Or are you looking for Search the Archives?

Please complete the form to email this item.

Altar cross

  • Place of origin:

    Hildesheim (Probably, made)
    Mosan (made)
    Cologne (Possibly, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1160-1200 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Copper-gilt with champlevé enamel plaques with cloisonné details, on oak core

  • Museum number:

    7234-1860

  • Gallery location:

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

The cross is really a composite object, incorporating some elements which are Mosan, and others which are north German (probably from Hildesheim) and possibly from Cologne. It may have been assembled from these late 12th century components in the late 15th century when the copper-gilt scrollwork additions were made.

Four Mosan enamel plaques on the front of the cross represent Old Testament types of the Redemption (traditional foreshadowings to the New Testament antitypes of the Resurrection), including, from the left arm clockwise, Aaron marking a house with a Tau cross using the blood of the slain lamb lying below, to allow the Passover, Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph, Manasses and Ephraim with his arms crossed to echo the shape of the cross, Elijah with the widow of Sarepta, who holds her two sticks crossed and Moses and the brazen Serpent. This way of showing several individual types around a central theme (in this case the Cross) was typical of Mosan production.

The central enamel plaques (the Lamb of God on the front and Christ in Majesty on the reverse) are thought to be from north Germany. They do not fit with the careful typological scheme, and are in a quite different style.

Rubrics in early missals indicate that a cross should be placed on the altar during the Mass to remind participants of the sacrifice being celebrated. The earliest documentary evidence for placing a cross on an altar is canon III of the council of Tours held in 567 : "Ut corpus Domini in Altari, non in armario, sed sub crucis titulo componatur". For much of the Middle Ages, it was not the custom to leave a cross on its altar when Mass was not in progress.

Physical description

The cross consists of an oak core, covered with sheets of copper-gilt. The sides are edged with brass mouldings (check).

It stands on a tripod stand, each foot has a lion mask with an open mouth, out of which come a paw-like foot. The three side panels of the stand are decorated with enamel, in floral patters with birds.

The ends of the two side arms, and the edges of the central panel have been embellished with copper-gilt leaves and fruits.

FRONT:

Square champlevé panel in the centre, with a rectangular champlevé enamel plaque at the end of each arm.
Centre = plaque showing the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), set in a roundel.
Left-hand arm = Aaron marking a house with the blood of the slain lamb lying below, to allow the Passover (Mosan) - Exodus 12:6-7
Top = Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph, Manasses and Ephraim (Mosan) - Genesis 48
Right-hand arm = Elijah with the widow of Sarepta (Mosan) - 1 Kings 17:8-24; Luke 4:26
Bottom = Moses and the brazen Serpent (Mosan) - Numbers 21:9, John 3.14
The four plaques each have an enamelled border with white/yellow quatrefoils on a blue ground, done in cloissoné enamel.

The remainder of the bottom and side arms of the cross are covered in champlevé enamel plaques with floral decoration, with wide borders with a pattern of lozenges and leaves. The upper arm has the same border plaques, but the central section consists of an indentation beneath glass (presumably replacing crystal). This contains a small double-cross, with a tiny figure of Christ on the upper part, and the INRI label, and another wooden cross, possibly a relic of the True Cross. A hook on the left hand enamel border holds the glass cover in place.

The main figure of Christ (north German) is cast separately and hangs in front of the Agnus Dei panel. His feet are nailed individually with two nails, and he faces forward, with drooping head.

REVERSE:

Covered largely with plain copper(?) sheets. A square enamelled plaque in the centre shows Christ in Majesty (north German) seated on a rainbow in a mandorla, surrounded by the four symbols of the Evangelists. At the end of each arm is a copper-gilt(?) plaque with scrolling vine decoration, and a central circular indentation, perhaps originally intended to hold a relic.

Place of Origin

Hildesheim (Probably, made)
Mosan (made)
Cologne (Possibly, made)

Date

ca. 1160-1200 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Copper-gilt with champlevé enamel plaques with cloisonné details, on oak core

Marks and inscriptions

AARON

BENGAMIN
Benjamin [actually Ephraim is represented - this is the goldsmith's error]

MANASES
Manasses

IACOBUS
Jacob

SAREPTA
[The Widow of] Sarepta

ELISEUS
Elijah

AUFER.MICHI.OBSECRO.ET.BVC[C]ELLAM.PA[NIS]
Bring me also, I beseech thee, a morsel of bread

PPKA
??

