Nicholas of Verdun

Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral
Verdun altarpiece at Klosterneuburg

Nicholas of Verdun (1130–1205) was a French artist, one of the most famous goldsmiths and enamelists of the Middle Ages. He was a major figure in Romanesque art, and the leading figure of Mosan art in his day. He created shrines, figurines and candlesticks decorated with precious stones. He traveled around Europe to fulfill major commissions.

During the last quarter of the 12th century, steps were being taken towards Classical Antiquity by a Mosan metalworker, Nicholas of Verdun. Nicholas was a remarkable French enamelist and goldsmith of the Middle Ages. His work transitions from late Romanesque to early Gothic styles. During his career he spent most of his time traveling to different locations where he was commissioned to develop most of his work. Some examples of his transition towards an antique style can be seen through his great craftsmanship of metal making of the enameled altarpiece which was created for Klosterneuburg Monastery, near Vienna in c.1180. The work reveals his master metalworking and the technique of champlevé enameling. His even more notable Shrine of the Three Kings in the Cologne Cathedral, about 1200, would be an even more appropriate example drawing the observer towards classical representations of Antiquity. (Myers & Copplestone 1985, 350)

In his work the artist reveals a deep understanding for the conventions centering on the physicality of the classical draperies which oblique the figures, while his faces resemble a classical Byzantine style. Nicholas of Verdun was an innovator and a master metalworker. It was no accident that his work development occurred in the medium of metal making. The records indicate that most of his work ranges from figurines, to decorated candles with precious stones and shrines. (Myers & Copplestone 1985, 350-351)

Historical background

For metalworkers the process of beating metal was initially performed in the development of works of art, but after c.1150 casting became a more prevalent technique for sculptors. Through these formative stages a process of modeling rather than carving was being performed. This allowed artists to gain more movement and gesture, and to work in miniature scales which allowed the metalworkers to show and explore their talents in a more productive fashion.

Romanesque period

Color during the Romanesque period was dearest to the Romanesque patrons of the arts. This made the use of enameling ideal during this time period. Translucent glaze was a new addition in art which epitomized what was perhaps the most deeply felt urge in aesthetics of the high Middle Ages. This was particularly popular in Western Europe. Artists were using it to develop a sense of mystic appeal particularly through jewelry, and enameling was considered to have the closest resemblance to the Byzantine mosaics. From this, preoccupation with the Byzantine forms of the 12th century were evident in the work and the Middle Ages ended up transitioning towards the approach of classical antiquity from a background of abstract and stylized art.( Myers & Copplestone 1985, 369) There were two suggestions regarding the artists signatures in this period one was to suggest that they were intended as requests for prayer from spectators on behalf of the artists, so as to assist them to gain eternal salvation and secondly signatures were indicators either of social status of the artist or of the civic pride of the organization that had obtained the artist’s service. (Petzold 1995, 25-28)

Through various arts in Western Europe during the Romanesque period metalwork occupied central significance. Metalwork at this time was considered as an art form and its purpose was what granted its significance in the art world. The objects made were intriguing and innovative and its presence served a great significance in altars and reliquaries of great churches. Prestigious figures would show off their wealth and power through a vehicle of grand vessels made out of precious materials. Romanesque patrons and people were highly religious and superstitious and as a sign to show off their hierarchy and pomp they used precious materials. Architecture, such as churches and reliquaries, served the same purpose which was to house the relics and throughout the Romanesque period people realized that churches and reliquaries were the same thing. Today, there are very few reliquary caskets that have survived from the 12th century. But the system of arches during the Romanesque period, particularly on reliquaries and churches, grew grander in order to remind the people of Biblical events and their meaning. These ideals and ways continued through the Gothic period, and in many ways Romanesque art was considered to be an incomplete version that transitioned into the Gothic period. (Myers & Copplestone 1985, 351-352)

Gothic period

Certain tendencies already present in the Romanesque period were fulfilled in the Gothic. This applies to both art and architecture, where Christian themes were done through thoughtful reflections conveyed through medieval imagery. Gothic art is characterized as the differentiating point between the classical world of Rome and Greece. Its architecture processed a very distinctive style. It was customary to differentiate between the Old and the New Testament. This was particularly popular in the Gothic North where the stylistic Romanesque examples were a depiction of the Old Testament and Gothic was the New Testament. Architecture of the Gothic period, specifically from that of 12th century Renaissance, was evolving in northeastern France. Figures were developing a parallel transformation into the direction that was more classical. This is particularly evident in Reims in the 13th century, through the figure sculptures of the High Gothic Cathedral. It is appropriate to note that there is evident pursuit of classical prototypes that were conveyed through the Gothic drapery style. It was the Northerners during this time, like Nicholas of Verdun, who were the first to particularly grasp and pioneer the potential of classical sculpture and create remarkable work. (Myers & Copplestone 1985, 369-377)

His work

Nicholas of Verdun is known today because he signed his work in stone, as "NICOLAUS VIRDUNENSIS" and established the tradition of artists signing their work.[1]

The Verdun Altar

The Verdun Altar is located at the Klosterneuburg Monastery in Austria.[1] It was made in c.1181 and it is named after Nicholas of Verdun. Its composition contains detailed decorative panels which depict biblical scenes. The work is divided into 3 compartments that are comprised out of 45 copper squares. It is also split into 3 rows due to biblical reference and we have the central theme being the life of Jesus while the adjacent sides illustrate the life of Adam and Noah or David and the Babylonian captivity. The Medium used for this work is called champlevé enamel work where a metal base with compartments is filled with enamel. The program is set up according to biblical scenes and is considered to be the most important surviving work done with ambitious effort for something that was made in the 12th century. There is a transition of early Romanesque to a more classical handling according to the way the work was treated. (Camille 1996, 77)

