Guilhem, a relative of Charlemagne, was a celebrated soldier and adventurer. His legend purports that the city of Orange in France had fallen under Muslim control (a historical inaccuracy) and that Guilhem was determined to retake it. His mission was fueled by Guilhem's passion for the famously beautiful Muslim queen Orable. To gain access to the palace of the "Saracens" (as Europeans then called Muslims), he disguised himself as a messenger in the service of their king.
After a lavish dinner, a game of chess, and a first meeting with the beloved queen, Guilhem's true identity was discovered, and he was thrown in prison. Guilhem's fellow Franks came quickly to his aid. They pitched their tents outside the gates of Orange and breached the city's defenses by traveling single file through the secret, subterranean passageways that the queen had informed them of. A pitched battle ensued, culminating in Guilhem's dramatic rescue.
The text of the legend combines envy of the splendor and sophistication of the Muslim court with disturbing, unabashed anti-Muslim sentiment. However, I find more subtle and important themes manifest in the coffret, underpinning the history of our cloister.
On the coffret, vibrant reds bring the clashes of armies to life; there is confusion, even a sense of cacophony, but it is difficult to distinguish the Franks from the "Saracens." The helmets may be different, but beneath their protective headgear, the men are much the same. With splotches of orange paint, the artist makes it clear that war causes all men to bleed indiscriminately.
On the sloping lid of the back of the box, the Saracen Prince Aragon and Count Bertrand, a nephew of Guilhem, battle. The end is near: the Saracen reels from the blow and has lost his stirrup. But, importantly, the artist presents the men as worthy opponents, each astride a fine horse.
On the opposite, front side of the lid, a knight stabs a two-headed beast. Does it represent an unrecognized chapter of Guilhem's legend? In purely visual terms, it conveys the savagery of battle.
The legend of Guilhem depicted on the coffret ends here, but the final chapters of his life story are key to the history of our cloister. Following his dramatic rescue at Orange, Guilhem, predictably, married the Muslim queen, had children, and fought more battles. Decades later and—according to the legend—after the death of his beloved wife, Guilhem unequivocally renounced his militaristic past, dramatically laying his shield on the altar of a church.
The legend tells us with both sensitivity and humor that adjustment to a new lifestyle was not easy. Determined to be a monk, Guilhem learned to read, but he struggled to tame his voracious appetite for food and drink. His fellow monks mocked him and conspired against the once mighty warrior. Ultimately, his better nature triumphed, and Guilhem lived out his days as a hermit in the dramatic rocky terrain beyond Montpellier.
There, says the legend: "Sir William the worthy intends to serve and honour almighty God for the sins which encumber his soul…. In a few months he has [his dwelling] well repaired and enclosed and surrounded by a courtyard where he plants many trees and herbs."
By Barbara Drake Boehm, Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator for The Met Cloisters
Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York