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Front of an enamelled altar cross

 

Height: 37.200 cm
Width: 25.600 cm

M&ME 1856.7-18.1

Prehistory and Europe

    Front of an enamelled altar cross

    Mosan, about AD 1160-70
    From France or Belgium

    Five scenes from the Old Testament

    This richly enamelled cross front, consists of five scenes drawn from the Old Testament separated by ornamental panels of flowers, quatrefoils and lozenges.

    The scenes depicted are as follows: in the centre, Jacob blesses the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48:14); in the top terminal, Moses and Aaron are shown with the brazen serpent (Numbers 21:3); in the left terminal Elijah is represented with the widow of Sarepta (I Kings 17:10); in the right terminal there is a Passover scene; in the bottom terminal, spies bearing grapes return from the promised land (Numbers 13:23-28).

    Why were these particular themes selected? The back of the cross still exists today in Berlin in the Kunstgewerbe Museum; the two are identical in terms of dimensions, composition, style and technique. The narrative panels that formed part of the back relate the legend of St Helena's discovery of the True Cross. The Old Testament scenes on the front refer to ('prefigure') the Cross and Christ's Crucifixion in a symbolic and thematic way - Jacob forms a cross with his arms; the brazen serpent on its column resembles Christ on the Cross; the two sticks held by the widow of Sarepta form a cross; the slaughtered lamb of the Passover is a prefiguration of the sacrifice of Christ; the grapes from the promised land have Eucharistic significance alluding to the blood of Christ.

    The sophisticated imagery of these panels when together would seem to suggest that it was originally designed to hold a relic of the True Cross.

    N. Stratford, Catalogue of Medieval enamels (London, The British Museum Press, 1993)

    J. Robinson, Masterpieces: Medieval Art (London, British Museum Press, 2008)

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    Ilustrated collection of French drawings, £15.00

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