We used to spend hours and hours at museums trying to study the tiny details of all the fantastic artefacts; which somehow always made us end up with a desperate feeling. Only those of us who were fortunate enough to have perfect visual recollection could ever dream of remembering all the good stuff!
Luckily, nowadays, museums endeavour to publish their collections both on the internet and in beautiful publications. One museum, which has developed this part of their business into a state of the art, is British Museum. Not only do they make their collections widely available with both descriptions and photos (where applicable), they also publish series of great publications where their stuff is described in details.
One such series of publications are “Masterpieces”. In this series the book about “Medieval Art” was recently published as an affordable paperback and a very handy format; a real quality if you compare it with the abnormal tradition of felling rain-forests in Central Europe and publishing them in oversized hardcovers.
I am not exaggerating, when I write, that I have been to British Museum to study the medieval collections often enough. And still this smart little publication showed me precious objects, which I had either forgotten all about – or never even noticed. Further it gave me the possibility to study them in detail.
One such item is the crozier head from the workshop of Hugo d’Oignies. Hugo was an Augustinian Canon at a priory in Oignies in Namur, but he was also active as a goldsmith between 1187 and 1228; somewhat rare he was one of those artists who actually signed their work. He belonged to a tradition, which was established in the Meuse Valley, called Mosan, which drew its inspiration from the Carolingian heritage. Hugo, however, transcended this tradition and was considered a great innovator, not least due to his exceptional ability to create filigree work. It is believed that he was responsible for introducing gothic aesthetic to the Mosan metalworkers’ repertoire.
The crozier in the collection of the British Museum is a very fine specimen of his art, resplendent with beautiful vine leaves and grapes amidst which a lizard sneaks up, craning its neck towards the heavenly flowering of the crook.
However, what makes it so special is the fact, that the work of Hugo D’Oignies is in fact rather well known. The reason is that a large collection of his work miraculously has been preserved. In the end of the 18th century the last prior took it upon himself to immure the valuables belonging to the ancient priory in the wall of a farm. After the Napoleonic wars, the collection was entrusted to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who decided once again in 1939 to hide the collection. Finally in 2010 it was put on show for all to see at the “Musée provincial des Arts anciens du Namurois”. The collection includes a breath-taking number of various reliquaries, several crosses, a number of liturgical dishes and an Evangeliary with remarkable binding. Another important point to remember is that the patron of Hugo was the crusader cum bishop and later cardinal, Jacques de Vitry, who is famous not only for his history of the Holy Land but also his sermons and other writings, especially the vita of the Beguine Marie d’Oignies.
All of these details are not included in the description of the crozier; one reason being that each artifact in this splendid publication is allowed no more than a double spread. But the fact, that it was suddenly possible for me to peruse this beautiful object in exquisite detail made me grab my iPad and get more information about Hugo and the world, he lived in.
What a treat!