The Wallace Collection

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The Horn of Saint Hubert
The Conversion of St Hubert, by the Master of the Life of the Virgin, Cologne, c.1480-85.  Courtesy Trustees of the National Gallery
The Conversion of St Hubert, by the Master of the Life of the Virgin, Cologne, c.1480-85. Courtesy Trustees of the National Gallery
Treasure of the Month - July 2005

The Horn of Saint Hubert

Saint Hubert (AD 656-727) was the son of the Duke of Aquitaine and led a wealthy and self-indulgent life, including an ardent passion for the chase.

On Good Friday 683 he was in the Forest of Ardennes when he found himself facing the vision of a stag bearing a crucifix between its antlers. This caused Hubert to renounce his dukedom, to take holy orders and to live for a time as a hermit in the forest, before becoming Bishop of Tongres, then of Liège. During the 15th century the cult of Saint Hubert became popular, especially in those parts of Germany and the Low Countries in and around the Ardennes. The horn which, as a huntsman, Hubert would have been carrying when he experienced his vision became one of the most popular relics of the saint and is prominent in a late 15th-century painting depicting his conversion. Even today no fewer than four purported ‘Horns of St Hubert’ survive!

Unquestionably the most beautiful and historically important is the decorated horn in the Wallace Collection, bought by Sir Richard Wallace in 1879 from the comte de Scey, who in 1869 had inherited the chapel in which the horn had been kept, with only one interruption, since the late 15th century. Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (1433-1477) had received the horn as a gift in 1468 from the Bishop of Liège, where the horn had supposedly long been kept as one of the saint’s relics. At his castle of Chauvirey in the Haute Saône, Charles built a splendid gothic chapel to house the horn, which was hung from one of the pillars. He must also have ordered the embellishment of the horn with relief decoration in gesso duro (hardened plaster), bands of enamelled silver and, near the mouth, a band of gold thread decoration.

The horn remained in the Chapel for the succeeding four centuries, with the exception of a period of ten years following the invasion of the Franche Comté by Louis XIII in 1636. The horn was then removed for safekeeping, being entrusted to an order of nuns at the local town of Gray. When peace returned the nuns refused to hand back the horn, the then Lord of Chauvirey being forced to appeal, successfully, to the local Parliament. It is said that before handing over the horn the nuns removed one of the original three bands of silver ornament. However, far more damage was done to the delicate relief decoration by a subsequent misguided attempt to protect the horn. This was the fashioning, probably by the local village blacksmith some time in the 18th century, of a crude iron case in the form of a hunting horn, in which the horn was from then on kept. This also survives in the Wallace Collection (No.A1335, European Armoury III).

Although much damaged, the decoration of the horn remains beautiful and repays close study. The Horn of St Hubert is one of the most significant surviving examples of the patronage of the wealthy Dukes of Burgundy. Its special quality was evidently recognised by Sir Richard Wallace who was praised by the Goncourt brothers for having acquired the horn ‘not just because of the work of art but because of the history it brings with it.’

Further Reading

  • James Mann, ‘The Horn of St. Hubert’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol.92 (June 1950), pp.161-165
  • James Mann, Wallace Collection Catalogues: European Arms and Armour, London 1962, pp.622-623
  • Paula Hardwick, Discovering Horn, Guildford 1981