The Reliquary of St. Maurus –the most valuable Romanesque work of art in the Czech Republic

St. Maurus reliquary, photo: Martina Schneibergová

The St. Maurus reliquary, dating back to the early 13th century, is one of the Czech Republic’s biggest treasures. The Romanesque shrine which contains the relics of four saints is considered to be the second most important historical artefact in the Czech Republic, second only to the crown jewels.

This rare artefact, which is permanently on display at Bečov Castle in western Bohemia, has a colourful history linked to the Beaufort-Spontin family who brought it to Bečov where it lay buried beneath the castle chapel for forty long years.

The reliquary was made in the early 13th century for the Benedictine Monastery in Florennes,  Belgium, to hold the relics of St. Maurus, St. Timothy, St. John the Baptist and St. Apolinář.

The richly decorated shrine resembles a house as Bečov Castle tour guide Alena Švehlová explains:

Bečov Castle,  photo: Martina Schneibergová

“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.”

Following the dissolution of the monastery during the French Revolution, the precious artefact was placed in the local church and was later acquired by Duke Alfred de Beaufort-Spontin. The Duke had it restored and proudly loaned it to the World Fair at Anvers in 1885. In 1888, the Beauforts moved the reliquary to their castle estate in Bečov, where it remained in private ownership in the family chapel for years.

When the Beauforts were forced to leave Bečov after World War II, for having collaborated with the Nazis, they secretly buried the reliquary under the floor of the chapel, presumably planning to return for it sometime in the future. However the course of history dramatically changed their plans.

Photo: Barbora Němcová

For decades, the castle was closed to the public. It was too close to a newly formed military site and indeed to Western Europe. There were no records and no witnesses of the Beauforts’ effort to preserve their family treasure and so for most of the communist era the reliquary lay buried deep underground.

Then, in 1984, an American businessman by the name of Danny Douglas unexpectedly approached the Czechoslovak authorities via the country’s embassy in Vienna with an offer to pay 250,000 US dollars for the right to excavate and export abroad an unidentified object “which nobody claims or misses in Czechoslovakia”. The vague request and high sum offered raised suspicions and the communist authorities immediately tasked a special team of investigators to ascertain the nature of this unspecified object.

Alena Švehlová,  photo: Barbora Němcová

As talks with Douglas proceeded, the team initiated a huge search operation for the secret artefact. From the fragments of information provided, the team was able to narrow the investigation to five likely locations and eventually they narrowed the search down to Bečov Castle and the surrounding area.

Time was running out and police officers arrived at the location with a team of men who combed the grounds with metal detectors, searching the park and castle premises. Since the weather was bad and Douglas did not appear to be worried about snow or frozen earth, they concluded that the object must be inside. They intensified their search for a secret chamber or corridor where this treasure could be located. When searching the castle chapel –just days before the sale was to have gone ahead- they identified a large metallic object below the floorboards and after tearing them up came upon the St. Maurus reliquary. It was in very poor condition, but there was no doubt of its immense value.

Photo: Barbora Němcová

The negotiations with Douglas were immediately curtailed. The Czech authorities refused to allow the relic’s export and, working to resolve ownership disputes, they ordered its restoration which lasted for eleven long years. The Romanesque reliquary was found to contain bone relics belonging to four men, but, according to a DNA analysis, also those of a woman and child. There were also scraps of fabric and leather.

More than a decade later restorers from Prague’s Museum of Applied Arts and preservation experts from the German town of Aachen had restored the reliquary to its former glory. The core, which was originally made of oak, was replaced by walnut wood, the reliefs and sculptures were restored to perfection as were the precious stones, filigrees and gems. Tour guide Alena Švehlová says she is constantly awed by beauty of this artefact.

“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.”

The reliquary was found in November of 1985 and it was first shown to the public in 2002 – at Bečov Castle where it was found.  Visitors can admire it close up as well as see an authentic short film documenting its discovery under the floorboards of the castle chapel, view the original wooden core of the shrine and learn details of its painstaking restoration. It is also occasionally on display at Prague Castle where it is given pride of place as the most valuable Romanesque work of art on Czech territory.