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The Vera Cruz altar set

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Height
Altar Cross: 42 cm
Processional Cross: 43 cm
Candlesticks: 22.5 cm
Ciborium: 38 cm
Chalice: 24 cm
Paten: 16 cm

Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1911

PE 1911,0621.1-7

Room 40: Medieval Europe

    The Vera Cruz altar set

    AD 1450
    Probably from Burgos, Spain

     

    This ‘set’ of silver and silver-gilt liturgical furnishings (objects used in religious ceremony) from Spain was presented to the British Museum in 1911 by the renowned collector and philanthropist, J. Pierpont Morgan. It was said to have been given to the Hospital de la Vera Cruz (Hospital of the True Cross) at Medina de Pomar, near Burgos, Spain in about 1455 by its founder, Don Pedro Fernández de Velasco (13991470).

    Liturgical furnishings like this were used in the celebration of the Catholic Mass, or Eucharist, and comprise an altar cross, a processional cross, a ciborium (covered container used to hold the sacramental bread, or wafer), a chalice, a paten (small plate used to catch the sacramental bread, or wafer, if it falls) and a pair of candlesticks. The commissioning and presentation of such objects to a religious institution serves to demonstrate devotion, but also to display wealth, power and authority. The Velasco family arms appear on every piece except the paten, and prominence is given to the saltire cross, a symbol of St Andrew, whom Don Pedro held in special regard.

    Since they were given to the Museum, some elements of the form and decoration on these objects have raised concerns. The ciborium has pierced rims in two different styles, which is highly unusual, while the finial comprises a crescent to hold the wafer, rather than the standard cross form. There are two different styles of engraved decoration, one less accomplished than the other. The altar cross appears to have been altered, as does the corpus figure on the processional cross.

    These unusual differences have left Museum curators, scientists and conservators with such questions as when and how the objects were made, and by whom? Have they been altered in anyway? Stylistic, documentary, technical and scientific analysescarried out between 2006 and 2008, have provided no definitive answers to these questions. However, the studies have rekindled earlier doubts, resulting in new interpretation and an opportunity for further research.

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