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Seal matrix

Seal matrix

  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)
    Pisa, Italy (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1350 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    unknown (production)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    copper alloy

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

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The inscription identifies this seal matrix as that of the Pisan division of the Franciscan order.Both religous and secular institutions used seal matrices to produce wax impressions with their unique emblem. These seal impressions were then attached to different types of legal document to signify approval, thereby authenticating them, just as a signature functions today.

Ecclesiastical seals would have been used by individual officers within the Church and by all religious institutions, for instance cathedrals, monasteries and abbeys. The Virgin Mary was a very popular subject on seals, both for individuals and institutions.As well as images of the Virgin Mary or of Christ, ecclesiastical institutions often used images of their patron saint, or their coats of arms on their seals.

Physical description

Copper alloy seal matrix with modern red silicon impression. Within the oval form the Virgin Mary is seated, supported by two angels on either side. Holding her hands together in prayer, she grasps one end of a cord, the other end of which is tied around the waist of a monk below her. This monk, looking upwards towards the Virgin, sits inside a small boat next to his companion, also a monk, who paddles the boat with a small oar. At the lower edges an inscription in Latin '+ S(IGILLUM)CUSTODIE PISANE O(R)DI(NI)S MI(N)OR(UM)' ('Seal of the Custodia of Pisa of the Franciscan Order').

Place of Origin

Italy (made)
Pisa, Italy (possibly, made)


ca. 1350 (made)


unknown (production)

Materials and Techniques

copper alloy

Marks and inscriptions



Height: 5.4 cm matrix, Height: 5.6 cm impression, Width: 3.2 cm matrix, Width: 3.5 cm impression, Depth: 1.4 cm matrix, Depth: 0.5 cm impression

Object history note


This seal was made for and belonged to the Franciscan Order of Pisa

Historical significance: This seal clearly forms part of a group of very similar design and date made in Siena for Sienese and Tuscan religious homes: See Elizabeth Cioni, 1981

This object is an example of an ecclesiastical seal. These seals survive most commonly in the shape of a pointed oval. Ecclesiastical seals were used both by individual offices within the Church, such as archbishop or abbot, and by religious institutions like monasteries and abbeys. The Franciscan order of Pisa owned this matrix. Although it cannot be specifically identified, the iconography of the seal is in keeping with the imagery of ecclesiastical seals in the medieval period. The Virgin Mary was a popular subject for depiction. Monasteries often included images of their patron saint, or senior members of their order upon their seals.

The Franciscan Order (Officially known as the Ordo Fratrum Minorum, the ‘Order of the Little Brothers’), was founded by Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). The friars of the order followed a lifestyle of poverty and rejected worldly possessions. Unlike many other impoverished preachers of the period, St Francis and his followers were strictly Orthodox and upheld all aspects of Christian Doctrine. (David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 1978, pp.157-160)

Historical context note

Seal matricies, made of base or precious metal, are used to stamp an impression into wax. Motifs were carved into a metal matrix, which was pressed into softened wax to leave the reverse of the carved image. Wax seals were placed at the end of documents (or occasionally suspended from ribbons or thongs of parchment) to authenticate them, and served the same function as a signature. Individuals, institutions and officers of State all used seals.

Seals were made up of two elements; motifs (known as types) and inscriptions (called legends). These elements identified the owner of the seal through the use of image and word. A king for example, might use the image of his personal coat of arms with an inscription of his name on his seal. Each combination of type and legend was unique, which meant that seals provided good proof that a document was genuine.

Seals were used both by laymen and churchmen. As they were valuable items for authentication, they were often kept for safety in the possession of important members of office. The Keeper of the Privy Seal for example, held the personal seal of the King of England from 14th century onwards. Many seal matricies, including this example, have pierced loops at the back from which the matrix could be suspended around the neck or attached to a girdle.

Descriptive line

Copper alloy, depicting the Virgin Mary and two friars sitting in a boat, inscribed in Latin; Italy,.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

M. Campbell, 'Oreficeria e Smalti Translucidi nei secoli XIVe XV' in Bolletino D'Arte Supp. AL No. 43, 1988, Instituto Poligrafico e Zeccadello Stato, Roma
Elizabeth Cioni, Sigilli Medievali Senesi, Florence , 1981
M. Campbell, Medieval Jewellery in Europe 1100- 1500, London 2009, pp. 103 - 5
Cooper, Donal and Chiara Frugoni. The Seal of the Pisan Franciscans in the V&A. Predella, vol. 27, 2010.
The article speculates on the source of the iconography of the seal. The authors are unable to identify a precise relationship between the scene on the seal and the miracles of St Francis as recorded in the surviving literature. However, they stress that the link between the Franciscans and maritime activity means the iconography is entirely appropriate to a seal made for a Franciscan community.

Labels and date

Bronze. + S'CUSTODIE PISANE O[R]DI[NI]S M[A]IOR Seal of the franciscan wardenry of Pisa. Italian; ca. 1350 [1980]



Subjects depicted

Mary (Virgin Mary); Angels; Boat; Monks


Metalwork; Religion; Christianity

Collection code


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