- Museum number
Walrus ivory head of a tau cross with hexagonal socket, carved high relief decoration on all sides with traces of gold sheeting which originally formed a backing to the decoration.
The volutes of the tau spring from two central fields, described as (a) and (b) below, and are decorated with acanthus fronds and trumpet-shaped blossoms in which four small beasts with globular bodies and foliate tails clamber. The volutes terminate in griffin heads (one now broken off) with grooved necks, their beaks biting back at the acanthus leaves, each ear extended into a trapezoidal bracket with an interlaced knot, which overlaps the acanthus frieze at a point directly beneath the climbing beasts within it. The outer edges of the volutes have a ribbed and pierced flange, possibly for the attachment of pearls or precious stones.
Field (a) contains the risen Christ in a mandorla, haloed and holding a cross in his left hand and a book in his right, trampling on the lion and dragon. Field (b) contains Christ crucified, top and bottom of the cross broken away.
The upper ends of the tau are carved with open-jawed monstrous heads, one with an interlaced knot surviving in his fangs. Their lentoid eyes have deeply drilled pupils; the muzzles terminate in a lobed scroll, and eyelids and whiskers are elongated to merge into the framing of the fields. Behind their rounded ears are subtriangular panels with an interlaced knot, between which is a plain field with two rivet-holes for the attachment of (presumably) gold sheet. A subtriangular plain area beneath each jaw is pierced with four and seven holes respectively, for the attachment of gems or gold sheet. The socket base is broken away at one side: a large hole pierced it, and nine subsidiary pin-holes, some with metal rivets. Five rivet-holes surround the circular opening at the top of the crozier head, which is flanked by two undecorated triangular fields in plain, moulded borders.
- Production date
Height: 5 centimetres
Width: 14 centimetres
- Curator's comments
Webster et al 1984
The tau-cross is a form of crozier head, named for its shape after the Greek letter T. The Alcester tau, despite sundry mutilations, is one of the most technically accomplished and elegant examples of ivory carving of the period. In its original condition, the deeply undercut decoration backed with gold foil and the volutes hung perhaps with seed pearls, it must have been a splendid object indeed. Thematically, it proclaims the redemptive Christian message through the paired images of Crucifixion and the risen Christ subduing sin and death (Psalm 91:13). The beasts and foliage flanking their images may be seen as a version of the inhabited vine scroll and so as a symbol of Creation (see a pierced panel held by the Musée de Cluny, Cl. 17049 (cat. 131)).
Stylistically, it seems closer to manuscript traditions than other ivories with extensive foliage decoration. The particular combination of a densely profuse acanthus frieze, interlaced animal heads and small-scale scenes is strongly reminiscent of the Grimbald Gospels (British Library, Additional MS 34890 (cat. 55)), probably illuminated at Canterbury c. 1020; in addition, the acanthus ornament of this manuscript (e.g. f. 10v) includes fleshy tubular leaves which are clearly related to the lush flower trumpets of the ivory. The griffin heads on the volutes compare closely with those on the initial B on f 21 of the Bury Psalter (Temple, E. 1976, ‘Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts 900-1006 (A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles’, Vol. 2), London, no. 84; Dodwell 1982, PL. A) a Christ Church, Canterbury, product of the second quarter of the eleventh century.
Provenance: Alcester, Warwickshire; found in the rectory garden before 1903.
Exhibitions: St Albans, 1905, ‘English Church History Exhibition’, London, no. 19; London, Victoria and Albert Museum 1974, ‘Ivory Carvings in Early Medieval England 700-1200’, no. 23.
Bibliography: Read, C. 1903, On a morse ivory tau cross head of English work of the Eleventh Century, ‘Archaeologia’ 58, 407-12, PL. XXVII; Beckwith, J. 1972, ‘Ivory Carving in Early Medieval England’, London, no. 29 and refs, PLS 65-6; Heslop, T.A. 1980A, An ivory fragment from Battle Abbey, ‘Antiquaries Journal’ 60, 341-2, PL. LXIV; Dodwell, C.R. 1982, ‘Anglo-Saxon Art: A New Perspective’, Manchester, 309 n. 120; Wilson, D.M. 1984, ‘Anglo-Saxon Art’, London, 194, PL. 267.
Heslop, S., 2017. An Ivory Staff Terminal from Alcester. British Art Studies 6 (online), https://doi.org/10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-06/crozier
- On display (G41/dc3/sB)
- Exhibition history
2007-2008 2 Oct-30 Apr, Roman Alcester Heritage Centre, 'Alcester Tau Cross'
2007 1 Apr-1 Oct, Warwick, Market Hall Museum, 'Alcester Tau Cross'
1992 8 Aug-20 Sep, Warwick, Warwickshire Museum, Offa's Kingdom
1984 29 Apr-16 Sep, Winchester Cathedral, Winchester Saxon Festival
1974 8 May-7 Jul, London, V&A, Ivory Carving in Early Modern England 700-1200, cat.23
- Acquisition date
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number