A Medieval Silver Seal Matrix - St John the Baptist


A superb example of an early English seal matrix, made of silver which has been engraved with the head of St John the Baptist on a platter along with an inscription.  This very rare example is a joy to behold and the preservation is remarkable given its age. It is thought that it was a devotional piece with the intention of allying the owner with the love of St John.

Seal Details

 The oval matrix has a step-edged reverse with a soldered loop. The matrix is deeply cut with the bearded head of St John the Baptist in a bowl, on a scallop-edged platter. The rim has a Lombardic inscription and beaded borders.

 The legend reads capvd – bap[tis]te (‘head of the Baptist’)/ amor – ioh[ann]i (‘the love of John’).

 A manuscript accompanying the matrix reads:

 The seal was found near Ladies’ well or the Friars as it is also called near Burnham Norton Norfolk: a Priory of White Friars or Carmelites founded about 1241 by Ralph de Herrenhale & Sir William de Calthorpe. The …ance of which at the dissolution was granted to William Lord Cobham & estimated at £2. 5. 4. Robert Boyle the historian was Prior of this house & interred here in the time of Henry 7. The ruins are still extensive & have formerly been connected with the Church, about ¼ mile distant & also with the remains of an old well wh. was built with stone, the same as the Friars & is to be seen at the bottom of a deep pit wh. was excavated for the purpose of …ing marl. The sea about 100 years ago came what is now a … stream within 2 or 300 yds of the spot. The seal was ploughed up at Burnham & given to Sir Roger Martin owner of Market Burnham & then given to Mrs D ... bleton.

Inscription round the Seal, Amor Johannis, Caput Baptiste.

Copied from …’s statement. Long Down. Aug. 22. 1879.

The north Norfolk provenance might connect the seal with the relic of the Baptist’s head at Trimingham, near Cromer, and also with the medieval sculptured alabaster tablets called Saint John’s Heads. The alabaster heads were depicted full face on a charger with a broad rim, but the type seen here, with the addition of the Hand of God above, was used on the gemset seal of John de Middleton, citizen of London, in 1306 (National Archives, E42/83). The popular cult of the head of St John the Baptist stemmed from Amiens, which held the main relic of the head, but alabaster heads of the saint were known to have been venerated in Norfolk, both at Horsham St Faith and at Trimingham, where the parish church is still curiously called the church of St John the Baptist’s Head.

 It has been suggested that the legend may mean ‘devotion [amor] to the head of St John the Baptist’, or that there may be a double meaning in the second part, including ‘for the love of John’.

Seal Specifications:

English, circa 1300.

Height: 14 mm.

Height of matrix: 26 mm.

Weight: 8 gr.