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Altar Cross

  • Object:

    Altar cross

  • Place of origin:

    Mosan (made)

  • Date:

    ca.1250 with later addition (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    de Oignies, Hugo (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Wooden core, with silver-gilt sheets, and openwork, chased copper-gilt, precious stones, glass, illumination on vellum

  • Museum number:

    244-1874

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 8, The William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery, case 21

This reliquary cross is in a style associated with the priory of St Nicholas, at Oignies-sur-Sambe, near Namur (Belgium). Three brothers (Gilles, Robert and Jean) from a wealthy family in Walcourt (15 miles south-west of Oignies) founded the priory in 1192 - all three became priests, and Gilles became the priory's first prior.

Hugo d'Oignies, the fourth brother, became a goldsmith and devoted himself to enriching the priory church with his own goldsmith's work. Three works linked specifically to Hugo by inscriptions survive at the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Namur. The last signed work is dated 1228, and he is thought to have died in c.1240.

We do not know the original home of this cross. It does not seem to have been at Oignies, at least by 1628, as it is not included in the inventory of that date.

We know that the cross is related to works by Hugo, as the same stamps have been used for its openwork foliage decoration as on works with his inscriptions. From the number of surviving products associated with him, it seems likely that Hugo had a fairly major workshop, with several goldsmiths besides himself.

The use of miniatures on vellum under glass as decoration is relatively unusual for contemporary metalwork, though it is found on other works associated with Hugo. Their bright colours and strong use of gold, with black outlines, echo the enamels which one might have expected.

Physical description

The cross is of regular form, with a three-part terminal to each arm in the form of a fleur-de-lis. It has a wooden core.

On the front, the wood is covered with sheets of silver-gilt. These are overlaid by openwork silver-gilt, stamped with dies, in an intertwining design of small flowers, fruits and leaves, through which the lower sheet of silver-gilt can be seen. Several small holes are visible in the lower sheet, perhaps indicating the original position fastening pins which have since been lost. This surface is set with amethysts, cornelians and a sapphire. Two stones were missing in the Arundel Society 1868 photograph and in 1921, when Mitchell wrote his Burlington article - now 3 are missing. The crosses catalogue lists 15 amethysts, 10 cornelians and a sapphire - now there appear to be 14 amethysts, 11 cornelians and a sapphire.

At the end of each arm is a roundel with an illuminated miniature on vellum under glass. These miniatures are in excellent condition - each has a coloured painted border, and strong black outlines. The left-hand arm shows the Virgin and Child, the right-hand arm the Nativity, the top shows the Three Maries at the Sepulchre, and the bottom shows the Flagellation. The terminal on each arm is separated from the main body of the cross by a stamped border with decoration in the form of flowers, leaves and bunches of grapes.

Halfway down each arm is a square piece of vellum under glass containing a description of the relics beneath, written in ink, which is now partly red and partly a faded black colour (see Marks and Inscriptions for full texts).

At the centre of the cross is a small cross-shaped opening, edged with beaded decoration. Over this has been placed a silver-gilt(?) later cross, held in place by two pins, which fit into sockets. This cover has a sapphire set centrally, and an engraved letter on each arm. Readings vary hugely: Pollon has (from the left) a, m, b, v, ('Ave Maria beata Virgo'); Mitchell has m.a.a.h ('maria hulp' - ie Mary Help); the cross catalogue suggests m.a.r.i.a. – on examination Mitchell’s assessment appears to be the correct one.

A decorative beaded border runs round all edges of the front.

The reverse is covered with chased gilt copper, pinned in place with mostly later pins – the copper may have been re-gilded. The arms have scrolling vine decoration, which surrounds a figure of Christ in Majesty in the centre. He holds up a globe/orb in his left hand and his right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing. The four terminals contain the symbols of the four Evangelists. The lion of St Mark is on the left, the ox of St Luke is on the right, the eagle of St John is at the top, while the angel of St Matthew is at the bottom.

At the bottom of the cross is fastened a later spike, with a hole pierced through it, designed to fit into a shaft or stand.

