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Seal matrix

Seal matrix

  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)
    Pisa (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1350 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    copper alloy

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10, case 2

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 (possibly, made)


ca. 1350 (made)



Materials and Techniques

copper alloy

Marks and inscriptions

'Seal of the Custodia of Pisa of the Francisan Order'


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This seal matrix was originally made for the Franciscan Order of Pisa. Other seals of very similar design and date were made in Siena for Sienese and Tuscan religious homes (see Elizabeth Cioni, 1981). The pointed oval shape of this matrix is typical of ecclesiastical seals. Ecclesiastical seals were used to authenticate documents issued by individual offices within the Church, such as the office of the archbishop or abbot, and by religious institutions like monasteries and abbeys. Monasteries often included images of their patron saint, or of senior members of their order upon their seals. The iconography of this seal is complex. Recent research has shown it refers to a vision of Aimone of Faversham, who was appointed Minister General of the Franciscan Order in England in 1240. Aimone had been moved to join the Order in 1222, after he beheld a vision when praying before a cross in Faversham church. He saw a knotted cord lowered from heaven; he grasped the cord and was raised up into heaven. The long, knotted cord is the belt worn by St Francis and by the friars of his Order; it also symbolises Francis' holy life and the rules of his Order. On the seal matrix, the boat in which Aimone stands represents the activities of the Fransican Order itself as it calmly preaches Christian doctrine and is also lifted to heaven by the example of St Francis and the rules of his Order (Frugoni: 2015).

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.
Frugoni, Chiara, 'Matrice di un sigillo della Custodia francescana pisana', catalogue entry, in: Angelo Tartuferi and Francesco D'Arelli, eds, L'Arte di Francesco: Capolavori d'arte italiana e terre d'Asia dal XIII al XV secolo. [Catalogue of the exhibition held 31 March - 11 October 2015, Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence]. Florence: Giunti, 2015. ISBN 978 88 09 80801 0
Frugoni, Chiara. 'Una nuova interpretazione di un sigillo della custodia francescana pisana', in M. Gronchi and M. Soriani Innocenti, eds, Societas et universitas. Miscellanea di scritti offerti a don Severino Dianich. Pisa: 2012, pp. 187-91.

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

Angels; Boat; Monks


Christianity; Religion; Metalwork


Metalwork Collection

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