Tongue Reliquary of Saint John Nepomuk with Découpage Paper Wings
This glittering reliquary was most likely made in Bohemia and probably by a community of nuns or Canonesses Regular. A tongue relic of Saint John of Nepomuk, the Patron Saint of Bohemia, is set on a textile base and surrounded with filigree-like metal strips and braided fibers in the form of flower buds or pearls. Light blue silk ovals support twelve additional relics with paper authentication strips written in brown ink. Four laid-paper wings extending to the sides are pasted to the back of the reliquary. Creases in the paper indicate that the wings were folded inwards behind the rectangular central panel containing the tongue relic. Evidence on the reverse shows that the horizontal wings were folded in first, followed by the vertical wings, which have additional paper flaps that layered one on the other and then were sealed with wax or another adhesive over a scrap of paper with printed text – most likely a devotional prayer in Latin (only a few letters remaining). With the images of the saints thus concealed, the reliquary was probably displayed in a monstrance or frame, or perhaps worn inside a pendant as an amulet.
This tongue relic of Saint John Nepomuk was one of numerous such relics that circulated Central Europe in the eighteenth century, including a reliquary now in the Museum für Klosterkulture, Weingarten (figure 1). John Nepomuk (1340-1393) was Confessor to Sophia of Bavaria (1376-1419) Queen of Bohemia. According to the Chronica regum Romanorum (1459), John was drowned in the Moldau River by the queen’s husband, King Wenceslaus of Bohemia, after refusing to reveal the queen’s confession. He was immediately recognized as a martyr and eventually canonized on March 19, 1729 by Pope Benedict XIII. John’s tongue was a meaningful relic, symbolizing his silence in the face of King Wenceslaus’s demands. When his tomb in Saint Vitus Cathedral, Prague was reopened on April 15, 1719, amazed onlooks discovered his tongue was still red and pulsing. A pilgrimage church for John was completed in 1727 at Zelená Hora (today a UNESCO heritage site) and his tongue was encased in a reliquary set in the dome.
The canonization of Saint John Nepomuk in 1729 as well as other names of saints inscribed on paper authentication strips – including Pierre Fourier (d. 1640) beatified in Rome in 1730 – indicating that the reliquary must have been fabricated after this date. Fourier was a reformer of the Canons Regular of Lorraine and founder of the Congregation of Notre Dame, a movement that popularized the foundation of new communities of canonesses, or religious women living under the Rule of Saint Augustine. The dissemination of prints played an important role in the campaign to have Fourier beatified (see Henryot 2009), all the more interesting in the case of the present reliquary, with its carefully colored, dressed, and adorned images of saints. The labels are as follows (clockwise from top): S. Mart Tr(...), S. Mart Rom(...), (S). Felicis M., S. Placidi, S. Probus M., B. Petri For(...) [Beati Petri Forerii], Agnus Dei [relic of a blessed paschal candle], S. Candida, S. Albani., S. Hippoliti, S. Mart Theba [Martyrs of the Theban Legion], and S. Theodori.
The paper wings are wonderfully decorated in découpage with hand-colored prints. Reaching its fashionable height in the middle of the eighteenth century, this particular form of découpage was practiced as a household pastime (see Pullins 2017, p. 138ff) and also by religious women in convents, in the tradition of medieval and Renaissance “nun’s work” (Nonnenarbeiten). The process of coloring, cutting, and collaging could itself be a devotional practice. The seventeenth- or eighteenth-century prints are carefully cut way to preserve the faces and hands of the images which are pasted to the paper wings and adorned with textiles, metal foils, and other fibers – in some places touched with pigment to simulate ermine-lined robes. An unidentified eighteenth-century print with Saint Agnes, perhaps by the Klauber family of German engravers, serves as one of the sources (figure 2). The others are unidentified. A comparable example of luxurious textiles neatly trimmed and “dressed” onto prints is found in a series of late sixteenth-century engravings adorned in the eighteenth century, now in Cambridge (figure 3; Harvard, Houghton Library, Typ 630.00.454).
The bust-length images of saints on the wings include metallic foil haloes and labels in Latin (preserved from the source prints). All are hand colored, heightened with gouache, and adorned with textiles interwoven with colorful fabrics and silks, metal foils, and other fibers. On the wing above the reliquary is Saint Michael the Archangel and the Salzburger Kindl (or Christ Child of Loreto), with label “Infans / Iesus Salisburgi / Miracul.Clar.,” a miraculous statue at the Maria Lareto Convent in Salzburg, here depicted on a Baroque-style base with jeweled crown, baton, and pendant; on the right is Saint Joseph, holding the Christ Child, and Saint Catherine; on the lower wing is Saint Helena and Saint Anna; on the left is the Virgin and Child, with label “Mater Amabi(lis),” and Saint Agnes with the Lamb of God and a sword, with label “S. Agnes Virgo et Martyr.” The reverse is unadorned.
For comparisons, see:
Henryot, F. “Décrire et représenter Pierre Fourier (XVIIe-XIXe siècles), Annales de l’Est 59 (no. 2), 2009, pp. 171-209.
Pullins, D. “The state of the fashion plate, c. 1727: historicizing fashion between ‘dressed prints’ and Dezallier’s recueils,” in Prints in Translation, 1450–1750: Image, Materiality, Space, ed. S. Karr Schmidt and E. H. Wouk, London, 2017, pp. 136-157.