The sides of the cross are covered in silver sheets, pinned in place. There is a small hole on the underside of each side arm, and also on the top of the upmost fleur-de-lis, which may indicate the attachment of some sort of ornament, now lost.

Place of Origin

Mosan (made)

Date

ca.1250 with later addition (made)

Artist/maker

de Oignies, Hugo (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Wooden core, with silver-gilt sheets, and openwork, chased copper-gilt, precious stones, glass, illumination on vellum

Marks and inscriptions

m. a. a. h.
Mitchell suggests 'Maria Hulp' [Maria Help]

Right-hand side:
Reliq[uia]e s. philippi/.s' mauricii. s' ur/sule v'. s' Basilie/s' Barbare. De ca/pite lucie v. De s./Stephano pthom'r/De s Nicholae c'f
Right-hand side:
Relics of St. Philip, St. Maurice, St. Ursula, virgin, S. Basilia, St. Barbara, from the head of St. Lucy, virgin, of St. Stephen protomartyr, of St. Nicholas, confessor

Bottom:
Reliquie de Sao'/ andrea apl'o. De s/ Egidio. De s' Symo/ne apl'o. De sco' vn'/centio. De s' hub/to et de aliis pli'/m. reliquiis
Bottom:
Relics of St. Andrew, apostle, of St. Egidius, of S. Simon the Apostle, of St. Vincent, of Saint. Hubert and of many other relics

Left-hand side:
De sanguine q. /manuit de ligno/ crucis. De s' fabi/ano. De s' cristi/na. De S' Dioni/sio. De Sepulcro/ b'e marie virg'
Left-hand side:
Of the blood which flowed from the wood of the cross, of St. Fabian, of St Christina, of St Denis, of the tomb of the blessed Virgin Mary

Top:
De capillis et cami/sia b'e v'g. Reliqu'e s lamb'ri. marci euist/ De sangi'e s' stepha/ni prtz. agnetis v'/ Bartholomei. xp'ofo/ cecilie v'gis
Top:
Of the hair and garment of the blessed Virgin, relics of St Lambert, of Mark the Evangelist, of the blood of St Stephen, protomartyr, of Agnes virgin, of Bartholomew, of Christopher,
of Cecilia, virgin.

Dimensions

Height: 51.9 cm without base, Height: 54.3 cm with base, Width: 36.1 cm, Depth: 3.2 cm, Weight: 2.3 kg including base

Object history note

Originally the cross could have been used as an altar cross or a processional cross, by slotting it into different bases.

Its original home is not known. It does not seem to have been at Oignies, at least by 1628, as it is not included in the inventory of that date. Didier points out that the only saint listed among the extensive captions with a local Mosan connection is St Lambert.

A 15th century cover was added to the centre of the cross, to cover the cruciform setting, which 'encloses a relic of woven fabric' (Mitchell, 1921, p.273). On examination in December 2007, a piece of fabric was still contained in this space, along with a small sliver of wood. Mitchell suggests the fabric may have been part of the chemise of St Mary of Oignies, which is listed in the 1648 inventory of the treasury of the priory of Oignies, reproduced at the end of his article. This chemise was used as a charm to help women in childbirth. Presumably a relic of the True Cross had originally occupied this central position.

The cross was bought for £100 by the V&A from the Webb Collection - a note on the file says that it was received in 1867 (possibly as a loan, or for photography for the 1868 Arundel Society publication, in which it is credited as in the Webb Collection). It was not acquired by the museum until 1874.

Examination in December 2007 revealed that the stones on the front of the cross (with the exception of the central sapphire) all show evidence of being subjected to extreme heat. The survival of the painted vellum minatures preclude the possibility that the whole cross was exposed to any great heat - it is possible perhaps that the whole was taken apart at some point in its history, and treated, or that the stones were heated at some point prior to their setting on this object. The exact explanation remains a mystery.

