Reliquary Plaque of the Annunciation

Euphrasian Basilica, Poreč, Croatia

This plaque has been inserted into one of the walls of a courtyard attached to the basilica. On the "ledge" above the bottom figure is an inscription with some obscure letters followed by RESTI CORPORIS XPI, "…the remains of the body of Christ's…." Apparently a word such as "servant" should be supplied at the end, and at the beginning perhaps something like "here are." Above the letters is a frame for what was originally the central focus of the composition. Given the phrase beneath the frame, we can conclude that the lost object contained a relic and that the plaque as a whole is a reliquary.

At the bottom is a "green man." "Green man" reliefs and sculptures are common in medieval cathedrals, and quite a few have foliage issuing from the mouth. (See Wikimedia Commons and search on "green man." for examples.) Most other green men, however, are thoroughly wild in appearance, with foliate clothing and hair. This little fellow has a civilized cap and pleated gown with cuffed sleeves and natural hands and face.

Above the inscription, the middle register of the plaque appears to be an Annunciation, although this is problematical. The female figure on the left has a rose-shaped brooch like those sometimes seen in images of Mary. Annunciations from the 14th century onward have her placing a hand on her breast to betoken humility. Here she uses both hands, but that is also a gesture of humility, as seen in some Coronation images (example). The presence of another figure in an architecturally separate field is also typical of Annunciations, but in this case one cannot be sure the figure is the angel Gabriel. The triangular shapes behind his shoulders could be wings, but perhaps they are not. And in indisputable Annunciations he does not carry a book. On the whole, however, it seems clear that the Annunciation is the subject of at least the left side, and possibly the whole, of the middle register.

At the top is a griffin, a mythical creature part-bird and part-lion. It can represent either Christ or the anti-Christ and is a favorite feature of medieval heraldry (Sill, 21). The latter context is possible in the case of this plaque, because of the heraldic shield in the middle register. The anti-Christian denotation (see this example) is clearly inapplicable here, but the use of the griffin to represent Christ makes good sense. As Sinclair puts it in explaining the Griffin in Purgatorio XXIX, it "represents not so much Christ as the theological idea of Christ, the mystery of the divine and human natures" (Dante's Purgatorio, 389). We might think of the plaque as a whole as a meditation on this theological duality. At the top the griffin symbolizes the human and divine. At the bottom the green man in pleated gown symbolizes forest and town. And in the center the Virgin Annunciate points us to the Incarnation, the "impossible union / Of spheres of existence [where] past and future / Are conquered, and reconciled.…" ("The Dry Salvages," 216-19).

Below the griffin are two male saints flanking an angel: on the left a saint in a chasuble holding a book and a maquette of a church, and on the right a bishop saint, wearing a mitre and holding a book in the right hand and possibly a now-lost crozier in the left. In Croatia St. Jerome is often pictured with a maquette of a church, but the present figure lacks that saint's usual attributes (lion, cardinal's hat). The other figure could be any bishop saint. Neither figure is likely to be St. Maurus, the martyred patron saint of Poreč, because neither has a palm branch.

If this is indeed an Annunciation we can date the plaque as 14th century or later, because it was in the 14th that western Annunciations started giving the Virgin Annunciate a gesture of humility like the one seen here.

The shield below the central frame features vertical stripes of two alternating "colors." It is reminiscent of the two-stripe shield of Poreč, at right, where the basilica is located.
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Photographed at the basilica by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.