Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Guelph Treasure

This postcard presents a picture of the Horn of St. Blasius, from the John Huntington Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. It dates from the 11th century, and is described on the back of the postcard as "Byzantine", in style if not in origin.

You may wonder why this postcard appears in this blog. The answer is that this horn is part of a collection known as the "Guelph Treasure". The treasure has never been in the city of Guelph, but there is a connection. Let me explain.

Before it was a city, Guelph was a family, a royal German family named the Welfs (more on the spelling later). The Welfs were initially Frankish nobles who expanded their influence through some shrewd marriages, as MacKinnon explains (vol. 12, no. 10, 1973):

The founder of the House was Graf von Altdorf—Graf Welfe. His daughter married Charlemagne's son and his son headed eight generations of Guelphs. The family intermarried with princesses of Bavaria, Saxony, and with the D'Este family in north Italy.
Being political heavyweights, the family got involved with the big international controversy of the time—The Investiture Conflict—over who got to appoint Church officials: nobles or popes. The Welfs sided with the Pope (although they changed sides a few times). This allegiance put them at odds with the other party, the Waiblingens. Naturally, this dispute was carried on in many corners of Europe, including Italy, where the names of the two parties were rendered as the "Guelphs" and the "Ghibellines". The Italian name "Guelph" became applied to the whole family.

One of the more famous members of the Guelph family was Henry the Lion, who was the Duke of Saxony and of Bavaria in the mid 12th Century. Henry was apparently a pious man. In 1173, he had the old church of St. Blasius torn down and a new one built, now known in English as Brunswick Cathedral. He was buried there on his death in 1195. Here is a picture of the cathedral with a bronze lion commemorating Henry outside (courtesy of Djmutex/Wikimedia commons):

Here is the connection with the Treasure: The Guelphs contributed many works of sacred art to a collection associated with the Church of St. Blasius. Henry the Lion was one of the biggest donors (although the horn in the postcard does not appear to have been contributed by him).

Henry also began an association between the Guelphs and England. During a dispute with the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry was temporarily banished from Germany and fled to England. While there, he married Matilda, daughter of Henry II. Skipping ahead a little, some of their descendants became the Dukes of Brunswick-Lüneburg, with their capital at Hanover. In 1714, George Louis, the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Hanover), became George I of Great Britain, since he was the closest male and protestant relative of Queen Anne. So, England became a Guelph dominion!

Now we come to the city. John Galt founded the city in 1827 and was concerned that its creation should be noted with favour in high places. Here is how Galt describes his reasoning, on the occasion of the felling of the maple tree that marked the city's beginning (Burrows 1877, p. 11):

... Dr. Dunlop pulled a flask of whiskey from his bosom and we drank prosperity to the city of Guelph. The name was chosen in compliment to the Royal family, both because I thought it auspicious in itself and because I could not recollect that it had ever before been used in all the king's dominions.
In brief, Galt wanted to flatter the king. And so, a British town in the middle of North America was given the Italian version of the name of a medieval German royal family. It was also the name given to a collection of sacred artworks by the same family, which explains the connection with the Horn of St. Blasius.

(As an aside, the British royal family are no longer Guelphs. King George V changed the surname to Windsor in a Royal Proclamation of 1917 to avoid the Germanic associations of Guelph as well as his family name of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.)

You can find out more about the Guelph Treasure from this catalog of an exhibition of the Treasure at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1931. The catalog describes the Horn of St. Blasius as follows:

Hollowed out of an elephant's tusk, with three carved ornamental bands both on the mouth-piece and on the bell. The larger frieze has griffins, lions, stags, two nude and two draped men, the others have foliage patterns.
Maybe someday the Treasure will make its way here.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog! keep up the good work. I hope you have plenty of postcards of Guelph to keep the momentum going. One suggestion - put a bit at the top of the blog saying where Guelph is and why you are documenting it (I had to look it up on Wikipedia).