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Reliquary cross

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1050 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Walrus ivory with silver fittings

  • Credit Line:

    Purchased with the aid of a special grant from the Exchequer and with the assistance of The Art Fund

  • Museum number:

    A.6-1966

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 8, The William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery, case 16

The delicately carved archer on the lid of this cross probably represents a figure from the Old Testament: Ishmael, son of Abraham. The reverse shows the Lamb of God surrounded by the four symbols of the evangelists. The cross originally formed a case for a gold box, perhaps containing relics of the True Cross.

The iconography is complex, but fully within the Anglo-Saxon tradition. All four sides are carved with versions of the Tree of Life, the vine scroll clustered with living creatures, which symbolises both the union of God and his creation, and of Christ and the Church.The image of the Agnus Dei surrounded by the four evangelist symbols, which unites both eucharistic and apocalyptic themes and so links to the christological themes seen on the back and sides. Stylistically, the cross is without close parallel although its decoration is related to the Trinity Gospels which is dated to about 1020. Therefore a date around the middle of the eleventh century is possible.
The cross was evidently intended both as a reliquary, presumably for an enshrined piece of the True Cross and as a pectoral cross. The shape, with its curious resemblance to a wheel-headed cross, particularly emphatic on the Agnus Dei side, is distinctly archaic for an eleventh-century date and suggests that the reliquary within could have been somewhat older than the ivory container which may have modelled its shape on the earlier piece.

Physical description

Pendant reliquary cross with pointed base, short lateral and upper arms and a circular centre. It has a hinged lid at the front and is carved on all sides with openwork ornament. The integral suspension attachment consists of three-dimensional openwork foliage spray. The lid is hinged with two silver rivets. Its decoration consists of an elaborate inhabited vine scroll with grooved stem which grows up from the base and is clasped at intervals by short tufts of acanthus growing out of the plain border whicxh runs round the entire composition.
At the centre of the cross an archer crouches in foliage aiming upwards at a bird biting a cherry; below him an entangled quadruped bites at the foliage.
On the reverse is a central roundel containing the Agnus Dei with a halo and cross surrounded by the four evangelist symbols with wings and halos in semicircular frames. The two sides are also decorated with regular inhabited plant scrolls, that on the right side with biting quadrupeds and small flowers, that on the left with a more robust scroll and a mixture of birds and quadrupeds. The decoration of the two ends of the lateral arms consists of: left, an eagle subduing a monster in its talons; and right a symmetrical acanthus scroll with lobed leaves.

Place of Origin

England (made)

Date

ca. 1050 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Walrus ivory with silver fittings

Dimensions

Height: 11.9 cm, Width: 4.7 cm, Depth: 2.5 cm, Weight: 0.1 kg

Object history note

The cross was first published in 1855 in the Journal of the British Archeological Association, X, 1855, p. 185 and pl. 22. It surfaced again in 1966 when it was bought by the Museum from Sotheby's sale 22 March 1966, for £40,000.

Historical significance: The iconography is complex but fully within the Anglo-Saxon tradition. All four sides are carved with versions of the Tree of Life, the vine scroll clustered with living creatures, which symbolises both the union of God and his creation, and of Christ and the Church.The image of the Agnus Dei surrounded by the four evangelist symbols, which unites both eucharistic and apocalyptic themes and so links to the christological themes seen on the back and sides. Stylistically, the cross is without close parallel although its decoration is related to the Trinity Gospels which is dated to about 1020. Therefore a date around the middle of the eleventh century is possible.

Historical context note

The cross was evidently intended both as a reliquary, presumably for an enshrined piece of the True Cross and as a pectoral cross. The openwork construction was to reveal a metal reliquary housed inside. The shape, with its curious resemblance to a wheel-headed cross, particularly emphatic on the Agnus Dei side, is distinctly archaic for an eleventh-century date and suggests that the reliquary within could have been somewhat older than the ivory container which may have modelled its shape on the earlier piece.

Descriptive line

Reliquary cross, walrus ivory, Anglo-Saxon, probably, mid 11th century

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

P. Williamson and L.Webster, 'The coloured decoration of Anglo-Saxon ivory carvings',in S. Carter, D. Park, P. Williamson (eds), Early Medieval Wall Painting and Painted Sculpture in England. (BAR British Serries 216, Oxford, 1990, p.179, pl. 11)
Raw, Barbara C. The Archer, the Eagle and the Lamb (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 30, 1967 (1967), pp. 391-394)
Beckwith, J. 'A Rediscovered English reliquary cross', V&A Bulletin, II, 1966, pp. 117 A.
Raw, Barbara, 'The Archer, The Eagle and the Lamb', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXX, 1967, pp. 391ff
Schapire, M, 'The Bowman and he Bird on the Ruthwell Cross and other works: The interpretation of secular themes in early medieva, religious art', Art Bulletin, XLV, 1963, p.351.
Kahn, D, Canterbury Cathedral and its Romanesque Sculpture, London, 1991, p. 184, no. 20.
Williamson, Paul. Medieval Ivory Carvings. Early Christian to Romanesque. London, V&A Publishing, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010, pp. 248-253, cat.no. 64

Labels and date

RELIQUARY CROSS
Walrus ivory
ANGLO-SAXON
Middle of the 11th century
A.6-1966
Bought with the aid of a special grant from the exchequer and with assistance from the National Art Collections Fund.

On the lid is an archer (probably to be identified as Ishmael, son of Abraham and Hagar) aiming at a bird; on the back is the lamb of God surrounded by the four symbols of the Evangelists. The cross originally formed a case for a gold box, which could have contained relics of a fragment of the True Cross. []

Production Note

probably mid 11th century

Materials

Ivory; Silver

Subjects depicted

Vine scrolls; Winged lion; Archer; Lamb; Winged bull; Bird; Eagles (birds); Flower; Animal; Saint; Acanthus

Categories

Sculpture; Christianity; Religion

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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