Or are you looking for Search the Archives?

Please complete the form to email this item.

Altar cross

  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1500 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Silver, parcel-gilt, wood, niello, enamel

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Dr W.L. Hildburgh

  • Museum number:

    M.5-1951

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10, case 12

Altar crosses were placed upon the altar during the mass. Crosses of this type usually featured Christ crucified on the front and Christ in Majesty or the Virgin Mary on the back. The arms of the cross were generally decorated with symbols of the four Evangelists or figures of saints holding the palm of martyrdom or their saintly attributes.

This object reflects the shifting popularity of Christian saints and martyrs in the medieval period. In the early Middle Ages, the saints of the early Church provided the main focus of Christian worship. From the 13th century onwards however, recently canonised saints such as Thomas Becket (1118-70) and St Francis (1181-1226) grew in popularity and displaced some of the more traditional saints. For medieval people, the 'Classic' saints such as Saint Paul (d. c. 65 AD) or Saint Catherine (4th century AD), were martyred in distant times, whilst 'new' saints were virtually or actually contemporary. Religious art evolved to reflect this change in emphasis and began to include many 'new' saints in its iconography. Here, St Francis and the influential Franciscans St Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) and St Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444) are depicted, reflecting the immense popularity of the Franciscans at this time and the growing status of this relatively new order. Each of these saints, and indeed the Franciscans in general, were active in Italy, which may also explain their inclusion on this Italian work of art.

Physical description

Altar Cross. Silver, parcel-gilt, on a wooden foundation; set with nielloes and with engraved plaques representing mainly Franciscan Saints. These plaques may have originally been enamelled, the enamel having been completely scraped away at some point.

At the end of each arm are squares in quatrefoils. Above the Crucifix is a nielloed plaque of the pelican, above which is an engraved quatrefoil of God the Father. To the left is a nielloed plaque of the Sun and a quatrefoil of the Virgin. To the right is a nielloed plaque of the moon and a quatrefoil of St Anthony of Padua. Below is a nielloed plaque of Adam's skull and cross bones and a quatrefoil with St Francis. On the back there is a reliquary cavity in the middle containing a small cross and a fragment of paper saying ECCE LIGNUM CRUCIS (behold the wood of the Cross). This signifies that the reliquary once held a fragment of the True Cross. The quatrefoil at the top shows a Franciscan with a hatchet in his head and holding a palm branch. To the left is a nielloed plaque showing an angel rescuing a soul and a quatrefoil of St. Bernardino. To the right is a nielloed plaque showing a devil seizing a soul and a quatrefoil of St Clare. Below is a nielloed plaque with St Veronica holding the Vernicle and a quatrefoil of St Bonaventura.

Two nielloed plaques and a roundel are missing from the back.

Place of Origin

Italy (made)

Date

ca. 1500 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Silver, parcel-gilt, wood, niello, enamel

Dimensions

Height: 40.5 cm, Width: 27.9 cm, Depth: 5.0 cm, Weight: 1.22 kg

Object history note

Acquired in Milan in 1913.

Historical significance: This object reflects the shifting popularity of Christian saints and martyrs in the medieval period. In the early Middle Ages, the classical saints provided the main focus of Christian worship. From the 13th century onwards however, recently canonised saints such as Thomas Becket (1118-70) and St Francis (1181-1226) grew in popularity. They displaced some of the more traditional saints as central representations of the Christian faith. For medieval people, 'Classical' saints such as Saint Paul (d. c.65AD) or Saint Catherine (4th century AD), were martyred in distant times, whilst 'new' saints were virtually or actually contemporary. Religious art evolved to reflect this change in emphasis and began to include many 'new' saints in its iconography. Here, St Francis and the influential Franciscans St Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) and St Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444) are depicted, reflecting the immense popularity of the Franciscans at this time and the growing status of this relatively new order. Each of these saints, and indeed the Franciscans in general, were active in Italy, which may also explain their inclusion on this Italian work of art.

Historical context note

Altar crosses were placed upon the altar during the mass. Crosses of this type usually featured Christ crucified on the front and Christ in Majesty or the Virgin Mary on the back. The arms of the cross were generally decorated with symbols of the four Evangelists or figures of saints holding the palm of matyrdom or their saintly attributes.

Descriptive line

Silver altar cross, parcel-gilt set with nielloes and engraved plaques originally enamelled; made in Italy, ca. 1500

Labels and date

ALTAR CROSS
About 1510

During the Mass a cross would be placed on the altar. The rich decoration of this cross includes the Pelican in Piety. The tradition that the pelican pierced its own breast to feed its young made it a symbol of Christ's sacrifice. The skull below the cross refers to Golgotha, 'the place of the skull' in Hebrew, where Christ died.

Northern Italy, possibly Padua

Silver and gilded silver inlaid with niello (black composition) on a wooden core

Museum no. M.5-1951 [2008]
ALTAR CROSS
Silver, silver-gilt and niello on a wooden foundation
North Italian (possibly Padua); about 1510
A cross was placed on the altar for the duration of the Mass. On occasions such as Good Friday it would play a pivotal role in the liturgy, when it might be taken down from the altar to be venerated. On the front of this cross is Christ crucified with God the Father and the Holy Ghost shown above, St. Anthony of Padua and the Virgin Mary at either side, and St. Francis below. On the back are images of St. Bernardino of Siena and a female saint, possibly St. Clare, at either side. Below is Saint Louis of Toulouse and the figure above is likely to be one of five Franciscans martyred in Morocco in the thirteenth century. As the saints depicted are mostly Franciscan it is probable that the cross was made for a church belonging to this order. []

Materials

Silver; Wood; Enamel

Techniques

Enamelling; Gilding; Parcel gilding

Subjects depicted

Moon; Pelican; Sudarium; Angel; Saints; Sun; Skull; Devil; Quatrefoils

Categories

Metalwork; Christianity; Religion; Enamels

Collection

Metalwork Collection

Large image request

Please confirm you are using these images within the following terms and conditions, by acknowledging each of the following key points:

Please let us know how you intend to use the images you will be downloading.