The Lothair Crystal by Unknown Carolingian artist

Unknown Carolingian artist

The Lothair Crystal, Crystal: c.848; Fitting: 15th century, Rock crystal, gold, copper, 183 x 13 mm, The British Museum, London, 1855,1201.5, © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

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Susanna in Sequence

Commentary by

This unusual object does not confine the story to the lecherous encounter with the elders and does not even depict a nude Susanna at her bath. Rather, in a lively style, this tiny, Carolingian engraved rock crystal portrays a longer span of the biblical narrative—eight episodes in all.

Read clockwise, the first scene shows the elders propositioning Susanna, who stands clothed in an enclosed space carrying two vessels. But this pivotal moment is followed by various others, moving from the elders’ false accusation of Susanna to their cross-examination by Daniel to their violent death by stoning. The central scene has the prophet Daniel sitting on a throne of judgement conferring his wise decree of innocence, answering the virtuous Susanna’s prayers to heaven (as suggested by her upraised arms). The gemstone is inscribed with short Latin inscriptions from the Vulgate Bible to aid the viewer’s understanding of the actions of its forty-one figures, and recalls manuscript illuminations of the period (e.g. Utrecht Psalter).

A Latin inscription above the central scene indicates that the medieval medallion, with a copper gilt frame added in the fifteenth century, was designed for Lothair II, King of the Franks. Exactly why the story of Susanna was represented remains a matter of debate, but two interpretations predominate in the associated literature.

The first draws a connection between the biblical Daniel’s wise judgement and that of the royal Lothair’s judiciousness.

Less obviously, it has been hypothesized that the biblical story may have been deployed as a response to problems in Lothair’s marriage. Unable to produce an heir, Lothair had accused his wife Theutberga of incest in an effort to divorce her and marry his mistress, with whom he had illegitimate children. The pope denied the divorce. So perhaps Lothair offered the crystal to his wife as a gift of contrition and a gesture of reconciliation—the carefully chosen iconography on the gem meant as an acknowledgement of the false charges he had brought against her, and a public demonstration of her innocence.

 

References

Flint, Valerie I. J. 1995. ‘Susanna and the Lothar Crystal: A Liturgical Perspective’, Early Medieval Europe, 4.1: 61–86

Kornbluth, Genevra. 1995. Engraved Gems of the Carolingian Empire (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press)