with interlace and entwined animals and at first sight it seems strange that no obvious Christian symbols are present in the ornaments. However, careful consideration has revealed that the design of the front of the box in itself presents a crucifixion scene as well as – probably – signifying the Holy Trinity.

Creating an ancient drinking horn © national Museum of Scotland
Creating an ancient drinking horn
© national Museum of Scotland

As such the Monymusk reliquary takes it position amongst other precious objects imbued by more or less obvious Christian symbolism and it is here – reflecting on the objects in their wider contexts – the present book achieves more than just fetishist art-history. Indeed, moving from individuals to communities and further into the realm of ideas and ideology, we are given a detailed and fascinating review of a landscape and a nation with a diverse and highly complex ancestry – pagan, Roman and Christian at the same time.

Highly recommendable!

Karen Schousboe

Early Medieval Scotland. Individuals, communities and ideas.
By David Clarke, Alice Blackwell and Martin Goldberg
National Museums Scotland 2012
Hardcover, XX + 231 pp, fully illustrated, £30
ISBN: 978-1-905267-63-7


Glenmorangie Project and the exhibition: Creative Spirits


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