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Secret Spaces

Secret Spaces: Medieval Sacristies, Vestries, Treasure Rooms and their Contents

With thanks to the organisers: Professor Eduardo Carrero Santamaría, Dr Alexandra Gajewski FSA, Dr Michael Carter FSA and Dr Lesley Milner FSA

Salisbury Cathedral

Image: Salisbury Cathedral Treasure House, Upper Champber, from "Pituresque Memorials of Salisbury" by Peter Hall (1834), courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries.

The aim of the conference is to introduce the subject of ecclesiastical treasure houses to both the academic world and the wider public.

Treasure houses take the form of small buildings attached as annexes to the cathedrals and churches which they served. Their function as store houses of the priceless ecclesiastical treasure belonging to the church meant that they were accessible to only a few privileged individuals but many are resplendent pieces of architecture in their own right. Recently Yves Gallet, in discussing an ambitious vault within the thirteenth-century treasure house of Saint-Urbain, Troyes, noted that ‘it is curious that they should have placed such a spectacular and up-to-date ornament in a place where it was never going to be seen’. Notable treasure houses in Britain are attached to the cathedrals of Canterbury, Lincoln, Wells, and Bristol, to name but a few. However, medieval ecclesiastical treasure houses existed everywhere in the medieval West and this will be reflected in the conference, which will bring together scholars from different countries. Ecclesiastical treasure houses also stored money, the presence of which necessitated the activities of depositing, guarding and counting. The ecclesiastical treasure house thus occupied a fault line between two opposing ideologies in medieval Christian thinking, the first condemning the accumulation of worldly treasure and the second promoting its use for God’s service.

Medieval treasure houses conserved, displayed and inventorised precious objects in a way that resembles these processes in our museums today. During the last twenty years academic interest in medieval ecclesiastical treasure has grown and has changed direction. Interest in the objects, which previously focussed on style and craftsmanship, has developed, encompassing the issues of how they were used and what they meant to medieval Christians.

A conference devoted to the medieval museums that housed these precious materials is long over-due and is particularly urgent at the moment. Ironically, the interest in the objects that they conserved has resulted recently in such treasures being removed to new museums, leaving their former places of protection in need of protection themselves. This conference will bring these buildings to light but will also be concerned with the sumptuous arts in relation to medieval practices of collection, conservation and display.

Conference Programme

9.00-10.00 – Registration
10.00-10.15 – Welcome from the Society of Antiquaries of London

Session 1: Crossing borders: the medieval treasure house

  • 10.15-10.40 – Dr Lesley Milner FSA, Medieval treasure houses: an overview
  • 10.40-11.05 – Professor Eduardo Carrero Santamaria, From the Holy Chamber of Oviedo to the Gothic Cathedral Treasure House. An Iberian Survey
  • 11.05-11.30 – Professor Suzanne Wittekind, How treasures and relics were kept, locked and guarded: Bamberg Cathedral, St. Elisabeth in Marburg and Basel Cathedral
  • 11.30-12.00 – Panel Discussion


Session 2: Conserving Royal and Imperial Treasure 

  • 1.00-1.25 – Dr Jeremy Ashbee, Buildings of the English royal treasury in the 13th and 14th centuries
  • 1.25-1.50 – Dr Zoe Opacic, Places of Greater Safety: Imperial treasuries of the Holy Roman Empire
  • 1.50-2.15 – Dr Therese Martin, Queens, Countesses, and Cultural Exchange: Evidence from Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Iberian Treasuries
  • 2.15-2.45 – Panel Discussion

2.45-3.15 – Tea/Coffee

Session 3: Popes and Paupers

  • 3.15-3.40 – Dr Alexandra Gajewski FSA, Behind Locked Doors: the ecclesiastical treasures in the Papal Palace in Avignon
  • 3.40-4.05 – Dr John Renner, A treasure-chest for paupers: the sacristy of the Franciscan church of Santa Croce, Florence, and its fourteenth-century decoration
  • 4.05-4.30 – Final Paper: Dr Michael Carter FSA, Monastic Treasures at the Suppression: Destruction, Dispersal and the Circumstances of Survival
  • 4.30-5.00 – Panel Discussion

5.15 - Conference Ends

Please note, all timings and titles are currently provisional.