The head reliquary of Saint Yrieix

In this interview, Zoé Darsy, head of cultural heritage of the town of Saint-Yrieix, tells the fascinating tale of the head reliquary of Aredius, which was stolen, replicated and replaced, with the original now kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The replica in front of you is carried in processions during the Limousin ostensions (traditional ceremonies that are held every 7 years).


We are standing in front of the reliquary bust of Saint Aredius, known in French as Saint Yrieix. Aredius is the Latin version of his name. He protects the relic of Saint-Yrieix. A piece of his skull is located roughly in this part of the reliquary; believers can come see it during the grand ceremonies of the Limousin Ostensions. The bust is a depiction of Saint Aredius as an abbot. You can see it clearly from the tonsure and his crown of hair. Not to mention the collar that calls his role to mind. The collar is called an orphrey and usually adorns an abbot’s robe. The object itself is a sculpted wooden core that depicts a rather thin and detailed face. A gold and silver jewel-encrusted mask has been placed on top, with this watermark right here, which is made from gold wire and embedded with gems and rock-crystal stones.

The object you see is a copy, not the original dating from the Middle Ages. In 1906, a difficult time when the Church and State had separated, several small parishes in Limousin became targeted by a network  of thieves. Such individuals were called church looters and usually acted as intermediaries for prominent merchants. This is exactly what happened to our medieval reliquary bust. The object, dating back to the 13th century, was coveted by an English merchant named Duvigne. As it happened, he worked with intermediaries in France. He most likely approached the priest, the head of the parish, who had access to the item. It is believed that the genuine reliquary bust was taken to London, to a goldsmith named Félix Joubert. Joubert created an almost perfect copy of the reliquary bust, which was brought to Saint-Yrieix. The relic was placed inside, of course, and the medieval object was quickly sold to a prominent American collector named John Pierpont Morgan. After his death in 1917, his entire extensive collection was gifted to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is where the real reliquary bust of Saint Aredius has been kept since 1917. In the 1960s, while taking inventory, an inspector of historic buildings noticed and confirmed that the object on display in Saint-Yrieix was actually a contemporary artwork that bore a close resemblance to the original; it might have even contained some of the details and stones from the original medieval piece that were kept and exchanged when the two items were swapped. In 2015, the town of Saint-Yrieix officially asked the MET to return the genuine bust.

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