German, drinking horn decorated with a statuette of St. Maurice. Illustration from the Hallesche Heiltumsbuch, 1525-27. Colors on parchment, 350 by 250 mm.
Hofbibliothek, Aschaffenburg, Germany

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

The carefully rendered appearance of this magnificently crafted drinking horn comes from a hand-illustrated inventory of the vast collection of gold and silver objects once kept in the Collegiate Church of St. Maurice and St. Mary Magdalene in Halle, a trading center in east central Germany.

Known as the Hallesche Heiltumsbuch (Halle Relic Book), the large volume records more than 200 reliquaries and other sacred articles collected by the great ruler and art patron Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg.

Sadly, this two-dimensional rendering of the ornate ceremonial vessel must suffice as testimony of its role in one of the most remarkable instances of the promotion of the chivalric ideal of the Christian knight. The drinking horn survived for no more than two decades after its registration in the Heiltumsbuch.

The armored figure of St. Maurice tops the slender spire of the vessel’s cover. The saint’s elevated position evokes a brief but important episode in the long history of his veneration in medieval and early-modern Europe.

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Born in Thebes, an ancient religious site located in upper Egypt, Maurice joined the Roman army in the late third century. Soon he converted to Christianity, a spiritual reorientation that put him directly at odds with the state cult of the divinized emperor.

According to legend, Maurice commanded a large body of Roman soldiers. The Theban Legion, as it was known, numbered only Christians among its ranks. Sent far to the west to quell a rebellion in Gaul, the unit received orders to attack other Christians. For their refusal to obey, the entire legion was put to death near the town of Agaunum. Maurice and his companions soon emerged as the center of a cult of martyred warrior saints.

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By the 10th century, Maurice’s reputation as a stalwart servant of Christ led to his adoption as the ideal symbol of the expansive territorial ambitions of the Germanic rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. One of the most significant promotions of his cult took place during the early 16th century, when this drinking horn bearing his image was created.

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The effort was undertaken by one of the greatest ecclesiastical administrators of the time, Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg. The city of Magdeburg had long ago become the center of Maurice’s veneration. In pursuit of a new agenda, however, Albert decided to transfer his residence to the nearby town of Halle.

Halle became the focus of an ambitious plan to establish the cult of St. Maurice on an unprecedented scale of magnificence. Initiated by his predecessor Ernst of Saxony, Albert continued the renovation of Halle as a major pilgrimage center for the veneration of his large collection of relics of St. Maurice and other holy figures. The sacred items were housed in the newly consecrated Collegiate Church and cared for by a specially appointed body of priests, or canons. The broader intention was to establish an intimidating bulwark of imperial authority in eastern Germany. The martial aspect of Maurice was revived to face the enemies of his domain.

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The origin of the drinking horn, together with its symbolic connotations, is lost in the far reaches of antiquity. Its design is built around the natural curving shape of a bull’s horn. The hollowed form serves as a sumptuous container of fine drink. Its dynamic, upward flaring sweep implies the virility of the animal from which it came, while its pointed end suggests martial prowess won at the point of a sword.

In this case, the horn is conceived as the body of a fantastic hybrid creature of the type often seen in illustrated bestiaries of the time. Two gilded bands encircle the horn, to which are attached the feet and claws of an eagle. The diminutive scale of the figure of St. Maurice atop its cover reveals an astonishing accuracy of form and elaboration of detail. The saint holds a lance topped by a fluttering banner in his left hand, while a shield emblazoned with the cross pattée is supported by the other. He wears a nearly full suit of armor and decorously stands on a cushion.

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Only the most prominent members of the social order possessed such costly drinking horns, most or all of whom were great heads of state. By the late-medieval period, the simple form of the bull’s horn was framed by expertly worked fittings of gold and silver.

Crucial to the understanding of the drinking horn’s purpose is the manner in which it entered Albert’s treasury of precious objects. The bestowal of such uncommon vessels often involved calculated diplomatic overtures among the nobility. It is quite possible that the impulse to endow the Maurice cult with such an important sign of recognition reached all the way to the court of the Holy Roman emperor.

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The designated use of the drinking horn topped by the noble figure of Maurice can be ideally reconstructed, based on the general custom of ceremonial communal meals held by elite confraternities throughout Europe during the early-modern period. Gathered at Halle, either at the residence of the archbishop in the castle of Moritzburg or within the broad space of the Collegiate Church, the canons of the religious foundation and other figures of high rank sat down for a common meal to honor Maurice and the holy relics.

The occasion would have been presided over by the archbishop himself as head of the order. The drinking ritual consisted of the passage of the horn from one member to another in an expression of the bond of friendship and solidarity. The communal act powerfully invoked the sharing of wine and bread by Christ and his disciples at the Last Supper.

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As matters transpired during this turbulent period, the veneration of Maurice so aggressively pursued by Albert of Brandenburg soon came to naught. Deeply in debt from the purchase of holy relics and other extravagances, he turned to the sale of indulgences, or pardons from sin issued by the Catholic Church. Conflict with the new wave of Protestantism sweeping over Germany led to more difficulties. During the 20 years or so between the rise of Martin Luther’s Reformation and his death in 1545, Albert had to sell or pawn many of the precious works in the treasury to ease the burden of his debt.

Few of the objects recorded in the Heiltumsbuch survive, making the scrupulously illustrated volume all the more important as a record of the Maurice cult at Halle. The drinking horn must certainly have been among these casualties. With its dispersal from the treasury, the raison d’être of the holy company of St. Maurice vanished as well. Though the black saint retained his importance for both Catholics and Protestants, the observance of his cult never again attained the level of intensity so lavishly bestowed upon it by Albert’s grand vision of knightly prestige.

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The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.