Portable altar of Stavelot

Portable altar
Abbey of Stavelot, Liège (Belgium)
1160-1170
Wood, bronze, enamel, brown varnish, rock crystal; 10 x 27,5 x 17 cm

The portable altar of Stavelot is an unquestionable masterpiece of medieval enamelwork. The execution of its sumptuous champlevé decoration required as many successive firings as there are colours, as each of the metal pigments mixed with powdered glass reaches its melting point at a different temperature. It is the result of true technical prowess. The iconographic programme, combining narration and symbolism, is on a par with the quality of execution; on the top, the story of Christ's Passion is depicted alongside Old Testament episodes prefiguring the main episodes of the Passion cycle. The sides recount the martyrdom and death of the Twelve Apostles. The whole is completed by figures of the Evangelists, a direct reference to the message of salvation represented on the top and conveyed in the Holy Scriptures.

The Valley of the Meuse
During the Middle Ages, the area along the middle reach of the River Meuse formed the Prince-bishopric of Liège. a strong politico-religious entity that was a part of the Holy Roman Empire. The river itself was a major artery of communication and played a crucial role in the development of the region; the ports along its course enjoyed the prosperity brought by contacts with bordering regions, and trade and the arts and crafts flourished in them.
The region was of great significance in broader cultural terms, too. Its abbeys were centres of knowledge and science, led by highly competent, enlightened and learned monks. Scholars from the four corners of Europe streamed there to receive instruction from the Mosan masters, leading to the Liège of the 11th century being hailed as the 'Athens of the North'.
All these factors explain the exceptional flowering of Mosan art during a period that spanned the years from 1000 to about 1300.

Discover this masterpiece in the gallery of Romanesque and Mosan Art, on the online museum catalogue Carmentis and in the book Masterpieces of the Cinquantenaire Museum.