Friday, August 26, 2016

The Reliquary of Sts. Adrian and Natalia at the Art Institute of Chicago


Reliquary Casket of Saints Adrian and Natalia, c. 1150

Silver and oak core

15.9 x 25.4 x 14.5 cm (6 1/4 x 10 x 5 3/4 in.)

Inscription: MARTIRIS EXIMINI SACRUM/QUI MARTIR FACTUS SPREVIT EUM/[JA]CET HIC ADRIAN (Reliquary of the most excellent martyr who, being made a martyr, was removed; here lies Adrian.)

This reliquary casket celebrates the martyrdom of Saint Adrian and must have been made to house relics of the Saint, who was a Roman soldier. The story of his martyrdom is boldly worked in silver repouss√© on the four sides of the casket. On one end, Adrian proclaims his conversion to Christianity before a Roman imperial official, a deed punishable by death in the early fourth century. The two long sides of the casket display the dismemberment and subsequent death of Adrian and his companions in unflinching detail. On the other short side, Adrian’s wife Natalia safeguards his severed hand as she flees in a boat. As a patron saint of soldiers Adrian’s cult was widespread. Comparison to Romanesque manuscript illumination suggests that the casket, with its striking narrative, was made in northern Spain.


When the reliquary came into the Art Institute’s collection in the 1940s there were no relics contained within, or record thereof. It is assumed it contained at one time a portion of the hand of Saint Adrian, or some relic of his and Natalia.

One of the notable monasteries dedicated to Saint Adrian in Spain was founded at Bonar, east of Leon, in 920 by Count Gisvado and his wife, Leuvina, who themselves had secured relics of Adrian and Natalia in Rome. With the death of Ferdinand I, this monastery fell to the oversight of his daughter, Urraca, a noted patroness of the liturgical arts. She rebuilt the church of San Adrian de Bonar and in 1099 ceded it to the more important monastery of San Pedro de Eslonza. The quarry at Bonar supplied the stone for the palatine church, San Isidoro, that Urraca planned for the capital. There is no document connecting this reliquary with San Adrian de Bonar, nor certainty that it was made as early as 1099. However, no other church dedicated to Adrian and Natalia and no circle of patronage other than the Leonese royal family offers a better prima facie claim to responsibility.

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