Reliquary Cross

Reliquary Cross, ca. 1180
Made in, Limoges, France
Silver gilt, rock crystal, glass cabochons; wood core
Overall (w/ tang): 11 3/4 x 4 15/16 x 1 in. (29.8 x 12.5 x 2.5 cm) Overall (w/o tang): 10 x 4 15/16 x 1 in. (25.4 x 12.5 x 2.5 cm), Metalwork
Purchase, Michel David-Weill Gift, The Cloisters Collection, and Mme. Robert Gras Gift, in memory of Dr. Robert Gras, 2002
Accession Number: 2002.18

Eastern relics were long-desired by the Catholic faithful in the West because of the connection they had to the holiest people and places in the history of Christianity. Some of the most sought-after relics were pieces of the True Cross on which Jesus was believed to have been crucified.  There were a finite number of slivers in existence, and most of them remained in Jerusalem and the East in the twelfth century.

A double-arm reliquary cross in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been attributed to a workshop from the Limoges region in France and dated to the late twelfth century, approximately 1180.  On the front of the reliquary, a piece of the True Cross is contained within a rectangular metal frame at the upper crossing, and is visible through an incised double-arm cross shape Also included, and identified through inscriptions that run the length of the reliquary and its arms, are: pieces of the Holy Sepulcher and Mary’s tomb; relics of the Holy Innocents; a relic of St. Apollinaris, who was a first-century saint born in Antioch and the first Bishop of Ravenna; a relic of St. Vincent, a third-century deacon killed during Valerian’s persecution of the Christians; a relic of St. Hermes, an early church deacon killed during Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians; a piece of hair from St. Stephen, who was one of twelve disciples to care for the secular needs of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem; a relic from Bethlehem; and a stone from Calvary.  Of the ten relics in total, it appears that eight would have been visible to the viewer by means of transparent rock crystal, or through pierced openings such as the cross or circles in the gilt silver overlay.

Double-arm in form and covered with glass “gems” and inset relics, this small reliquary cross thus appears to “bridge” Byzantium and the West.  The surface decoration, consisting of pearled metal edges, engraved concentric circles, glass “gems” and faience gives the cross a decidedly western aesthetic and is consistent with objects from twelfth-century Limoges, but Byzantine qualities are equally prominent.  For example, the double-arm shape is typical of crosses made in the East and is not usually seen in the Latin West.  Additionally, the ten relics inset throughout the cross are ones associated with sites in the Holy Land.  To further complicate matters, many of these sites were under the control of the Latin West in the twelfth century.

The transition in medieval worship from concealing holy objects, to gazing upon them, to ultimately holding them close to the body, had an impact on the form of such reliquaries, including their size and the inclusion of visible or “exposed” relics.  This shift in the preferred method of “seeing” resulted from the nature of relics themselves.  Gazing upon individual strands of hair, bits of cloth, and miniscule slivers of the cross would not have necessarily moved one to have a transcendental experience.  Conversely, reliquaries, in their most elaborate forms made of gold, silver and brightly colored glass, would have been a substitute for such a visually lackluster relic.  The unimpressive visual aspect of smaller relic fragments may have contributed to the development of even more beautiful, more stunning containers.  The colorful gems and shining metal would have captured the gaze, encouraging all who looked upon them to contemplate the sacred contents within.  There was a fine line, though, a contradiction because while it was important to consider the holy relics inside the stunning object, the ultimate goal was to have a divine, other-worldly experience sparked by the contents but not the container. The practice of holding the objects close to the body provided an additional layer of “seeing”.  Rather than becoming transfixed by the container instead of the contained relics by way of the eyes, the faithful moved the relics closer to the body for a corporeal experience of the divine.  This was not a completely new idea, as discussed earlier by Egeria and other eastern chroniclers; however, it became more common in practice in the East and West during the twelfth century when this cross was made.

- JK for MOBIA

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