The Shrine of the Three Kings

This powerful and expressive work is located in the Treasury of the Cologne Cathedral. It is considered to be the largest reliquary created in the thirteenth century. It is alleged to hold the bones of the Biblical Magi. The shrine's general concept and figures of prophets were created by Nicholas of Verdun but much of the work was also done by his assistants. The shrine is said to hold the most important gilded metal figures of the 12th century. They contrast with the late Romanesque style due to the relatively naturalistic representation of figures and drapery. This artistic treatment inspired later works in sculpture and painting. The shrine was considered to be so marvelous that Cologne cathedral rebuilt its structure in 1248 in order to provide a more grand setting for the shrine. This piece is quite ornamental and it is made with gold and silver that is overlaid over a wooden basilica structure. It is 110 cm wide and 153 cm long. The panels contain over a thousand jewells and beads ranging from semi-precious to precious stones. There are a number of scenes that range from dawning of time to the last judgment. Throughout its history it was said that the shrine was hidden in 1794 from the French troops and at that time the work was shortened by one axis, which later ended up undergoing restoration which was done from 1961 to 1973. Today it stands in a medieval high altar of a Gothic cathedral particularly built for the presence of this shrine. (Myers & Copplestone 1985, 401)

The Relic Shrine

According to the legends of Trabel, the Relic Shrine of Our Lady is from the 13th century. It can be seen in the city of Tournai where it is part of the art treasure in the Our Lady’s Cathedral of Waloon located in Belgium. Our Lady represents the origin of a patron saint. Her significance became important after 1090. Her Relics were carried around by Bishop Radbound in order to stop a deadly plague epidemic, and shortly after Tournai was saved. After this an annual procession became a customary ritual. A hundred years later Bishop Stefanus ordered a new shrine to be made in which an inscribed signature of the artist, Nicholas of Verdun was inscribed. Records indicate that the shrine was made in the early 1200s, and it resembles a more Gothic oriented approach where the artist combined enamel work with beaten metalwork. The Gothic reference in the work is seen through the expressive nature of the facial features or postures or the way the work was handled. The roof of the shrine predicts a program through a series of images which convey the life of Jesus and the life of the Virgin Mary. Images of prophets and angels are located above the arcade along with some of the scenes depicted are from: The Visitation, The flight of Egypt, The Visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, the birth of Christ, the adoration of Magi, the baptism of Christ, the flagellation of Christ and so on. The original relics disappeared in 1566 during the Iconoclasm but the shrine remains in a restored condition after 1890 due to the aftermath of the French revolution. (Trabel 1996)

Tri-lobed arch

Nicholas of Verdun created the tri-lobed arch in ca.1200, located in a reliquary shrine in Cologne, Germany. He used the technique of champlevé enamel on gilded copper to compose the work. Dimensions of the work are 11.4 cm by 27.9 cm and this was considered a gift of George Blumenthal in 1941.

Two Bronzes

As H.P. Mitchell noted in “Two Bronzes by Nicholas of Verdun”, the statues are actually a group of four seated figures. Of the four figures only two have been attributed to Nicholas of Verdun. Hence the name two bronzes and the figures are of Moses and the prophet. They were created in the 12th century while the other two, which are of Noah and David, were created in the 14th. This medieval work has a pronounced character. The seated figures are each holding an emblem which serves the purpose of identifying the characters in the following order. Moses is holding the table of laws, while the prophet holds his scroll case. The other two figures are of Noah who is holding a model of the ark while David seems to be holding nothing due to the disappearance of the harp, yet he can still be identified by his character. Figures are well rendered but the lower part of the seat in each figure seems to be incomplete. Moses and the prophet are seated in antique chairs that have an “X” form. It should also be noted that the prophet’s scroll held a quotation, which has been lost. (Mitchell 1921, 157-58)


  • Bernard S. Myers & Trewin Copplestone. 1985. Romanesque sculpture: The History of Art: Architecture, Painting, Sculpture: England: Viscount Books (Myers & Copplestone 1985, 350-351, 369)
  • Andreas, Petzold. 1995. The Romanesque Artist and Patronage of the Arts: Romanesque Art: New Jersey: Prentice Hall (Petzold 1995, 25-28)
  • Bernard S. Myers & Trewin Copplestone. 1985. Gothic Art: The History of Art: Architecture, Painting, Sculpture: England: Viscount Books

(Myers & Copplestone 1985, 351-352, 369-377)

  • Michael Camille. 1996. New Visions of Time: Gothic Art-Glorious Visions: New Jersey: Prentice Hall (Camille 1996, 77)
  • Bernard S. Myers & Trewin Copplestone. 1985. The Saint Chapelle: The History of Art: Architecture, Painting, Sculpture: England: Viscount Books (Myers & Copplestone 1985, 401)
  • Tournai. 1996. "Turnai: Our Lady’s Shrine (N. Verdun), http://www.trabel.com/tournai-ouladysshrine.html (Trabel 1996)
  • Mitchell. H.P. "Two Bronzes by Nicholas of Verdun", the Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs. Vol 38, NO217, April 1921 (Mitchell 1921, 157-158)
  • Laurence Terrier Aliferis. 2016. L'imitation de l'Antiquité dans l'art médiéval, 1180-1230, Brepols (Terrier Aliferis 2016)


  1. ^ a b "Signs of Plenty - The Altar of Verdun". elfieraymond.com. Retrieved 22 August 2015. Lorraine, with Verdun as artistic hub, is thus proven to be the home of the period's finest artisan-artists. Master Nicolas, by his own testimony, came from the town of Verdun, signing his works as NICOLAUS VIRDUNENSIS with his name carefully chiseled in stone. He thus broke with the medieval convention of the anonymous artist and established a precedent for the signature of individual genius, in the renaissance sense of the term.

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