Relics & Reliquaries

Reliquary Cross

The British Museum, London
Copyright © The Trustees of the British Museum

Reliquary Cross Front

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These objects constitute the long-separated front and back of a Mosan cross reliquary. The London cross is composed of champlevé enamel plaques with cloisonné details, decorated with gem stones. Five Old Testament scenes interpreted as prefiguring Christ's Crucifixion are interspersed with decorative plaques of four-leafed flowers within lozenges, edged with colored stones. At top: Moses and Aaron flank a serpent raised on a column (Exod. 7:9–10); left: Elijah and the widow of Sarepta, who makes a cross with her two sticks (1 Kings 17:12); center: Jacob, who forms a cross with his arms, blesses Joseph's sons Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48:13–14); right: the slaughtered lamb of the Passover lies in a doorway marked above the frame with a Tau (T, which symbolizes the cross) (Exod. 12:12); bottom: two spies identified as Caleph and Joshua share the load of a bunch of grapes from the Promised Land (Num. 13:24; 14:6).

The back of the cross, in the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin, shows five scenes from the account (in the Golden Legend) of St. Helena's discovery of the True Cross. The left terminal, a replica of the original (lost in 1945), shows Helena crowned and seated and holding a scepter, questioning Judas on the whereabouts of the True Cross; right: Helena orders Judas Cyriacus to be subjected to trial by fire; bottom: Helena oversees four men (Judas is the bearded figure) digging three crosses from the ground with spades; center: St. Helena and four men identify which of the three is the True Cross by resurrecting a man from the dead; top: the True Cross stands on an altar as Helena prostrates herself before it. Joined, the pieces may have been intended to hold a relic of the True Cross.

The twelfth century was the high point of goldsmithing in the Meuse region of Belgium. The London and Berlin crosses have been attributed to the workshop of Godefroid of Huy, a goldsmith who was attached to the court of the emperors Lothair II (r. 1125–37) and Conrad III (r. 1138–52). A similar style of enameling can be found in plaques showing Helena and the finding of the True Cross on the Stavelot Triptych in the Pierpont Morgan Library.

Naomi C. Speakman