To the untrained eye, this gilded and enamelled crucifix might look like an ordinary piece of church decoration. To the medieval art connoisseur, however, it is a rare, almost 800-year-old masterpiece.
What makes it so unusual is its shape. ‘Crosses with an extra bar at the top are known as “Patriarchal”, and this is one of just three enamel examples known to have survived from the 12th century,’ explains Milo Dickinson, Head of Christie’s Early European Sculpture department in London.
‘The form was adopted from Byzantine art and probably spread throughout Europe on the coat of arms of King Béla III of Hungary (1148-1196).’
Another surviving patriarchal cross is already in a private collection. A third example is so similar to this one that they almost certainly came from the same workshop. Sadly, it was stolen from a museum several decades ago, and has never been found.
The arms of this cross have been decorated with the figures of the Virgin and Saint John, who were present at Christ’s crucifixion, as well as an angel and the first leader of the church, Saint Peter, who holds the keys to heaven. In the middle is Christ. ‘The motif is intended to inspire piety,’ explains the specialist.
To create the decoration craftsmen poured ground glass into tiny carved channels on a sheet of copper. The object was then fired several times to achieve the different colours.
‘People tend to think of the Dark Ages as a period of gloom and despair, but it wasn’t’ — Milo Dickinson
The technique is known as champlevé, and was perfected in the French city of Limoges, from where this cross originates. Workshops sprang up around a large abbey which was on the pilgrims’ trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. In 1215 Pope Innocent III decreed that every church in Europe must own at least one Limoges enamel.
See below for more early European sculpture offered during Classic Week
Based on the style of the champlevé, experts have been able to pinpoint the date this crucifix was made to within just 20 years — between 1190 and 1210.
The cross would once have had an enamelled reverse, which suggests it was supposed to be seen, and worshipped, in the round. It is possible that it was used during processions in a Romanesque church, or held aloft by a knight marching on the Third Crusade towards Jerusalem.
Sign up today
Christie's Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
‘People tend to think of Medieval history as a period of gloom and despair, but it wasn’t,’ insists Dickinson. ‘Objects like this show us that throughout Europe there were incredibly skilled craftsmen producing vivid, groundbreaking art.’
In December, for the first time in London, Christie’s included sculptures in the Old Masters Evening Sale. ‘Collectors are often surprised at how affordable sculptures can be compared to paintings,’ comments the specialist. ‘Considering what a historic and rare artefact it is, you could even argue that this crucifix is a potential bargain.’