A Day Trip to Saint-Maurice d’Agaune by Nancy Thebaut

With the number of COVID-19 cases in rapid decline throughout Switzerland, Meseret and I decided to take a day trip to Sion and Saint Maurice. I’ll focus this blog entry on Saint Maurice only, however, as other Global Horizons members have previously written about their time in Sion.

Just a few minutes from the train station is the city’s crown jewel: the Saint-Maurice d’Agaune Abbey and Treasure. Founded in 515 by King Sigismund of Burgundy, the abbey is a prominent stop along the Via Francigena, or the pilgrimage route that connects St Peters in Rome to northwestern Europe. It is dedicated to Saint Maurice, a third-century Theban military saint who was popular among the kings of Burgundy and the princes of Savoy. Typically armed with a lance and shield, he was the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire from the tenth century onward. In many Germanic countries, he is often represented as black in the mid-thirteenth century and thereafter.

The two most striking aspects of Saint-Maurice d’Agaune are its palimpsestic architecture and treasury. After visiting the church, we entered a partially open-air archaeological site that—with the help of excellent and newly installed educational displays—reveals the abbey’s complex architectural history. We were able to simultaneously see the site of the original tomb of Saint Maurice as well as parts of the five earlier churches.

The collection of the treasury is astounding, and thanks to the recent research and curatorial work of Pierre-Alain Mariaux, it is also now more intellectually accessible than ever before. A few standouts include St Martin’s vase (ca. 20 BCE vase with a fifth- or sixth-century setting), the ewer of Charlemagne (1st half of the ninth century), and the châsse of St Sigismund and his children, which was made in the so-called Saint-Maurice workshop (12th century). Perhaps my favorite, however, is the head reliquary of St Candidus (ca. 1165). In neighboring drawers and display cases, we found former contents of this reliquary, including twelfth-century textiles and relic labels from the Holy Land, a head cap (kamelkaukion) that likely belonged to Count Amadeus III of Saxony (1103-1148), and bits of wax that a goldsmith put below the silver plate to prevent deformations.

On a more personal note, the trip felt significant in a couple of ways.  It was my first art-related trip since the outbreak of the pandemic, and so to study such an exceptional site and collection of objects in person—and not on a screen!—was a veritable treat. But more importantly, visiting the abbey of Saint Maurice seemed particularly timely in the wake of ongoing Black Lives Matter protests throughout the globe. With the start of the fall semester only a couple of months away, I am actively thinking about ways that I can bring what I learned at the abbey into the classroom. Namely, that studying St Maurice the person, his relics, those sites that bear his name, and his modern-day (mis)appropriations might offer students an important way into thinking about black representation and erasure in the Middle Ages and beyond.

Researching global horizons at times of a pandemic?! Our way: the GH seminar by Stefanie Lenk

The time since early spring has been a great challenge in many respects. One of these challenges has been the almost complete standstill of academic life. It is only now that Swiss university libraries slowly open their doors again, academics being allowed in their offices – carefully respecting the required safety distance, and academic mailing lists containing a little more than the depressing sight of one conference cancellation after the next. Normal university life, to be sure, seems still far away. In Bern, a very quiet term has just ended. When the buzz and excitement of a proper university term will kick in again, no one can tell today.

Like everyone else, the Global Horizons project had to put up with drawbacks. Our journey to Colombia this summer had to be postponed, as did Saskia Quené’s long prepared international conference Between Figure and Ground. No less incisive, however, has been the sudden absence of daily companionship with colleagues and friends, of ideas flying around and the mutual encouragement at times.

However, Global Horizons did not simply stop when Covid-19 arrived in Europe. In fact, one of our group endeavours even intensified over the last months, and has been a great source of consolation and inspiration. I am talking of our GH seminars, in which project members, GH’s scholars in residence, and guests discuss a paper or a project of a couple of the attendants, often at an early stage of development. The GH seminar has always been my favourite part of a university week. But now, exchanging ideas with colleagues is a special gift. Of course, we met online. Often, we got together over large distances, called in from Paris or Berlin. GH seminars’ atmosphere is very collegial and encouraging, but still, everyone is of course eager to bring something interesting to the table. Thanks to the great diversity in Global Horizon’s profile, the breadth of topics is astonishing. This semester, just to give you an idea, I pondered over interactions between two illuminated late medieval gospel books at the Ethiopian monastery Dabra Hayq Estifanos, learned about the many ways to look at perspective in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation at the Prado, thought for the first time about the re-use of late antique medicine boxes as reliquaries, or followed Al-Biruni on his “geometrical path”. It must be said that this is only a fraction of this term’s particularly rich programme!

When it was my turn, I brought a dissertation chapter that I am currently revising for publication, which looks at the personification of Jordan in the dome of the Orthodox baptistery of Ravenna. Every time, I am a bit anxious before I present, and enthused afterwards! It is one thing to ask a friend or colleague for their opinion on a draft, but it is another to find yourself in front of a dozen of really smart advisers, scrutinizing your work from totally different angles, who all just want your best!

To say it in more general terms, this unusual semester made me that much more aware of the great gift of academic collaboration and exchange, which even defeats the constraints of a pandemic.