Historical significance: This cross is one of the finest examples of High Gothic art in the V&A's collection. 'It would be hard to find a finer example of the faultless instinct for design of a great period of art' (H. P. Mitchell, Burlington, 1921)

Historical context note

The cross is in a style associated with the priory of St Nicholas, at Oignies-sur-Sambe, near Namur (Belgium). Three brothers (Gilles, Robert and Jean) from a wealthy family in Walcourt (15 miles south-west of Oignies) founded the priory in 1192 - all three became priests, and Gilles became the priory's first prior. [For the history of the priory, see F. Courtoy, Le Trésor du Prieuré d'Oignies aux Soeurs de Notre-Dame a Namur et l'Oeuvre du Frère Hugo, Brussels, 1953].

Hugo d'Oignies, the fourth brother, became a goldsmith and devoted himself to enriching the priory church with his own goldsmith's work. His last signed work is dated 1228, and he is thought to have died in c.1240.

Three pieces, identified by contempororary inscriptions as being by Hugo, survive at the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Namur. Grégoire Pierlot, the last prior of Oignies, gave them the treasures when the priory of St Nicholas was down to its last five aged monks in 1818. The metalwork had survived the French Revolution by being walled up in a local farmer's house, only being retrieved in 1817.

A number of other pieces of metalwork have been associated with the same workshop, often through the use of the same dies for the distinctive openwork decoration. From the number of surviving products, it seems likely that Hugo had a fairly major workshop, with several goldsmiths at work beside (and after?) him. Jacques de Vitry (died c.1240), a Parisian cleric, joined the priory, and later left Belgium (in 1216) to became papal legate to the Fifth crusade, and eventually bishop of St John at Acre. He became a major source of relics for the priory which may have encouraged the production of reliquaries to house them. In an Oignies inventory, a letter of 1224 is listed to de Vitry, concerning relics of the Virgin, John the Apostle and James.

Several double crosses (ie with two crossbars) survive with very similar decoration to the V&A example (eg one in the Basilica of Ste-Materne, Walcourt, near Namur (right arm illustrated in Mitchell's Burlington article, plate V)). The same stamps have been used for the openwork decoration of both crosses, showing that they came from the same workshop.

Another single-barred cross of virtually identical shape to 244-1874 was owned by the Duc d'Aremberg, who exhibited it at Bruges in 1902 and at Liège in 1905 (L'Art ancien au pays de Liège, Catalogue, 1905, cat.18; Album, 1905, vol. III, pl.26, 27). In 2003 it was in the Wildenstein collection, New York, and, exhibited alongside the V&A cross at Namur, proved to be very similar in size and design.

The choice of miniatures on vellum as a decorative motif (as opposed to enamel for example) is relatively unusual in contemporary metalwork, though they appear on the Wildenstein cross with a similar selection of scenes (the Flagellation, and Holy Women at the Sepulchre are repeated). The idea was to emulate the appearance of enamel roundels which were more usual - among pieces linked to the workshop of Hugo d'Oignies, niello plaques are sometimes also used for this (eg the double crossIt would seem likely that the glass has replaced former rock crystal covers - the Arundel Society description describes the relic inscriptions as being under glass by 1868, but is inaccurate in many other respects. Certainly in the 1868 photograph two of the miniatures are crooked (the Virgin and Child and the Flagellation) indicating that they were adjusted in some way after that point.

The upper part of a composite reliquary also in the V&A collection (7946-1862) is thought to be by Hugo.

