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Holy Ampulla

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Musée Picardie Médiéval 01

Late Carolingian ivory relief, c. 870, with the dove of the Holy spirit delivering the Sainte Ampoule at bottom.

The Holy Ampulla or Holy Ampoule (Sainte Ampoule in French) was a glass vial which, from its first recorded use, by Pope Innocent II for the anointing of Louis VII in 1131 to the coronation of Louis XVI in 1774, held the chrism or anointing oil for the coronation of the kings of France.

The role played by the Sainte Ampoule in the sacre of the kings of France is specified in a document of ca 1260, recently republished and examined in detail.[1]

The ampoule, a vial of Roman glass about 1½ inches tall, came to light at Reims in time for the coronation of Louis VII in 1131. The legend that was associated with it at that time, asserted that it had been discovered in the sarcophagus of Saint Remi and identified it with the baptism of Clovis I, the first Frankish king converted to Christianity; it was kept thereafter in the Church of Saint-Remi, Reims and brought with formality to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Reims at each coronation, where the emphasis was on the unction rather than on the crowning.[2] As C. Meredith Jones remarked, in reviewing Sir Francis Oppenheimer's monograph of the Holy Ampulla,[3] "It gained a reputation for holiness and authenticity that brought fame, wealth and great honours to the see of Reims."

An order of knights named after the ampoule, the Knights (later Barons) of the Holy Ampulla was created for the coronation of kings. The ampoule was destroyed in 1793 by French revolutionaries, when the Convention sent Philippe Rühl to smash the ampoule publicly on the pedestal of the statue of Louis XV.[4] In time for the coronation of Charles X in 1824, a small amount alleged to be the chrism was brought forward and featured in the ceremony: its authenticity relies on the credibility of a witness of the destruction by Rühl who asserted that some of the oil adhered to his clothing and he ensured its preservation. The Bishop of Laon held the right to carry the Holy Ampoule during the coronation ceremony. Only three of the kings who ruled between Louis the Pious and Charles X were not anointed with holy oil at Reims Cathedral.

History and legends

Legend of the Baptism of the Moribund Pagan

There was an early legend associated with St Remigius known as the Legend of the Baptism of the Moribund Pagan, according to which a dying pagan asked for baptism at the hands of St Remigius (Remi), but when it was found that there was no Oil of the Catechumens or sacred Chrism available for the proper administration of the baptismal ceremony, St Remigius ordered two empty vials be placed on an altar and as he prays before them these two vials miraculously filled respectively with the necessary Oil of the Catechumens and Chrism. Apparently when the sepulcher containing the body of St. Remi was opened in the reign of Charles the Bald and while Hincmar was the Archbishop of Reims, two small vials were found, the contents of which gave off a aromatic scent the likes of which was like nothing known to those present. When St Remigius died the ancient art of perfumery was still known and practiced in the collapsing Roman Empire, but was unknown in the Carolingian empire four hundred years later. These vials may have originally simply have bottles of unguents used to cover the scent of decay of St Remigius’s corpse during his funeral, but the memory of the two vials miraculously filled in the story of the Baptism of the Moribund Pagan and the unusual, seemingly otherworldly scents issuing from these two vials found buried with St Remigius combined to suggest to those present that these two vials were the miraculously-filled vials of the legend. It should be remembered as well that it was not uncommon for chalices, patens and other sacred vessels to be buried with high ranking clergymen.

Legend of the Holy Ampulla

Hincmar, adroitly combined the discovery of these two vials with their unique, unearthly fragrance, the Legend of the Baptism of the Moribund Pagan and the historical memory that St Remigius had baptized Clovis into a new legend identifying one of these vials as the actual vial of Chrism used at the baptism of Clovis to create the new Legend of the Holy Ampulla, (i.e., that the Chrism used by Remigius when he baptized Clovis was miraculously supplied by heaven itself) which Hincmar then used to strengthen his claim that his own archepiscopal see of Reims-—as the possessor of this heaven-sent Chrism—-should therefore be recognized as the divinely chosen site for all subsequent anointings of French kings. The fate of the second vial is uncertain. It has been suggested that since in the original form of the legend this would have been the vial containing the Oil of the Catechumens and that the French coronation ordinals prescribe the Oil of the Catechumens, rather than Chrism, for the anointing of queens, it was subsequently used for anointing the queens of France and it is possible that a vial currently identified by some of the Bourbon Legitimists as the Holy Ampulla is actually this second vial.

Coronation of the Kings of England

The coronation regalia of the Kings of England includes an ampulla which is believed to be the one first used in the coronation of Henry IV in 1399. According to legend it was made to contain the oil presented by the Virgin Mary in a vision seen by St Thomas of Canterbury. It is accompanied by a golden spoon which is certainly of the 13th century. It is likely though not certain that the ampulla, an eagle crafted in pure gold, escaped destruction in 1643 when most of the regalia were destroyed or sold.[5]


  1. Le Goff, Jacques; et al. Le sacre royal à l'époque de Saint-Louis d'après le manuscrit latin 1246 de la BNF (French)
  2. See Jean-Claude Bonne 2001, examining the coronation ordines from Charlemagne to Charles V, who commissioned a Livre du sacre.
  3. C. Meredith Jones, reviewing Sir Francis Oppenheimer's The Legend of the Ste. Ampoule (London: Faber & Faber) 1953, in Speculum, 29, 3 (July 1954: 600-602); p. 601.
  4. "Sa puanteur voyage". Groupe de Paris. Retrieved 27 December 2009.  (French)
  5. Tanner, L. E. (1953) "The Story of the Regalia", in: Country Life; pp. 52-61
  • Oppenheimer, Sir Francis (1953) The Legend of the Ste. Ampoule. London: Faber & Faber

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