5. The Ancient Treasure

The majority of the items exhibited in this room are part of a donation made by Pope Boniface VIII, which is meticulously recorded in a precious manuscript on display in the Chapter House. Pope Boniface is considered both the last of Medieval popes and the first of the Modern Era. He was the last of a series of popes who regularly lived in the city.

The Ancient Treasure of Anagni is truly remarkable and, in spite of any damage or depletion, it remains one of the most interesting and varied collections of Medieval art.

The treasure boasts a noteworthy textile collection, featuring a wide variety of items differing not only in the techniques utilised to create them but also in geographical origin.

As you walk in, the first large display cabinet on the right contains the Pluvial, or Cope of the Virgin: a masterpiece of opus anglicanum, in linen and gold with exquisite silk embroidery, dated mid-13th century. In the middle of the Pluvial, three circular scenes, or imagines clipeatae, depict the life of the Virgin: the lower scene represents the Dormitio Virginis, at the centre is her Assumption to Heaven and at the top her Coronation in which she shares the Throne with Christ, her son. The other imagines clipeatae on the Pluvial, left and right of the three central images, are scenes from the childhood and Passion of the Christ.

On the corner, in the subsequent display cabinet, is a precious reliquary containing the remains of St Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury assassinated in 1170 at the hand of four knights sent by King Henry II, who killed him as he was heading for vespers in the English cathedral. Three years from his death he was canonised and swiftly became an object of great devotion in Anagni as, martyred by the State, he represented the undisputed victory of the English Church. Years later, in fact, the king was obliged to ask for pardon and was consequently whipped by the canons of Canterbury.

The reliquary consists of a wooden core in the shape of a ‘chasse’, or casket, covered in gilt-copper and blue enamel. It was handcrafted by goldsmiths in Limoges during the first half of the 13th century. The image at the front represents Becket’s martyrdom, while his burial is depicted along the top section. This is but one of a series of sacred objects linked to the life of the English saint. You will see more in the course of your visit, proof of a real following of his cult here in southern Lazio. On the upper shelf, in fact, is the mitre bearing a portrait of the English saint together with St Nicholas and St John, dated late 12th to early 13th century.

Following on again, in the next cabinet on the corner, is the Casket with the Labours of Hercules. This is a silver plated wooden casket, from the 13th century, with representations of the different Labours of Hercules.

Displayed in the next cabinet is an antependium depicting the Virgin and Saints. This is an exquisite example of opus romanum from the Umbria and Lazio regions, characterized by silk and gold embroidery on linen. On the upper-central section is a depiction of the Virgin with Child on a throne, surrounded by angels and saints, while the lower section represents the Crucifixion with, to each side, the martyrdom of Saint Paul and Saint Peter. The antependium, or altar frontal, served the purpose of adorning the altar at special moments of liturgy in the course of the year.

The cope, or pluvial, in the following display cabinet dates back to the 13th century and is another superb example of opus anglicanum in gold gilded linen. The fine needlework represents the martyrdom of several saints including that of Thomas Becket. As the various trims and segments suggest, the pluvial was later utilised to make a dalmatic, a wide-sleeved tunic, and then reassembled in the course of a restoration in the 1960s.

In the next cabinet on the corner are two small chests and an ivory crosier created by Arab-Sicilian craftsmen in the course of the second half of the 13th century. The larger of the two chests features an Arab inscription, probably a prayer to Allah. Both were initially intended as jewellery boxes and only later became reliquaries. The crosier, or pastoral staff, on the right is decorated in gold and enamels from Limoges.

Following on, in the subsequent display cabinet, is an antependium representing the Tree of Life. This dates back to the 13th century and is a fine example of opus theuthonicum, in gold gilded linen embroidered in silk and gold thread. The central image depicts the Crucifixion of Christ, with branches coming out of the wooden cross which give rise to the universal church, represented by saints, prophets, the Madonna and Child and Christological symbols. Also, the upper branches of the tree surround a pelican, symbol of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.

Our tour of this room terminates with a majestic cope used by Pope Boniface VIII, embroidered following the tradition of opus cyprense, which originated on Cyprus but was later adopted across the Mediterranean. This gorgeous item, embroidered sometime in the late 13th century by an expert artisan from Palermo, is probably the collection’s most acclaimed artefact, along with Thomas Becket’s reliquary. This vestment, only ever used by the Pope, is made of red silk featuring several imagines clipeatae, or circular portraits, representing three symbolic animals: a two-headed eagle, a griffin and two parrots facing each other. These animals embody the three qualities which, according to Pope Boniface VIII, a virtuous sovereign should have: continuity, power and eloquence.