Descriptive line

Altar Cross, workshop of Hugo d'Oignies, Mosan, ca.1250 with later addition,

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

Entry by Marian Campbell in The Medieval Treasury, ed. Paul Williamson, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1986, pp.176-7
J. H. Pollen, Ancient and Modern Gold and Silver smiths' work in the South Kensington Museum, London, 1878
H. P. Mitchell, 'Some Works by the Goldsmiths of Oignies II', Burlington, December 1921, pp.273-285
Catalogue of crosses (unpublished typescript), kept in V&A Metalwork section, 1935, cat. 6
L'Art ancien au pays de Liège, Catalogue, 1905, cat.18
Autour de Hugo d'Oignies, R. Didier and J. Toussaint (eds.), Namur, 2003, pp.337-340
J. Timmers, 'Hugo d'Oignies en de school van 'entre Sambre-et-Meuse', De kunst van het Maasland, Assen, 1971, p.372
H. Hahnloser, 'Theophilus Presbyter und die Inkunabeln Mittelalterlichen Kristallschliffs an Rhein und Maas', Rhein und Maas: Kunst und Kultur 800-1400, vol. 2, Cologne, 1973, p.288
E. Steingräber, 'Ein Reliquienkreuz im Domschatz von Savona', Pantheon, IV, July 1960, p.201
J. Collon-Gevaert, 'Histoire des arts du metal en Belgique', Académie Royale de Belgique, Classe des Beaux-Arts, Mémoires, tome VII, Brussels, 1951, 2 vols, pp.209-10
J. de Borchgrave d'Altena, 'La Chasse de St Symphorien', Revue Belge d'Archaeologie et d'Histoire d'art, vol. III, 1933, p339
Ecclesiastical Metalwork of the Middle Ages, Arundel Society, 1868, p.4, plate X
Farmer, Sharon. 'Low Country Aescetics and Oriental Luxury', in Rachel Fulston and Bruce W. Holsinger, eds. History in the Comic Mode [Medieval Communities and the Matter of Person]. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. pp. 205-222

Labels and date

ALTAR CROSS
Silver-gilt stamped openwork, set with amethysts and cornelians, and with tablets of glass covering miniature paintings on vellum and lists of relics enclosed in the cross (in the middle a gold cross set with a sapphire has been added in the 15th century). The back of copper gilt engraved with Christ in Majesty, the symbols of the Evangelists, and vine foliage.
Mosan; second quarter of 13th century
From the Webb collection
The stamps used to make this cross are the same as those used to make a cross in the treasury of Walcourt, Belgium. The cross is a notable example of a style which flourished throughout Southern Belgium in the first half of the 13th century. This style is characterised among other things by the use of stamped motifs to build up openwork patterns. Its most famous practitioner is Hugo, who ended his life as a lay-brother working in the Priory of St. Nicholas, Oignies-sur-Sambre, near Namur. []

Production Note

The style of the cross is associated with the Treasury of the Priory of St Nicholas at Oignies-sur-Sambre, near Namur (Belgium), founded in 1192. Namur is on the Meuse river that gives Mosan art its name.
If the cross is not by Hugo himself, it was obviously made by someone familiar with his work, which it closely resembles. The same style was used for a cross and reliquary of St Peter's rib in the treasury of the Basilica of Ste-Materne, Walcourt, near Namur (Didier 2003, pp.204-216).

Didier (Autour de Hugo d'Oignies, 2003) confirms the link with Oignies, through the use of what might be the same stamps for the openwork on the front of the cross as on other works produced at the priory. He points to the strong links between the Wildenstein, Walcourt and V&A crosses, particularly (in the chasing of the Evangelist symbols on the reverse) between the Walcourt and V&A crosses. He suggests that the latter two were made by the same goldsmith (or at least different goldsmiths looking to the same exemplars), while the Wildenstein cross was made by a different goldsmith, but working in the d'Oignies workshop.

Mitchell also discusses attribution in detail in his Burlington article of 1921, linking the V&A cross strongly with the Walcourt cross (they use the same stamps on the openwork decoration). He suggests that they are both products of the Oignies workshop, but of a later date to the gospel book and St Peter's rib reliquary from the Priory of St Nicholas (both authenticated works by Hugo, now in the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Namur). This dating is based both on the openwork decoration, but also on the drapery style of the engraved figures on the reverse of the cross, which is more Gothic in style than that on the authenticated Hugo pieces at Namur.

Collon-Gavaert (1951) agrees with Mitchell that it should be dated later than Hugo's known work because the stamped decoration contains no hunting scenes.

A date in the second quarter of the 13th century has usually been given to the V&A cross, although Didier dated it to 1250-60, because of its very Gothic style. The style of the miniatures would accord with a mid 13th century date.

The form of the letters engraved on the later cross-shaped cover over the crossing indicates that it is probably 15th-century.

Materials

Wood; Silver; Silver gilt; Copper gilt; Vellum; Glass; Cornelian; Amethyst; Sapphire

Techniques

Gilding; Illumination

Categories

Christianity; Ceremonial objects

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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