Bruce, Bannockburn and the Monymusk Reliquary
Comparable in national importance to the Scottish crown jewels, the Monymusk reliquary is one of the most important items in the National Museums of Scotland's collection. The reliquary is thought too date from around 750AD and is believed to have been made by Ionian monks. The casket itself is wooden, the body and lid carved from a single piece of Yew, which has for centuries been considered a powerful symbol of Scottish national identity.
However it is the silver and copper plates covering this wooden body which really bring the reliquary to life. The piece as a whole is an interesting fusion of influences, including Gallic, Pictish, Anglo-Saxon and Insular. The zoomorpic decoration of intertwined animals immediately brings to mind the Gallic decoration we now so closely associate with Scottish design, while the stippled background is a Pictish technique. The house shape appearance of reliquary is thought to have originated in Ireland, brought over Britain by Irish missionaries and popularised over Europe by the late middle ages. It is also strikingly similar to a depiction of the Temple of Jerusalem in the Book of Kells.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the reliquary is its original purpose and subsequent importance in Scottish national history. It is believed to have housed a relic of St Columba, one of the most popular saints in Scottish medieval history. Many scholars believe it be the Brecbannoch of St Columba, the very reliquary carried into battle before Robert the Bruce and his army at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Bruce himself believed that it provided the divine intervention which provided his victory over the army of King Edward II.
Interestingly, when the reliquary was paraded it would have hung from a leather strap suspended round the neck of its keeper, also known as the 'deoradh' which is where the surname 'Dewar' originates. Much of the rest of the reliquary's history is shrouded in mystery, periods of its past are unaccounted for, it is thought to have been under the care of the abbot of Arbroath Abby during the latter half of the 12th century, before finding its way to Forglen, and eventually into the hands of Sir Francis Grant of Cullen in whose care it remained until 1933 when it was purchased by the nation and took up its place in the National Museum of Scotland.
Although unmarked the quality of this piece and its place within the wider archaeological reproductions produced it would seem highly likely that it was made by Alexander J Brooch of Brook & Sons, Edinburgh. Not only was he one of the most prolific makers of quality silver in Edinburgh but was a very active antiquary through Scotland. He is seem making various archaeological copies from the Traprain Law hoard of Roman silver and the Nestor Cups copied from Homers Iliad. Through these copies and is work on other historic pieces he was highly regarded within the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and would have been perhaps not just an obvious but the only choice for a discerning copy to be made.
The level of detail on this example and the sensitive additions (of pieces missing from the original) strongly suggest the copy was made with the original at hand and the treatment of the project would again suggest a maker such as Brook. While these theories cannot be proven it Brook is a highly likely candidate to demonstrate the majesty of an early Christian house shaped reliquary.
A fine 19th century copy of the Monymusk Reliquary attributed to Alexander J Brook of Edinburgh
10cm high, 10.5cm wide
Sold for £25,000 (buyer's premium included)