The Holy Ampulia

No, you’re not seeing things.  The word is spelled differently.  There are three common spellings.  One is French, I’ll let you figure out which:  “Ampulia”  “Ampulla”  and “Ampoule”.  Have fun and hit the books…or internet! 

The Holy Ampoule, was and is, a real object and an entire legend grew around this object. 

The Legend, known as the Legend of the Baptism of the Moribund Pagan, goes like this.

A dying pagan asked for baptism at the hands of St Remigius (Remi). Sadly, there was no oil, known as “the Oil of the Catechumens” or “sacred Chrism” available for the proper administration of the baptismal ceremony. The oil, or myrrh, was and is an important part of the Catholic sacrament of baptism.

The good Sait Remigius directed two empty vials to be placed on an altar and he began to pray.

As he prays before them the two vials miraculously filled with the necessary Oil of the Catechumens and Chrism.

Years later, after St. Remi died, for some reason, during the reign of Charles the Bald, the sepulcher containing the body of St. Remigius is opened.

A man named “Hincmar” was the Archbishop of Reims at the time and present at the opening of the sepulcher. He claimed to have found two small vials with the body, the contents of which gave off an aromatic scent the likes of which was not known to those present. This would have surprised him, as the expectation was for a…well, a dead corpse.

When St Remigius died the ancient art of perfumery was still known and practiced. This skill had nearly disappeared as the Roman Empire collapsed and was pretty much unknown in the Carolingian empire four hundred years later.

These vials may have originally simply contained unguents (strong perfumes) used to cover the scent of decay of St Remigius’s corpse during his funeral. However, 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.

Hincmar, no dummy and trying to drum up a little business at the abbey as it were, combined the three unique facts into a new legend. Hincmar mixed the discovery of these two vials and their unique fragrance with the Legend of the Baptism of the Moribund Pagan and the historical memory of St Remigius baptizing King Clovis into a new legend. He claimed one of these vials as the actual vial of Chrism used at the baptism of Clovis. Thus, a new legend, the “Legend of the Holy Ampulla” was created.

Hincmar then used this new legend to strengthen his claim that his own archepiscopal see of Reims, as the possessor of this heaven-sent Chrism, should be recognized as the divinely chosen site for all subsequent anointing of French kings. Naturally, Reims real estate prices went through the roof. Sadly, the ampoules went missing thereafter.

A few hundred years later, an ampoule, a vial of Roman glass about 1½ inches tall, was “discovered” at Reims. Amazingly, this was just 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 was the same ampoule used in the baptism of Clovis I, the first Frankish king converted to Christianity. Thereafter, this ampoule was kept in the Abbey of Saint-Remi, Reims. Again, the priests and real estate agents of the time were happy. The ampoule was brought to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Reims at each coronation. Naturally, for the priests, the unction was the big event, not the crowning.

Sadly, the vial was publically destroyed during the Revolution.  Happily, the pieces were recovered and are on display in the Louvre.