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Switzerland: The Great Reliquary of St. Maurice Restored

This in-depth restoration revealed and certified the different stages in the creation of the reliquary, said to have been made by Fr. Pierre Maurice Odet in the 17th century.

Its Romanesque reliefs on the large faces and its Gothic gable adorned with a figure of the Virgin enthroned, its numerous plaques decorated with filigrees and precious and semi-precious stones, the settings of which harken back to the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, show that the reliquary is the result of a reassembly at the end of the first quarter of the 13th century. That is, at the time of the discovery of the relics of the Theban martyrs at St. Maurice, and the fabrication of the reliquary of Fr. Nantelme.

The restoration of this precious 800-year-old reliquary required in-depth study, meticulous disassembly, meticulous cleaning, and careful reassembly of the 300 pieces of silversmithing that adorn the reliquary.

Thus, since January 2017, a multidisciplinary team, made up of two conservator-restorers, three art historians, a historian, a medieval wood historian, a silversmith, and a liturgist, ha been accompanying the study and the conservation and restoration of the reliquary. The outer shell of the reliquary has long been suspected of being the result of a chaotic construction, the result of several successive a priori interventions staged from the 13th to the 17th century.

If the heterogeneous nature of the Great Reliquary was known, it is only through the complete removal of its outer layers that its full complexity has now been revealed. Indeed, there are no less than 2000 nails and more than 300 different pieces of ornamentation, organized in a way as to create a coherent whole.

A special device was developed to complete the restoration of the pieces. While for some objects the patina resulting from the tarnishing of metals is preserved – especially in museums – in this case the officials wanted the reliquary to regain the luster it had when the relics were first venerated by the faithful.

To restore that luster, the restorers used an electrolyte brush that removes the tarnish without damaging the metal. This innovative tool was developed by St. Maurice Abbey in partnership with the Haute Ecole Arc de Neuchâtel in Pleco.

The Great Reliquary of St. Maurice, in addition to its very rich ornamentation of silver, gilded silver, and inlayed plates, is enhanced by nearly 200 gems, glass and enamels.

Gifts from the faithful, from pilgrims, from illustrious visitors, or from European rulers, these gems were then mounted in a setting or within a cloisonné decoration.

Under the gems, there is also a small polished or embossed piece in silver or gold – called a paillon or foil – which is used to reflect light to enhance the color and brightness of the stones.

The study of their optical properties (color, transparency, luster, etc.) allows them to be identified while the observation of their internal characteristics (inclusions, fractures, etc.) and their physical and chemical properties can indicate their origin.

The Great Reliquary of St. Maurice has now joined the treasury of the St. Maurice Abbey.

On the occasion of the celebration of the feast of St. Maurice – September 22 – the treasured reliquaries of the Abbey of St. Maurice, in the Valais, are carried in procession through the streets of the old town. This year, on Wednesday September 22, 2021, after four years of meticulous restoration, the Great Reliquary containing the relics of St. Maurice d’Agaune was carried by four members of the Confraternity of St. Candide.


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