IUDEI
Jews

MOYSES
Moses

SICVT EXALTATVR SERPENS IN ERE
As the serpent was lifted up in the desert
JOHN 3:14

Dimensions

Height: 64.7 cm, Width: 41.5 cm, Depth: 16 cm approximately, Weight: 4.16 kg

Object history note

Bought for £350.
Said to have come from a church in Cologne - Bloch in Ornamenta Ecclesiae, 1985, says it is unlikely that it came, in its current shape, from an old church, and suggests that it was made up to be sold to a collector.
In the Peter Leven collection, Cologne, up to 1853.
Sold in 1853, by the auctioneers, J M Heberle of Cologne.

Historical context note

The cross is really a composite object, incorporating some elements which are Mosan, and others which are north German (probably from Hildesheim) and possibly from Cologne (see Attribution tab for a more detailed analysis). It may have been assembled in the late 15th century when the copper-gilt additions were made.

Four enamel plaques on the front of the cross represent Old Testament types of the Redemption (traditional foreshadowings to the New Testament antitypes of the Resurrection).

They include:
1. Aaron marking a house with a Tau cross using the blood of the slain lamb lying below, to allow the Passover
(ie a Lamb has been sacrificed to save others - Exodus 12:6-7)
2. Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph, Manasses and Ephraim with his arms crossed to echo the shape of the cross
(Genesis 48)
NB There has been a muddle here - not only does Jacob bless Manasses (the elder son) with his right-hand, going against the whole point of the story, but the younger son, Ephraim has also been captioned as Bengamin, who doesn't even appear in this episode. Mistakes like this did sometimes creep in in Mosan inscriptions - often these were added at the last minute, and it has been suggested that they may have been completed by assistants (Stratford 1993, p.76). There is also some debate about the significance of the bowls held by both sons - possibly this results from a conflation of this story with the scene of Isaac blessing Jacob (Chapman 1980, p.45).
3. Elijah with the widow of Sarepta, who holds her two sticks crossed
(1 Kings 17:8-24; Luke 4:26)
4. Moses and the brazen Serpent
(used by Christ specifically as a metaphor for his own sacrifice: 'And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him, may not perish; but may have life everlasting' - Numbers 21:9, John 3.14)
This way of showing several individual types around a central theme (in this case the Cross) was typical of Mosan production. A cross in the British Museum (MMA, 56,7-18,1, cat. 4, Stratford 1993) also has enamel plaques showing all four of these scenes, with an extra scene: The return of the spies from Canaan. It is possible that a plaque showing this scene may have decorated the centre of the cross before the north German Agnus Dei plaque was added (Campbell 1983, p.19). Bloch 1993 points out that the current crucifix figure does not fit the proportions of the cross, and that the use of the roundel containing the Agnes Dei figure to form a quasi-halo for the figure is a strange iconographic feature. Another type sometimes associated with these scenes is Isaac bearing the Wood (which is part of a set including the Brazen Serpent, the Widow of Sarepta and Aaron and the Tau cross at the Oesterreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst, Vienna, Chapman 1980).

The reverse shows only a single enamel plaque with Christ in Majesty. It is usual for crosses to have one richly decorated side, and one plainer, presumably because they were intended to be seen primarily from one side (Stratford 1993, p.71).

Rubrics in early missals indicate that a cross should be placed on the altar during the Mass to remind participants of the sacrifice being celebrated. The earliest documentary evidence for placing a cross on an altar is canon III of the council of Tours held in 567 : "Ut corpus Domini in Altari, non in armario, sed sub crucis titulo componatur". For much of the Middle Ages, it was not the custom to leave a cross on its altar when Mass was not in progress.

