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Legend of the Cross

German, Late Gothic
ca. 1460 - 1500
91.44 cm x 167.64 cm x 1 cm (36 in. x 66 in. x 3/8 in.)
wool on linen

On view


The scenes of this tapestry are most likely taken from The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, a thirteenth-century compilation of legends about saints and events. The two legends relevant to the tapestry are no. 68, “The Finding of the Holy Cross,” which took place in Jerusalem in the fourth century when Saint Helena, the emperor Constantine’s mother, located and uncovered the true cross, the authenticity of which immediately was proven by the resurrection of a corpse, and no. 137, “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross,” which took place in the seventh century when the emperor Heraclius, having won the cross back from the Persians who had stolen it, returned it to Jerusalem.

According to the Golden Legend, when Heraclius brought the cross back from Jerusalem, he came down from the Mount of Olives dressed in his imperial court dress, intending to enter Jerusalem by the gate through which Christ had carried the cross as he entered the city on the day of his crucifixion. To the astonishment of Heraclius and the onlookers, the gate suddenly turned into a solid stone wall before Heraclius could pass through. As this happened, an angel appeared and proclaimed that when Christ had entered through that gate there had been no pageantry or pomp and that he had ridden on a lowly donkey, offering an example of humility to his followers. Heraclius immediately dismounted, shed his royal regalia, took the cross in his hands, and carried it into the city.

The shape and size of the tapestry suggests that it originally served as an altar frontal or antependium, and the subject matter would suggest that it might have been brought out for use during Holy Week. Curiously, the tapestry is sewn together from two separately woven pieces of different loom widths, both complete and seemingly always having been associated as they now are.

J. Carder

Wolff, Kurt Verlag. Die Frankische Bildwirkerei. Munich: 1926, pl. 48.

Die Frankische Bildteppiche, no. 48, pl. 75.

Kurth, Betty. Die Deutsche Bildteppiche des Mittelalters 1. Vienna, 1926, 270 and vol. 2, pl. 300.

Goebel, Heinrich. Wandteppiche 3, pt 1. Berlin, 1933, 168.

Bühl, Gudrun, editor. Dumbarton Oaks, The Collections. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (distributed by Harvard University Press), 2008, 310f, ill.

Exhibition History
William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Kansas City, KS, 3/13/1942-10/18/1944.

Acquisition History
Collection of Mrs. Chauncey-Blair, Chicago;

Purchased from Arden Studios, Inc., New York, NY (dealer), by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, March 22, 1915;

Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, DC;

Transferred to Harvard University, November 29, 1940;

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, DC

Angel | Golden Legend | Helen|Helena|Empress Helena|Empress Helen|Saint Helena|St. Helena | Helena | Heraclius|Emperor Heraclius | Jerusalem | True Cross