art history · history

Tis the Season for Gift Giving! (Part 2)

I had to put this as a seperate post, but I find the journey of this particular medieval gift to be very interesting. This gift illustrates many of the different occasions to give gifts (which I discussed in my previous post) and how these gifts get re-circulated.

This piece is commonly known as the Eleanor of Aquitaine vase. It was crafted in a pear shaped and was made of rock crystal with a mount made of silver. The gems and gold adornments seen in the featured image were added later by the abbot Suger.

In the 12th century this vase was gifted to William IX of Aquitaine (Eleanor’s grandfather) and is believed to have been gifted to him by Imad al-Dwala abd al-Malik Ibn Hud, the last Muslim leader of Saragossa. This is obviously a case of a gift being used for political reasons. Hilsdale explains that the giving of this gift would reveal an alliance that was created between the two rulers. This is seen in history as these two rulers did fight together at the Battle of Cutanda.

Eleanor of Aquitaine 

Then when William’s granddaughter, the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, was to marry her first husband, Louis VII of France, she gave this crystal vase to him as a wedding gift. This exchange represents the dowry gift due to the husband when taking a bride. It was also used as a symbol. Since this vase had been passed down as a family heirloom in Aquitaine it was symbolizing the union between the duchy of Aquitaine the royal crown. It was still being kept in the family, but now that family had extended. But, if you know anything about Eleanor of Aquitaine’s history, this union did not last long and their marriage was annulled. Eleanor went on to marry Henry II of England led a very interesting era of English history. But what was the fate of this vase?

Louis VII gave the vase to the abbot Suger, one of his advisers, which represents the gift (or donation) of a luxury item to a religious organization. From now on it became a sacred object and Louis created a sacred bond between him and the church by donating. It is amazing to see how this gift was re-purposed to be re-gifted to fit the needs of the time; starting as a political gift to form an alliance, a hopeful gift for the future of a marriage, and then a spiritual donation.


Past Presents: New Years Gifts at the Valois Court by Brigitte Buettner

Hilsdale, Cecily J. “GIFT.” Studies in Iconography 33 (2012): 171-82.


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