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Tau cross

Tau cross

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    mid 11th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved walrus ivory

  • Museum number:

    A.1-1914

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This is a head of an Anglo-Saxon tau cross in walrus ivory. The tau cross is a form of crozier head, named for its shape after the Greek letter T. The winged seraph is a reference to the vision of Isaiah in which singed seraphim adore God enthroned. This apocalyptic image links to the decoration of the other side, where the Agnus Dei evokes both the Eucharistic and Apocalyptic Lamb (John 1:29; Revelations 5:6-12).

The iconography is unusual for a tau-cross, although the Agnus Dei and a seraph are juxtaposed one above the other on a stone cross-head in Durham Cathedral, of about 1025-50. Seen in this context the iconography may be interpreted as relating to the Apocalypse. The symbolism of the figures depicted remains an open question. They might simply represent angels (as opposed to the suggested St John the Baptist and St John the Divine).

The relatively crude nature of the carving does not allow it to be very closely dated, through the beasts flanking the seraph, with their foliate tails and down-biting heads, have good parallels in manuscripts such as British Library MS Royal 6.A.VIII, dated to the early eleventh century, and the late tenth-century Lambeth Palace Aldhelm.

Physical description

The ivory is mottled dark brown with coarse carved relief decoration. Within plain outer borders, one side is decorated with a winged seraph, hands outspread, within a beaded mandorla, which is flanked by two beasts with ribbed and bifurcated foliate tails, their heads bent downwards and wings shot forward. The reverse has an Agnus Dei with nimbed cross, stepping out of a plain circular frame supported by two male figures, one in a full-length garment, the other in a short tunic. The upper surface has a central rectangular recess set in a lightly incised frame, flanked by two rectangular panels with some coarse transversal ribbing at the downcurve, succeeded by a simple foliate scroll. Both panels are otherwise undecorated, though that on the left has faint traces of erased lettering at the right hand end. The undersides of the arms have two crudely incised lines which converge at the end. The surface is highly polished; the volutes have been broken away, and four attachment-holes at both ends testify to repairs or attachments to them. The cross is socketed.

Place of Origin

England (made)

Date

mid 11th century (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Carved walrus ivory

Dimensions

Width: 13.6 cm, Height: 4.7 cm, Depth: 1.8 cm, Depth: 1,8 cm, Height: 22.5 cm Perspex mount dimensions, Width: 10 cm Perspex mount dimensions, Depth: 5.5 cm Perspex mount dimension

Object history note

The tau was found in Water Lane in the City in 1893 and bought by Mr. George Allen, the publisher. Purchased from John Allen, Saltford, near Bristol, £20.

Historical significance: The iconography is unusual for a tau-cross, although the Agnus Dei and a seraph are juxtaposed one above the other on a stone cross-head in Durham Cathedral, of about 1025-50. Seen in this context the iconography may be interpreted as relating to the Apocalypse. The symbolism of the figures depicted remains an open question. They might simply represent angels (as opposed to the suggested St John the Baptist and St John the Divine).

Descriptive line

Head of tau cross, walrus ivory, a winged seraph and Agnus Dei, Anglo-Saxon, probably mid 11th century

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

Longhurst, Margaret H. Catalogue of Carvings in Ivory. London: Published under the Authority of the Board of Education, 1927-1929. Part I. p. 88.
Webster, Leslie and Paul Williamson. The Coloured Decoration of Anglo-Saxon Ivory Carvings. In: Cather, Sharon, David Park and Paul Williamson, eds. Early medieval wall painting and painted sculpture in England : based on the proceedings of a symposium at the Courtauld Institute of Art, February, 1985. Oxford: B. A. R., 1990. pp. 181, 183. pl. 14.
Williamson, Paul. Medieval Ivory Carvings. Early Christian to Romanesque. London, V&A Publishing, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010, pp. 246, 7, cat.no. 63
Goldschmidt, A. Die Elfenbeinskulpturen aus der romanischen Zeit. XI. Bis XIII. Jahrhundert, (Elfenbeinskulpturen IV), Berlin, 1926 (reprinted, Berlin, 1975), cat.no. 9

Production Note

probably mid 11th century

Materials

Tusk (walrus ivory)

Techniques

Carving

Subjects depicted

Beast; Seraph; Cross; Agnus Dei

Categories

Christianity; Religion; Sculpture

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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