The Treasury of Saint-Maurice d'Agune Abbey is Enriched With a Relic of St. Louis

January 30, 2020

A fragment of the royal coat of St. Louis was added to the treasury of the Abbey of Saint-Maurice, Valais, Switzerland, at Vespers of All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2019. A Geneva student designer, Sylvain Ferrero, had the privilege of making the reliquary in which the fragment of the royal mantle now rests. “The last objects put into the treasure were a collection of chalices from the 1930s and 40s,” said Canon Olivier Roduit, procurator of the Abbey and director of abbey collections. “It is therefore the first reliquary of the 21st century to enter the Abbey,” said Father Abbot, Msgr. Jean Scarcella.

It was in 2015, during an auction in Paris, that a small fragment of the coat of St. Louis was acquired by a Valaisanne—who wanted to remain anonymous—and offered to Saint Maurice Abbey. “In her outpouring of generosity, the donor, who did not want this relic to remain in the secular world, also financed the construction of the reliquary,” said Canon Roduit. In the spring of 2019, the Abbey spoke to the Haute Ecole d’Art et de Design (HEAD) in Geneva, and commissioned twenty-two students from the “jewelry and accessory design” program to create reliquary prototypes. The jury of four, including the Abbot of Saint-Maurice and the donor, met behind closed doors on September 3rd to choose the winner from among twenty-two submissions. “A reliquary is there to reveal what it contains, without disclosing it,” said Bishop Scarcella. And that is what Sylvain Ferrero’s reliquary, which is a masterpiece, does.”

The winner, specializing in watchmaking, had previously been unaware of the existence, the meaning, and the function of a reliquary. “I am baptized Catholic but I have not been immersed in religion and I am not a practitioner,” revealed the Genevan at a press conference. “However, I have a lot of respect for religion and faith. So, by creating this reliquary, I wanted to tell a simple story that is understood by everyone.” The silver and the fleur-de-lis represent the royalty and the life of St. Louis, he explained. Gold represents the divine world. All in a kind of drape, imitating the folds of a fabric. The form thus expresses what is inside.

Baptized Custodiat (protect and keep, in Latin), Sylvain Ferrero’s reliquary joins a prestigious group, which includes a ewer said to have belonged to Charlemagne, the cross reliquary of a piece of the True Cross, originating in the North of France, and the reliquary of the Holy Thorn, offered in 1262 by St. Louis in exchange for 25 relics of St. Maurice and his companions, to spread the cult and arouse the fervor of the French.

The small Valais town of Saint-Maurice is home to the only Western Abbey still in operation after 1,500 years of existence. Coming from Egypt around the year 300, Maurice, Exupère, Innocent, Candide, and their companions were part of Maximien’s army which was heading towards the Rhine. These Christian soldiers refused impious orders from the emperor. They were massacred and buried on the spot. The Passion of the Martyrs of Agaune, written by Bishop Eucher of Lyon († 449), attributes these words to Mauritius: “We are your soldiers, O Emperor, but above all servants of God. We owe you military obedience, but we owe Him innocence. We would rather die innocent than live guilty.”

Around the year 380, St. Théodule (or Théodore), the first known bishop of Valais, moved the remains of the martyrs under the cliff and built a first basilica there. There, on September 22, 515, Sigismund, prince of the Burgundians, with great pomp, celebrated the inauguration of the monastery he had just founded in honor of Maurice and his companions, martyrs of the Theban legion. The Agaune site was a must for travelers crossing the Alps via the pass now called Great Saint Bernard Pass. The Passion of the Martyrs of Agaune contributed to the rapid spread of their veneration. During the high middle ages, the royal abbey of Saint Maurice of Agaune, located on the main road to Rome, enjoyed a great reputation. St. Maurice, the soldier-saint, became, with St. Denis and St. Martin de Tours, one of the favorite patron saints of Frankish sovereigns. The eastern liturgy of Agaune, known as laus perennis, which saw the monks take turns night and day to sing praises to God, was exported to Saint-Denis.

Following the Carolingian reforms, the religious opted for the canonical way of life rather than the rule of Saint Benedict. The community of canons nevertheless retained their status as a royal abbey. Integrated into the German Empire in 1032, it then passed under the control of the House of Savoy for a century, before becoming an abbey of canons regular of Saint Augustine in 1128. In France, Louis IX promoted the cult of the martyrs of Agaune, to whom he dedicated his priory of Senlis. Transformed into a collegiate church around 1300 and then regularized in the seventeenth century, the abbey became a center of culture and learning. It has housed a college since the Revolution and still retains its archives, which form an exceptional collection. The archaeological excavations resumed in 2001 by Alessandra Antonini have made the site accessible to the public: one can discover there the eight successive basilicas which have occupied the site since the 4th century.