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St. Andrew's Portable Altar

The St. Andrew’s Portable Altar holds a sole of the Apostle’s sandal. Created under Archbishop Egbert, the case, with its immense material and artistic extravagance, represents one of the most important works of art of the 10th century.

Through a donation by Empress Helena, Trier Cathedral possessed not only significant relics of Christ but also relics from two Apostles, St. Peter’s staff (in the Limburg Cathedral Treasury today), two links from St. Peter’s chain, and the sole of a sandal of the Apostle Andrew.

The saint enjoyed special esteem under Archbishop Egbert (977 to 993), who had the St. Andrew’s Chapel built on the north side of the Cathedral in the saint’s honor, the chapel where the archbishop also wanted to be buried.

The Trier goldsmith was to combine two classical art forms for the shrine: a reliquary, to be more exact, a “speaking” reliquary and a portable altar. He resolved the first task by producing a richly decorated rectangular oaken case topped by the “foot” of the Apostle covered in gold plating. The case demonstrated that the sole of the saint’s sandal was kept inside the shrine. The sandal straps set with gemstones underlined this message.

Moreover, the goldsmith was to create a portable altar, a transportable altar such as emperors, kings, and bishops carried with them during travels and at which they could have mass said in their homes.

A small ancient millefiori glass plate on the top side of the St. Andrew's altar indicates this function. The inscription running around the top states the portable altar is dedicated to St. Andrew. Rings on the feet, made in the form of lions, and on the top side indicate that it was possible to hang the portable altar or to carry it in a procession. Furthermore, the sliding cover could be opened to display the individual relics.

The four bejeweled side surfaces emphasize the enormous artistic and material extravagance: ivory plates are affixed to each of the long sides, on which the symbols of the evangelists and lions are attached. The plates are bordered all around by bands with small enamel plates, gemstones, and pearls. Both narrow ends are even more elaborately decorated: On the front side are two St. Andrew’s crosses studded with pearls; the other side shows a medallion in the middle set with almandine stones and framed by pearls. A gold Emperor Justinian I coin sits in the center.

In terms of art history, the St. Andrew’s portable altar is a masterpiece of Romanesque goldsmith art, which employed almost all known techniques known in the 10th century. Moreover, it is a compendium of the story of salvation, evoking the association of the Ark of the Covenant and emphasizing the unity of the four Gospels in Christ. In addition, it underlines the significance of the Trier Church with its great age and its Apostolic succession. And, finally, it preserves the name of the initiator Archbishop Egbert, whom his successors were to commemorate whenever Mass was celebrated at the portable altar or when they visited the St. Andrew’s Chapel.

Author: Dr. Wolfgang Schmid, Professor