The pendant is made of gold and has engravings with black enamel highlights showing Christ on the cross between two other figures over a background of leaves and flowers. On the left is John the Baptist who is holding a lamb under his left arm. On the right is a bishop holding his bishop’s crook and a casket. All three figures have halos around their heads, showing that the bishop, like John the Baptist, must be a saint.
This is a very fine and expensive piece of jewellery but its shape suggests a particular purpose. The image of Christ and the saints decorates the front of what was once a hollow, hinged container. The shape of the pendant is also distinctive and forms what is known as a “Tau” cross. This type of cross has the shape of an elaborate capital T, derived from the Greek letter tau. This explains the wings that frame the sides and base. The shape can be seen more clearly in a similar pendant from the British Museum – use the link in More information below. The top of the pendant simply has the clasp through which a delicate chain or cord once held it around the wearer’s neck.
The pendant is a reliquary, a container that once held a sacred and precious relic associated with a saint or with Christ himself. The image and shape strongly suggest that this one held a relic of St Anthony as he is traditionally linked to the Tau cross and was an abbot (head of a monastery) in the 4th century Christian church in Egypt.
Many reliquaries were large and elaborate and were kept in a church or cathedral, often in a casket like the one held by the bishop on this pendant. Reliquaries on that scale might hold several bones or even the head of a saint. Pilgrims might travel for weeks to pray before one of these reliquaries. From 1170, England’s most famous shine was at Canterbury where relics of Thomas Becket were held. In 1248, King Louis IX of France built the stunning Sainte-Chapelle in Paris as the home for the crown of thorns that Christ wore on the cross. By contrast, reliquaries like the pendant from Matlaske held something much smaller such as a lock of hair, a strand from a cloak or even a toenail of a saint. In this case, the relic would act as a charm to protect the wearer from harm. As we see below, this particular pendant was probably designed to protect against one of the most gruesome diseases of the medieval period.
St Anthony and St Anthony’s Fire
St Anthony is regarded as the founder of Christian monasticism. He lived a saintly life as a hermit in fourth century Egypt and was famous for confronting evil spirits. Over a thousand years later a group of French monks who tried to follow his ways became known as Antonines. They spread throughout Europe and were famous for helping people suffering from a deadly disease that we now call ergotism. Ergotism causes intense pain, burning sensations, hallucinations and madness. We now know that it is caused by a sort of mould that can grow on grain, but medieval people probably believed that it was caused by evil spirits and named it St Anthony’s Fire. The Antonines specialised in setting up hospitals to care for its victims and raised money for their work by selling rings and pendants that might ward off the illness. The Antonine hospital in London was partly funded in this way and there were also Antonine foundations in Hereford and York. Poorer supporters might wear a cheap lead badge in the shape of the Tau cross but wealthy sponsors wore rings and reliquaries. The reliquaries held some relic of St Anthony within the pendant capsule.
This small object, understood in context, reveals much about the social diversity, beliefs, values, hopes and fears of medieval people.
Example of a similar pendant
Click More views under the image to see the Tau Cross shape clearly from the rear.
A History of the World in 100 objects: one of the grandest reliquaries
Read the transcript or listen to the programme.
Summary of the importance of relics and reliquaries
Website about relics and shrines
Full of magnificent images, videos, audio clips and animated photography.
The Winteringham Tau Cross and Ignis Sacer
An article that sets the Matlaske Reliquary into context and gives more information and images about St Anthony.
Egypt's Coptic Christians
A BBC web page with images of the cave where St Anthony lived and the monastery that his followers founded nearby.
Article on St Anthony’s Fire