The Poor Clare's Reliquary

The Poor Clare's Reliquary is a precious vessel that has been lent to the V&A by the Monastery of Poor Clares in Hereford. The curators  are still unearthing its exciting history and debating its changing use over time. Scholars are divided over whether it was made as a reliquary or a salt cellar.

The marks on the vessel indicate that it was made in London in 1551, probably by the Royal Goldsmith Affabel Partridge, at a time when Catholics in England were being persecuted. He reused an earlier rock crystal cylinder and mounted it in the latest Continental style. The design is similar to the elaborate salt cellars of the period, and the decorative motifs - the masks, strapwork and shells - are secular rather than religious.

In 1737 Lady Mary and Sir Charles Browne, members of a wealthy Catholic family, gave the vessel to the Poor Clare nuns in Rouen, whose foundation had been established in 1644 for English Catholic women in exile. Some years later, the chronicles of the Poor Clares in Rouen record that 'This year 1741 [the vessel] was made into a reliquary to set upon the altar… our confessor giving us a box of relics that had been given to James the 3rd'. (By James III they meant James Stuart, the 'Old Pretender', whom Catholics regarded as the rightful king.)

In a letter, Lady Browne stated that the vessel had been found 'in the ruins of some old monastery that had been suppressed'. There may be some truth in this romantic vision as many religious artefacts were seized during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-40) and later refashioned. Sir Charles Browne's great-great-grandfather - Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague (1528-92) - was granted monastic lands during the Reformation. Suppose Anthony Browne discovered the crystal tube at this time and had it remade into a prestigious vessel that was passed down through his family.

But was it intended as a reliquary or a salt cellar? Could Affabel Partridge's secular imagery have been simply a foil for the anti-Catholic authorities? There are arguments for and against, but whether or not we discover its complete history, the vessel remains a fascinating piece of craftsmanship highlighting a turbulent part of British history.

The Reliquary, can be seen in Gallery 83, Case 9 until 30 September. Admission free.

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