Scenes from Roman, Jewish, Christian and Germanic tradition
When it came to light in the nineteenth century, this magnificent rectangular casket was being used as a family workbox at Auzon, France. Some time during its mysterious history it was dismantled and one end panel was separated from the rest of the box. This piece was bequeathed to the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, and is represented here by a cast. The remaining panels were presented to the British Museum by one of its greatest benefactors, Sir Augustus Franks, after whom the casket is named. It is also known as the Auzon casket.
The box is made of whalebone, richly carved on the sides and lid in high relief with a range of scenes and accompanying texts in both the runic and Roman alphabets, and in both Old English and Latin. Silver fittings attached to the casket, a handle, locks and hinges, were removed at some time in its history, leaving scars which mark their original positions. The non-decorated part of the lid almost certainly replaces a carved piece, and part of the plain base is also missing.
The front (above) is divided into two scenes: the left is derived from the Germanic legend of Weland the Smith, while the right depicts the Adoration of the Magi, when the three wise men visited the newborn Christ, labelled "mægi" in runes.
The left-hand end shows the founders of Rome identified in the accompanying text as Romulus and Remus, from the legend of twin brothers brought up by a wolf.
The back shows the capture of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. by the Roman Emperor Titus. This scene has an inscription in mixed languages and scripts.
The right-hand end, here a cast, is difficult to interpret, but recalls a lost Germanic legend with a text partly in encoded runes. This appears to describe a person called Hos sitting upon the "sorrow-mound." The decorated panel in the lid shows another Germanic story about a hero named Ægili who is shown defending a fortification from armed raiders.
Surprisingly, the main runic inscription on the front does not refer to the scene it surrounds. It is a riddle in Old English relating to the origin of the casket. It can be translated as "The fish beat up the seas on to the mountainous cliff; the King of terror became sad when he swam onto the shingle." This is then answered with the solution "Whale’s bone." It tells us that the casket was made from the bone of a beached whale.
The style of the carving, and dialect of the inscriptions, show that the casket was made in northern England, probably in a monastery, and possibly for a learned patron. Made at a time when Christianity had not long been established in England, it reflects a strong interest in how the pagan Germanic past might relate to Christ’s message, and to the histories of Rome and Jerusalem. How and when the casket arrived in France is unknown, although by the thirteenth century it seems to have been at the important shrine of St Julian at Brioude in the Auvergne.
L. Webster, Anglo-Saxon art: A new history (London, British Museum Press, 2012).
S. Marzinzik, Masterpieces: Early medieval art (London, British Museum Press, 2013).
L. Webster, The Franks Casket (London, British Museum Objects in Focus, British Museum Press, 2012).
M. Bagnoli, H. Klein, C. G. Mann and J. Robinson, Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe (London, British Museum Press, 2011).
© Trustees of the British Museum