This curious object is the famous "reliquary" of Vivant Denon, now on display in the Musée Bertrand in Châteauroux. It is a real medieval - or at least late 15th to early 16th century - reliquary in guilded copper, acquired by Denon and filled by him with secular relics. The contents are splendid and all of them genuine, a roll call of 19th-century historical and literary icons - and testimony to the depredations of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras.
The reliquary is first documented, with a detailed inventory of its contents, in the catalogue of the sale of Denon's collection which took place after his death 1826. It was acquired initially by the Comte de Pourtalès-Gorgier for just over 5,000 francs; but in 1865 - in a sale which coincided with the funeral of the duc de Morney - it was bought by Comte Arthur Desaix, grand-nephew of the hero of Marengo. for a mere 300 francs and stayed in his possession for many years. I haven't been able to ascertain at what point it arrived in its present home at the Musée Bertrand.
Relics from French history
With a little conjecture, it is possible to ascertain the provenance of all the "relics". In France, Denon's quest was facilitated by his subordinate and rival Alexandre Lenoir, who was himself an avid collector and no doubt found it politic to offer suitable trophies to his superior. The contents of the reliquary tie in easily with Lenoir's presence; he was prominently involved the official opening of the royal tombs at Saint-Denis in October 1793, and his Jardin d'Elysée was subsequently entrusted with the mummified remains of Turenne and, in 1799, with the bones of Molièlre and La Fontaine, exhumed from the cemetery of St. Joseph (though the actual identify of the bodies is doubtful!) He was also in a position to obtain a hair or two from Agnès Sorel, another victim of Revolutionary vandalism, when the urn containing her remains was rescued from cemetery at Loches in 1801 and restored to her repaired tomb.
|Tomb of Heloise & Abelard, by Alexander Lenoir, c.1785|
Relics from Portugal and Spain
In the Iberian peninsular, Denon's relics were very much the spoils of war. The remains of Inês de Castro - murdered lover of Peter 1st of Portugal and subject of many 18th-century plays and operas - were almost certainly taken from the Benedictine monastery at Alcobaça in Portugal when it was sacked after Junot's occupation of Lisbon in November 1807.
|Vivant Denon replaces in their tomb the bones of El Cid and Dona Jimena|
Painting by Alphonse Roehn after a watercolour sketch by Benjamin Zix
(portrayed behind Denon). Oil, 1809. Louvre.
Vivant Denon's final category of relics are more personal and of his own time. General Desaix, killed at Marengo in 1800, was a personal friend; Denon was charged by Napoleon not only with his funeral, but with journeying to the sacristy of the convent San-Angelo in Milan to identify the corpse. (He also possessed, bizarrely, a thumb from a much reviled nude statue of Desaix which was erected on the place des Victoires in 1810 and later demolished). The side panels of the reliquary display mementos of Napoleon himself; a signature, the bloody fragment of shirt, a leaf from his favourite willow tree on St. Helena, and finally a few strands of hair and some whiskers.
The hairs and beard have recently been subjected to DNA analysis. I don't understand a word of the results, but apparently the electron microscope revealed not only genetic material, but traces of shaving soap and iron residue from Napoleon's razor!
And finally.....a half a tooth of Voltaire's
Which of course, is the whole excuse for the post! When sold off after death, this precious relic was catalogued separated - but happily soon restored to its rightful place in the reliquary. Its precise provenance is unknown - presumably it was recovered at the time of Voltaire's exhumation from the abbaye de Sellières in 1791. Maybe the geneticists should get to work on it - personally I'd prefer a clone of Voltaire to a new Napoleon!.
Clémentine Portier-Kaltenbach, Histoire d'os et autres illustres abattis, Pluriel 2010, p.113-117
"Le Reliquaire de l'aimable Monsieur Denon", Castalie: Petite Bibliothèque de Curiosités.
La Relique de Molière du cabinet du baron Vivant Denon : Portrait du baron Vivant Denon (1880)
Entries on the Tombes et sepultures website
www.pierre-abelard.com: "Vivant Denon et son reliquaire"
"Les sépultures successives d'Heloise et d'Abelard",
"Profanateurs et témoins lors de la violation des tombeaux royaux en 1793"
Saint-Denis, cimetière des Rois [forum]
Daniel Sanchez,"The history of the Cid; after he died" Move to Spain: travels [blog] http://www.m2stravels.com/blog/2013/09/11/the-history-of-the-cid-after-died/
Blaine Bettinger, "Napoleon Bonaparte’s Y-DNA Haplogroup Belonged to E1b1b1c1* (E-M34)" post dated 14 Feb.2012. The Genetic genealogist. Ancient DNA archives.
|The reliquary in situ at the Musée Bertrand|
Alexander Nagel,"The afterlife of the reliquary" in the catalogue for the Treasures of Heaven exhibition, Cleveland Museum of Art, Walters Art Museum Baltimore & British Museum, Oct.2010-Oct.2011, p.211-220.
Felicity Bodenstein, "The emotional museum: thoughts on the "secular relics"of nineteenth-century history museums in Paris and their posterity" Conserveries mémorielles: revue interdisciplinaire de jeunes chercheurs