Height: 11.200 cm
Width: 9.600 cm
Gift of Edmund de Unger in recognition of Neil Stratford, Keeper of Medieval and Later Antiquities from 1975 to 1998
P&E MLA 1895,12-25,1 (cross);P&E MLA 2003,10-4,1 (plaque)
Prehistory and Europe
Catalan or Aragonese (modern
About AD 1330-50
Reunited with central plaque after more than a century
This engraved fourteenth-century altar cross is believed to be of Catalan or Aragonese origin. It is decorated with four enamelled copper plaques. The central one shows a floating Christ with arms outstretched as if on the cross, against a blue sky studded with thirty-three stars, one for each of Christ's years on earth. The plaque to the left depicts the Virgin Mary, the one above an angel and the one below Adam rising from Golgotha (the hill on which Christ was nailed to the Cross). The right-hand plaque, which unfortunately is missing, would have shown St John the Evangelist. The plaques were made using the champlevé technique, where the goldsmith engraves the design into copper and lays powdered coloured glass into the grooves. This fuses with the metal when fired and is then gilded with a mercury-gold solution.
The cross has been in the British Museum's collection since 1895, but the central plaque of Christ has only recently been restored to its original setting. In the nineteenth century many fine religious objects were broken up and pieces such as this were sold to satisfy the demand for small enamels to display in cabinets. The plaque eventually became part of the Keir Collection, owned by London-based collector Edmund de Unger. While on loan to the British Museum in 1981 for a temporary display its connection to the altar cross was realised. Mr de Unger's generosity in donating the plaque to the Museum in 2003 led to a rare and exciting reunion between the two objects.
M.M. Gauthier and G François, Medieval enamels: masterpieces (London, The British Museum Press, 1981)
S. Alcolea, Artes Decorativas en la España (Madrid, 1975)