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Reliquary Cross with the Crucifixion

late 12th century - early 13th century
9.7 cm x 6.2 cm x 1.3 cm (3 13/16 in. x 2 7/16 in. x 1/2 in.)
enamel on gold

On view


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Additional Image Detail, Christ
Detail, Christ
Additional Image Obverse, on blue background
Obverse, on blue background
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Like most medieval cross-shaped reliquaries, this precious gold and enamel reliquary was made to hold a fragment of wood from the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The identity of the relic within is signaled by the shape of the reliquary itself and the representation of the Crucifixion on its lid. The image shows Jesus nailed to the cross with his head slumped over to his right. In contrast to this slack gesture, he seems to stand with his arms held outwards rather than supporting the weight of his body. Although the figure refers to the Gospel event, Christ’s gently curved body, outstretched arms, and isolation are incompatible with a truly narrative representation. Rather than illustrating Christ’s mortal suffering, the image records his triumph over death, expressed by the inscription over his head, “Jesus Christ, King of Glory,” a reference to Jesus’ transcendent nature that distinguishes him from the rest of humanity (compare Psalms 23 [24]: 7–10). This reference contrasts with the titulus on Christ’s cross as recorded in the Gospels, “Jesus Christ, King of the Jews” (Mt 27:29 and John 19:19).

The brilliant, glinting colors of cloisonné enamel are the aesthetic essence of this technique. This painterly yet durable medium was recognized during the Middle Ages as among the eminent artistic creations of the Byzantine Empire. It requires placing very fine gold partitions, or cloisons, on edge against a gold background to create individual compartments. These are filled with frit, essentially powdered, colored glass, which vitrifies when heated and then hardens as it cools. Finally, the surface is polished to produce a smooth, highly reflective surface with the appearance of precious or semiprecious stones.
S. Zwirn

A. Darcel, Gazette des Beaux-Arts 19 (1865): 510.

J. Labarte, Histoire des arts industriels au moyen âge et à l'époque de la renaissance, vol. 3: Peinture; Émaillerie (Paris, 1865), 423-424.

Union centrale des beaux-arts appliqués à l'industrie. Exposition de 1865; Musée rétrospectif, exhibition catalogue, Palais de l'industrie (Paris, 1867), no. 591.

P. Lacroix, Les arts au Moyen Age et a L’Epoque de la Renaissance, 2 ed. (Paris, 1869), 133-134, fig. 89.

J. Schulz, A. V. Zvenigorodskii, and A. Curtius, Der byzantinische Zellenschmelz (Frankfurt, 1890), 53.

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Exposition internationale d'art Byzantin, exhibition catalogue, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais du Louvre, 28 May-9 July, 1931 (Paris, 1931), 146, no. 497.

W. F. Volbach, G. Duthuit, and G. Salles, Art byzantin (Paris, 1933), 66, pl. 64D.

Arts of the Middle Ages; a Loan Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, February 17 to March 24, 1940 (Boston, 1940), 62, no. 204.

Bulletin of the Fogg Art Museum 10.4 (Dec. 1945): 108, fig. p.116.

The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 96, no. 180, fig. p. 97.

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The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 141, no. 281.

M. C. Ross, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Vol. 2: Jewelry, Enamels, and Art of the Migration Period (Washington, D.C., 1965; 2nd ed. with Addendum by S.A. Boyd and S. R. Zwirn, 2005), 109-110, no. 159, pl. 73, colorpl. D.

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Exhibition History
Paris, Palais de l'Industrie, "Exposition Retrospective des Champs-Élysées," 1865.

Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, "Exposition Internationale d'Art Byzantin," May 28 - July 9, 1931.

Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, "Arts of the Middle Ages," Feb. 17 - Mar. 24, 1940.

Cambridge, MA, Fogg Art Museum, "A Selection of Ivories, Bronzes, Metalwork and Other Objects from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection," Nov. 15 - Dec. 31, 1945.

New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, "The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843 - 1261," March 11 - July 6, 1997.

Acquisition History
Mt. Athos.

Collection of General P. Sewastonow (Sébastianoff), St. Petersburg.

Collection of N. P. Botkin, St. Petersburg.

Collection of Mrs. Walter Burns, London.

Purchased from Drey, New York, by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, January 1936.

Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., 1936-1940.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.

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