The lid of the present pendant slides open to reveal a hollowed out receptacle containing a crucifix. The inside face of this cover plate is fitted with two flanged tongues, which slide underneath a plate soldered at the commencement of the semi-circular arch. The plate is secured by a latten pin, which passes through the lower walls of the base section and then through a tube soldered to the inside of the cover plate. This closure structure is exactly the same as that of the Tau Cross, excavated in Winteringham, South Humberside, and now in the Cloisters, New York (inv. no. 1990.283) It can also be seen in the obverse of the Bridlington Tau Capsule (excavated East Riding of Yorkshire, now British Museum, inv. no. AF.2766) and the Matlaske Tau Cross (excavated Norfolk, now St Peter Hungate Museum, Norwich, see Husband, op. cit., fig. 17), which were both cast as a hollowed out receptacle and attached to the facing plate by a slotted flange and pin-and-barrel tube.
The naïve style of the engraved figures also corresponds to images of the period which have an English provenance. The figure of the crucified Christ on the reverse of the present pendant compares closely to that on a reliquary capsule found in 1866 at Clare Castle, Suffolk and dated circa 1475-85 (Royal Collection, inv. no. 69738), as well as the figure of Christ on both the Winteringham and Matlaske Tau Crosses. The large and uneven head and hands of the figures surrounding Christ are reminiscent of the border saints on the Middleham Jewel (Cherry, op. cit., p. 28). The heavy use of hatching and black enamelling appears to be a particular trait of English goldsmiths, and can be seen in the engraving on the beads of the Langdale Rosary (circa 1500, V Museum, London, inv. no. M.30-1934).
The iconography and composition of the two crowded scenes of jaunty figures with pointed feet and hats have parallels in English alabaster carvings of the 15th century. The passion of Christ was the most popular theme of Nottingham alabasters, and Francis Cheetham lists more than one hundred scenes of the Crucifixion and over twenty of Christ Carrying the Cross (Cheetham, op. cit., p.17), even though the latter is only recorded in John’s gospel (John 20:17).
In the depiction of Christ carrying the cross, Christ is led by a rope, which is tied around his waist and held by a figure, who wears a short girded tunic with long sleeves. The Virgin Mary, wearing a veil and a gown, stands on the left supporting one arm of the cross to ease Christ’s ordeal. In the depiction of the Crucifixion, Christ’s wound is evident on his right side, and was probably opened by the lance of a Roman soldier that appears below him. Two flying angels hold chalices beneath his hands to catch his precious blood. These figurative devices can all be seen in alabaster panels of the period (see Cheetham, op. cit., pp. 240-258).
The most likely origin for the pendant is London, where there was the largest concentration of goldsmiths in England in the fifteenth century. In 1465 Leo of Rozmitzal remarked in an account of his travels on the number of goldsmiths in the city 'the masters alone, without the journeymen, amount to four hundred, but they are never idle for the size of the city and its wealth provide them with work in abundance' (Husband, op. cit., pp. 18-19). The principal centre for goldsmith’s shops was at Cheapside, by St Paul’s Cathedral.
The wooden cross in the interior cavity of our pendant is difficult to date, but such reliquaries are sometimes known to have carried a relic of the True Cross on which Christ was crucified. The Clare Castle reliquary for example, once held such fragments. The use of the Tau Cross in the scene of the Crucifixion may also have some significance, directly relating the pendant to Christ’s sacrifice (Husband, op. cit., p. 22). The appearance of five knots on the exterior band also point to a possible Franciscan context, in relation to the knotted waist cord of St Anthony. Before the suppression of the monasteries there were 64 Franciscan houses in England, and of the few surviving English comparables to our pendant, most have been linked to the Antonine orders.
Very little comparable output has survived from late Gothic England, which was decimated by the wholesale destruction provoked by monastic dissolution and reformation. The front and back engravings are some of the most ambitious seen from this period, particularly on this small scale. The evidence of corrosion and losses to the black enamel suggest that the pendant may have been buried, and its broken loop hints at why it was first lost.
We would like to thank Marian Campbell, formerly Senior Curator of at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and Timothy Husband, Curator, Department for Medieval Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Cloisters, New York, for their assistance.
An XRF Spectroscopy of the metal was taken by The Goldsmiths' Company Assay Office on 30/09/2014 and a report of the results is available on request.