Detail of reliquary from Bobbio- source columbanus2015

Shrine from Bobbio

Various copper-alloy fragments found in Bobbio were identified in 1990 as part of a 7th century house-shaped shrine. Might it have belonged to Columbanus?

In 1910 work in the crypt of the Basilica in Bobbio resulted in the find of a small wooden box containing various objects, amongst which were some tinned copper-alloy fragments, which formed part of a house-shaped shrine from the 7th century. It was recently studied under the microscope

The wooden box, which was found in 1910 in the crypt of the Basilica of San Columbano in Bobbio measured 75 x 25 cm. Rotten and damp, it nevertheless held a long list of interesting artefacts, amongst which were

  • A wooden board with an inset bronze-covered wooden cross. Perhaps a portable altar
  • Several wooden house-shaped reliquaries with various decorations
  • Several Copper –alloy decorated plates with a white metal coating
Shrine from Bobbio- Source Wikipedia
7th century shrine from Bobbio.
Source: Wikipedia

To this should be other items: fragments of cloth, a piece of a beaker, pectoral crosses of wood and a number of ampullae, which had contained holy oil and to which a number of wooden stoppers were preserved. It is believed the ampullae had been sealed off with the small pieces of cloth.

Special interest has been attached to the house-shaped reliquaries as well as the pectorial crosses, which seem to look a bit like the jewelled pectorial cross, which was found in the grave of St. Cuthbert. But the other artifacts have also gained some interest in recent years. (A selection are exhibited in the Museum of the Abbey in Bobbio).

In an article from 1990 Michael Ryan presented a thorough exploration of the metal plates, which measured 8.2 x 3.68 cm respectively 8.3 cm x 3.28 cm. Thickness was 0.6 mm. Examined together it soon became obvious for Ryan that the pieces belonged to an insular style-house shaped reliquary, of which a number of extant pieces may be found in Copenhagen, Bolgona, ireland and elsewhere. According to Ryan, “the overwhelming conclusion was that these shrines were made to preserve corporeal relics, hence their likeness to sarcophagi. The idea that they might have been used for the transportation of the viaticum (the consecrated host brought to sick and dying people) was in his opinion not viable, since some of the extant shrines still held relics inside.

One important fact about the reliquary in Bobbio is that a house-shaped reliquary found in Clonmore in Ireland, which seems to have been made by native artisans, is very much like the one from Bobbio. Nevertheless one feature in the Bobbio-shrine  – the inserted crystals – points to a production from a continental workshop but made under Irish guidance. Perhaps it was made in the metal workshop, which has recently been excavated at Luxeuil? Anyway, Ryan’s concluded in 1990 that the reliquary should be dated to the earlier 7th century.

Microscopic examination 2013

In 2013 the shrine was reassembled and the team behind had access to do a detailed microscopic examination, before it was lent to the CREDO- exhibition in Paderborn. This examination concluded that the object showed “signs of considerable use and handling”, that the metal was worn thin in places and that the back has lost most of its tinning; “presumably from swinging to and fro across the chest of person around whose neck it was hung; and one of the corners is dented from a fall or impact.” Further the could report that a ‘piano hinge’, which turned the gabled roof into a lid that opens also showed signs of wear.

Thus they concluded, that the shrine, although undoubtedly a venerable object, had probably also been “in daily use”. According to the team this “suggests that it doubled as a chrismal (a container for consecrated host) and a reliquary.”

The research was funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and PRTLI4


Examination of the Bobbio Reliquary/Chrismal

Decorated metalwork in the Museo dell’Abbazia, Bobbio, Italy.
By Michael Ryan
Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 1991, Vol 120, pp. 102-11

Das Merowingerzeitliche Reliquienkästchen aus Ennabeuren. Eine Studie ze den frühmittelalterlichen Reisereliquaren and Chrismalia.
By Dieter Quast
Römisch Germanisches Zentralmuseum 2012
ISBN: 978-3-7954-2588-3


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