Nicholas of Verdun
Biography of Romanesque Goldsmith and Enameller of the Mosan School.

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Shrine of the Three Kings (1180-1225)
Cologne Cathedral. A masterpiece of
medieval art by the Mosan artist
Nicholas of Verdun.

Nicholas of Verdun (c.1156-1232)


Historical Background
Career as an Artist
Klosterneuburg Altarpiece
Shrine of Our Lady St Mary, Tournai Cathedral (1205)
Shrine of the Three Kings (1190)
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Nicholas of Verdun is renowned as the greatest representative of Mosan art - a regional style of Romanesque art practiced in and around the Meuse River valley, especially the area around Liege and the Benedictine monastery of Stavelot. A master of goldsmithery and precious metalwork, he is considered to be the finest enameller and metalworker of his day, and an important influence in the transition from Romanesque to Gothic. His contribution to medieval Christian art is founded on three major works: the altarpiece in the Abbey Church at Klosterneuburg (1181); The Shrine of St Mary for Tournai Cathedral (1205); and The Shrine of the Three Kings in the treasury of Cologne Cathedral (1180-1225).

Historical Background

During the 11th century the church overtook secular rulers as the chief patron of the arts, and began to channel funds for Romanesque architecture and Romanesque illuminated manuscripts through the larger monasteries and Bishoprics. Under the supervision of dynamic churchmen like Abbot Suger (1081-1151) of Saint-Denis, near Paris, a new emphasis was given to the subject matter and symbolic quality of Christian art across Europe. Moreover, medieval artists were no longer anonymous figures, and news began to spread of works by sculptors and goldsmiths like Gislebertus (active 1120-1135), the Master of Cabestany (12th century), Master Mateo (12th century), Godefroid de Claire (c.1100-1173), Roger of Helmarshausen, and Rainer of Huy. Certain cultural centres grew up, such as the great centres of metalwork on the Meuse and the Rhine, where significant technical and creative advances were made in the development of both cloisonné and champlevé enamelling, and associated jewellery art, typically for ecclesiastical vessels, shrines and reliquaries. Meuse and Rhenish traditions were greatly influenced by the Carolingian art of the region's illustrious former ruler, King Charlemagne, and by the Ottonian art of his successors. The great works of Romanesque metalwork were the large shrines designed to hold the relics of saints; for instance, the Shrine of Saint Servatius (1165) in Maastricht; the Shrine of St. Heribert at Deutz (1160); the Shrines of St Domitian and St Mangold (by Godefroid de Claire, 1172-1189) in Huy; the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne (1180-1225); and the Shrines of Charlemagne (1215) and Mary (1238), in Aachen Cathedral. The smaller but equally magnificent reliquary and portable altar known as the Stavelot Triptych (1156–58, Morgan Library and Museum, New York City) was another masterpiece of the Mosan school.

Career as an Artist

It is thought that Nicholas of Verdun (Nicholas de Verdon) was born around 1156 to Bertram III of Verdun (c.1134-1192) and Maud de Ferrers (c.1142-1180). (Note: This makes him about 25 years of age when he completed the Klosterneuburg altarpiece in 1181). No recorded details have survived about how he learned the arts of metalwork and enamelling, or in which workshop he served his apprenticeship, or what craft guilds he joined. Moreover, in order to fulfill commissions and earn a living he was obliged to travel almost continually, throughout the Low Countries, France and Germany.

It is worth noting that during the mature Romanesque, Abbots, Bishops and other patrons above all demanded colour in their precious objects. One reason why enamelling - which gave similar colourful effects to the mosaics created by Byzantine artists - became such an important decorative art at this time. Nicholas of Verdun excelled in all the enamelling techniques (especially the new champlevé method), creating shrines and reliquaries ornamented with enamels and precious stones, as well as candlesticks, liturgical plate, bronze sculpture and more.

Klosterneuburg Altar

Nicholas of Verdun's best known work is the altar (1181) for the Abbey Church of Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, Austria. This began as an enamelled pulpit frontal, which was damaged in 1320 and then reconstructed into its present triptych altarpiece form. A complex work of Biblical art, featuring 45 enamelled copper plaques decorated with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, it exemplifies his mastery of champlevé enamelling, a technique in which compartments hollowed out of a metal base are filled with coloured vitreous enamel. Similar to the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral, figures appearing in the scenes have individualized faces and intricately articulated drapery, indicating the influence of Classical Antiquity - that is, Greek sculpture. This classical influence heralds the decline of the (Roman-based) Romanesque style and the advent of (Greek influenced) Gothic art.

Shrine of Our Lady St Mary, Tournai Cathedral (1205)

This Relic Shrine, signed by Nicholas himself, is one of the highlights of religious art in the Walloon city of Tournai. It has a framed saddle roof decorated with scenes from the life of Jesus and the life of the Virgin Mary. Mary is the patron saint of the Tournai cathedral, and her relics are traditionally understood to have saved Tournai from an epidemic of plague in 1090. The original relics disappeared about 1566, during the rise of Protestantism in the Low Countries, but the shrine remains in good condition having been rescued from plundering French soldiers after the French revolution, and further restored in 1890. Once again, the work's slender but dynamic figures, and the richly articulated draperies, both show a clear understanding of antique models and the style of Gothic sculpture on the horizon.

Shrine of the Three Kings (1180-1225)

Made for Cologne Cathedral over a peiod of years, the shrine comprises a large gilded sarcophagus which supposedly contains the bones of the Three Kings (Magi) of the New Testament. These relics were acquired by Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa (1122-90) and gifted to Rainald of Dassel, Archbishop of Cologne, in 1164. They were deemed to be so important that a new cathedral was begun in 1248 to house them. It is now one of the most famous Gothic cathedrals in the whole of Europe. The shrine presently stands above and behind the high altar of Cologne Cathedral.

The Shrine is roughly 110 cm (43 inches) wide, 153 cm (60 inches) high, and 220 cm (87 inches) long. Shaped like a basilica, it actually consists of two sarcophagi lying side by side, with a third positioned on top. It is made of wood overlaid with gold and silver and decorated with enamel, filigree and more than 1000 jewels and beads. The entire exterior is covered with pictorial decorations, featuring over 70 figures modelled in high relief. On the sides are images of the prophets - believed to be the most important metal sculpture of the late 12th century - as well as images of the apostles and evangelists. The ends show scenes from the birth of Christ, the Crucifixion, as well as Christ enthroned at the Last Judgement. Although a good deal of the work was done by assistants from his workshop, the general design of the shrine, along with the figures of the prophets, was done by Nicholas himself. According to scholars, the Shrine of the Three Kings represents the highpoint of Mosan plastic art, and anticipates the coming of Gothic sculpture - a style widely visible in the stone and relief sculpture of Cologne Cathedral itself.

Nicholas of Verdun is believed to have died in April 1232 of unknown causes.

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