Descriptive line

Altar cross, Copper-gilt, Hildesheim, ca. 1160-1200

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

Campbell, Marian, An Introduction to Medieval Enamels, London: HMSO, 1983, p. 19
N. Stratford, Catalogue of Medieval Enamels in the British Museum: Northern Romanesque enamel, vol. II, London, 1993, pp.75-6
J. H. Pollen, Ancient and modern gold and silver smiths' work in the South Kensington Museum, 1878, pp.13-15
M. Campbell, in The Medieval Treasury, ed. P. Williamson, London, 1986, pp.146-7
P. Bloch, Romanische Bronzekruzifixe, Berlin, 1992, no.I K 15, pp.118, 123-4, ill. p. 40
H. P. Mitchell, 'Some Enamels of the School of Godefroid de Claire I', Burlington Magazine, vol. 34, no.192, March, 1919, pp.84-93
G. Chapman, 'Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph: A Mosan Enamel in the Walters Art Gallery', The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, XXXVIII, 1980, pp.44-5, fig.17
P. Bloch, 'Niederrheinische oder Kölner Bronzkruzifixe der Romanik', Ornamenta Ecclesiae, Cologne, 1985, cat. F 16, pp.392 and 396
J. Lejeune et al, Art Roman dans la Vallée de la Meuse aux XIe et XIIe siècles, Brussels, 1962, no. 37, pp.220-1
V. C. Habicht, Niedersächsische Kunst in England, Hanover, 1930, figs.28-34, and pp.28-30
Catalogue de la collection des antiquites … feu Mr. Pierre Leven, a Cologne, J. M. Heberle, Cologne, October 1853, no. 707, with illustration
P. Springer, Kreuzfüße: Ikonographie und Typologie eines hochmittelalterlichen Gerächtes, Berlin, 1981, cat. 44, pp. 185-187
O H Förster, Kölner Kunstsammler vom Mittelalter bis zum Ende des bürgerlichen Zeitalters, Berlin, 1931, pp.123 ff., fig. 66
Rhein und Maas, Cologne, 1973, vol. 2, pp.212-13 and fig.30

Labels and date

ALTAR CROSS
Champlevé enamel on copper gilt with some of the details in cloisonne; on a foundation of oak.
At the extremities are four Old Testament types of the redemption; Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph ("Bengamin" for Ephraim and Manasses). Aaron marking a house with the blood of the Passover Lamb, Elijah and the widow Sarepta, Moses and the brazen serpent.
Mosan; second half of the 12th century
The central plaques back and front, Christ in Majesty and the Agnus Dei, the gilt bronze figure and the triangular foot.
North German (probably Hildesheim); second half of the 12th century
The copper gilt leaves and flowers at the ends of the limbs are an addition to the late 15th century
Said to have belonged to a church at Cologne []

Production Note

The cross is a composition of different elements made in different areas, at different dates.

It was definitely assembled as today by 1853, and it is possible that it was put together in the mid 15th century, at the same time as the latest parts were added.

FRONT:
Central Agnus Dei plaque: (Campbell 1983 et al. say north German, perhaps Hildesheim, late 12th century)
Four Old Testament plaques, one on each arm: (all agree these are Mosan, second half of 1100s)
Other decorative plaques: (late 12th century, where from?)
Relic of the True Cross, and a small double-cross, with a tiny figure of Christ, dated by Mitchell 1919 to the 15th century
Christ figure (late 12th century, Campbell 1983 et al. say north German, perhaps Hildesheim; Bloch 1993 suggests Cologne, c.1170)
Tripod foot (late 12th century, Campbell 1983 et al. say north German, perhaps Hildesheim; Bloch 1993 suggests Cologne)
copper-gilt leaves and fruits (mid-15th century - where from?)

REVERSE:
Christ in Majesty enamel plaque (late 12th century, Campbell 1983 et al. say north German, perhaps Hildesheim)

Bloch 1992 describes the enamels other than the 4 Old Testament scenes (described as Mosan, c.1160) as 'teils nach Hildesheim, teils nach Köln' ['partly from Hildesheim, partly from Cologne'], citing comparison with the famous portable altar signed by Eilbertus of Cologne, and the Gregorius master.

Mitchell 1919 suggests that the enamels fall into two main groups:
He has the Old Testament plaques as Mosan, and the work of an assistant of Godefroid de Claire, to be dated to a period after 1165 (p.91). The central bands on 3 of the limbs originally formed 2 strips of equal length, and were made in Godefroid's workshop, perhaps coming originally from a book cover. The panels on the reverse with circular indentations, surrounded by engraved foliage, are also Mosan.
He attributes the crucifix figure, as well as the Agnus Dei and Christ in Majesty plaques to Hildesheim (showing metal spots characteristic of this area in the grounds), mid 12th century. The strips with a diaper pattern, bordering all four limbs on the front of the cross, come from the same source, as well as the foot.
He also suggests that the present make up of the cross might date from the 15th century, the date of the latest elements.

Materials

Copper-gilt; Enamel

Techniques

Champlevé; Cloisonné

Categories

Enamels; Metalwork

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.