Relics & Reliquaries

Reliquary of the True Cross

The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Reliquary of the True Cross

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Purported fragments of the True Cross were brought to western Europe from the Holy Land and the Byzantine Empire throughout the Middle Ages, and their popularity appears to have increased with the greater contact between these regions during the Crusades. Reliquaries of the True Cross were sometimes made in the shape of a cross, and in this example, which is missing its back plate, a cavity near the base of the cross held the relic, accessible through a small cruciform opening. In the twelfth century, enamel work flourished in the monastic workshops of the Meuse River valley, and these Mosan enamels have a distinct style, differing from Limoges works in many details. One compositional feature common to many Mosan works is the use of figures arranged in groups of four—for example, the four Evangelists or personifications of the four cardinal virtues. This cross features a rare, if not unique, group of four virtues: Hope is shown at the top of the cross with a chalice and communion wafer; Faith is on the right cross arm, with a baptismal font; Obedience is at the base, holding a cross through which the relic would have been visible; and Innocence is on the left arm, holding the sacrificial lamb associated with Christ. The cross itself is green, a reference to the tree of life, against a background of colorful stars. Here, the cross of the Crucifixion is presented as both a cosmological metaphor for the universe, as it was understood by many of the early Greek Fathers of the Church, and also as a moral instrument, demonstrating the virtues of Christ, an interpretation favored by the early Latin Fathers. These two ways of understanding the cross, here brought together visually, were also intermingled in the writings of many medieval theologians.

Kathryn B. Gerry