A gilt bronze and rock crystal octagonal Italian Renaissance reliquary pendant

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A gilt bronze and rock crystal octagonal Italian Renaissance reliquary pendant

Approximate size: 6.2 x 4.5 cm
Possibly Turin, Italy; ca. 1600

The present reliquary is a superb example in octagonal format with a gilt bronze sunburst frame. The obverse rock crystal is beveled and the interior is excavated with five concave niches to house each relic set against a textile backing. The interior crystal is handsomely engraved with an eloquent design of fine workmanship. The reverse, whose gilding has been satisfyingly aged through rubbing, features the further treatment of a goldsmiths hand with an engraved dedication to Mary, the mother of Christ, and the Archangel Michael surmounted by the Christogram: IHS, above. The symbol of a sword piercing the heart is engraved above the dedication to St. Michel. It’s possible this reliquary was intended for a noble or wealthy religious figure traveling along the “legendary sword of St. Michael,” a network of sanctuaries that complete a straight line following the path of the Sun during the Summer Solstice. These include the following holy sites:

Skellig Michael, an island of the coast of Ireland.
Saint Michael’s Mount, an island off the coast of Cornwall, England.
Mont Saint Michel, an island off the coast of Normandy, France.
Sacra di San Michele, an abbey built on top of Mount Pirchiriano, Italy.
Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo sul Gargano, on top of another mountain in Italy.
Monastery of the Taxiarchis, Symi Island, Greece.
Stella Maris Monastery, Mount Carmel, Israel.

Such sites and such a pilgrimage were born out of the Christian adaptation of the Old Religions as Europe transformed out of its Dark Age and into the Enlightenment fostered by Christianity. The sites are all built upon former pagan places of worship. The straight line these holy sites form across the continent are thought to represent the “sword” of Michael, used to slay the devil, in this case, the remnants of the Old Religions.

In particular, our reliquary may have been conceived in Turin, Italy, just outside of the Sacra di San Michele abbey atop Mt. Pirchiriano. The octagonal format and remarkable craftsmanship of the rock crystal, bronze casing and goldsmiths touch suggest a goldsmith trained in nearby Milan was likely responsible for this reliquary, probably active in Turin around the year 1600.