Rare “toadstone” of myth found in already priceless 13th century Reliquary of St. Maurus

Toadstone at Reliquary of St. Maurus

The early 13th century Reliquary of St. Maurus is among the nation’s greatest of treasures. The elaborate Romanesque shrine, plated in silver and gold, and adorned with gems and semi-precious stones, is in itself an exquisite work of art. It also is said to contain the relics of four saints – not least, John the Baptist. Adding to its incalculable value and mystique is the recent discovery of an inlaid “toadstone”, among the world’s oldest.

The reliquary is widely held to be the most important historical artefact in the Czech lands, apart from the crown jewels of Bohemia. The richly decorated shrine, on permanent but limited display at Bečov Castle in western Bohemia, resembles a house, as tour guide Alena Švehlová explains.

“This type of reliquary is referred to as a casket or house reliquary, although the original intention was likely a model of a tomb or church. The wooden core is covered with gilded silver plate with many statuettes, reliefs, filigree decorations and gems.

“The reliquary is a metre and a half long and about 70 centimetres high. At its head, we see a statuette of Jesus Christ and – on the opposite side – one of St. Maurus. On the sides there are reliefs depicting the twelve apostles.”

“The craftsmen who created it were pioneers in their day and age. The shrine, with its reliefs and incredible details, was exceptionally sophisticated for its time. I would say there was nothing to rival it. That is what makes it exceptional – the skilled craftsmanship of the time.”

Toadstone from Reliquary of St. Maurus | Photo: Slavomír Kubeš,  ČTK

The recent discovery among the reliquary’s inlaid gems of a so-called “toadstone” – prized in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance for its purported magical properties – only adds to the mystique of the priceless artefact.

In early Mediaeval times, toadstones came to be considered flawless stones, “perfect in form” – which somehow formed only in the heads of poisonous amphibians. Even up until the 18th century, European jewellers would set them into rings and amulets, not so much for their beauty but for their power as talismans.

Species of toad were known to have poison glands in their skin. They therefore must also carry the antidote to that poison within them, so the reasoning went. And somehow the myth arose that this cure was concentrated within “toadstones”.

In fact, toadstones are not stones or gems but the fossilised button-sized teeth of an ancient, long-extinct fish, dating back to the Mesolithic period or Middle Stone Age era – a fact that palaeontologists only determined in modern times.

Toadstone from Reliquary of St. Maurus | Photo: Slavomír Kubeš,  ČTK

Dr Růžena Gregorová, head of the Geological and Paleontological Department at the Moravian Museum, is something of an expert on toadstones, the mythology around which she finds fascinating.

“Well, it’s a very interesting story. Mediaeval thinkers, including some of the best-known ones like Albertus Magnus (the patron saint of natural sciences), believed in them.

“In encyclopaedic entries, they wrote about these ‘stones’ as having been found in the heads of old toads, and having great curative powers – that they could detect and counteract poisons.

“It’s important to note that they believed the toadstones had to be taken from its head while the toad was still alive”

The discovery of a toadstone adorning the Romanesque reliquary of St. Maurus, long on display at Bečov Castle in western Bohemia, came after a rare deep cleaning, led by professional restorer Andrej Šumbera this April.

Andrej Šumbera | Photo: Ivana Sedláčková,  Czech Radio

It was only the third such cleaning since 2002, he says, when the restoration of the reliquary – which had lay buried and all-but-forgotten for decades – was completed.

“The cleaning starts with a thorough inspection, where you must check the entire surface, and takes place in several stages. Although it is enclosed in a high-quality display case, microscopic dust does settle on the reliquary, which may have a corrosive effect...

“But a deep cleaning is an extraordinary event. It has only happened twice before in 20 years, which also shows that the reliquary is in optimal condition, and that the procedures we applied during its restoration were in order.”

But despite the careful attention by restorers, the remarkable find of a toadstone was actually thanks to a palaeontologist in Brno – hundreds of kilometres away: none other than Dr Růžena Gregorová.

Reliquary of St. Maurus | Photo: Ivana Sedláčková,  Czech Radio

How did she recognise the toadstone among the many gems and semi-precious stones adorning the Reliquary of St. Maurus? As providence would have it, it was she who had identified toadstones on a crown made in 1349 for Charles IV, the first Bohemia king to become Holy Roman Emperor.

“Well, to go back a bit in history, the first impulse came when I was asked to identify two stones on a crown made for Charles IV.

“If I had not identified those toadstones on the Czech crown, it may not have occurred to me that a toadstone could also feature in the reliquary of St. Maurus.

“There was intense media coverage of the reliquary in recent months, so I had a chance to see many detailed pictures online. And that’s when it occurred to me.”

Reliquary of St. Maurus | Photo: Ivana Sedláčková,  Czech Radio

The main task of Dr Gregorová’s department at the Moravian Museum is to identify and document palaeontological and geological sites in the region, and manage the museum’s extensive collections of thousands of fossils from Czech and foreign sites.

So while toadstones look like semi-precious gems, the structure of a tooth, characterized by its fibrous structure and enamel, is clearly visible at the base – to a trained eye.

As noted earlier, Reliquary of St. Maurus is considered the country’s most precious historical artefact after the crown jewels of Bohemia. It can be no accident, Dr Gregorová believes, that toadstones were laid in both the crown jewels of Bohemia and the priceless shrine at Bečov Castle.

The reliquary of St. Maurus is not Czech in origin. And, despite the name, it was in made for the Florennes Abbey in Belgium, originally to hold the relics of a different saint. When that abbey was sacked (before being completely destroyed) during the French Revolution, it was hidden in a local church.

Decades later, in 1838, it was acquired by one Duke Alfred de Beaufort-Spontin, a member of a noble family whose seat was originally in Namur, and held prominent posts under Holy Roman Emperors.

A half a century later, Duke Alfread’s descendants moved the reliquary of St. Maurus to their estate at Bečov Castle, in western Bohemia. During World War II, the family buried the shine under a chapel floor.

The reliquary may have been lost to history, had not vague enquires by an American treasure hunter inadvertently also put Czechoslovak authorities on the trail. It was rediscovered in 1985.