The Poesy and Aesthetics of the Doberan Cross

Doberan Abbey is one of the great Cistercian edifices constructed between the XII c. and XV c., a venerable and original gem of Gothic brick architecture found along the ancient merchant route between Poland, Germany, and Denmark. The buildings and the liturgical treasures housed therein belong to some of the most beautiful of the monastic heritage of Northern Europe. Particularly notable is the magnificent gold and green altar cross situated in the transept of Doberan’s abbatial church. The Cross acted as a glorious backdrop to the altar and also served to divide the choir of the monks from that of the lay brothers.

Doberan Crucifix
The altar-rood and the two-sided cross atop were crafted between 1360 and 1370. The articulation is Northern and Gothic; nonetheless, the crucifix also shows Italian influence of the XIII c. masters such as Cimabue, who preferred to depict the corpus according to the Christus Patiens model – namely, with the axis of the body slightly rotated at the abdomen, eyes closed, and head of the Lord leaning to the left. The overall design of the cross in Doberan layers multiple emphases: from the typological presentation of the Old Testament texts related to the Messiah, to the scenes from the Passion, symbols of the Evangelists, and finally a large relief of the First Parents at the root of the cross. The characteristic green foliate pattern along the beams distinguishes the cross as the Tree of Life. Monumental size and conspicuous placement affirm that the cross is also set up as the sign and symbol of triumph.

Doberan Cross with the Altar- Rood
The reverse side of the cross is dedicated to Our Lady. In an organization analogous to the frontispiece, the Marian elevation features a large, central figure - crowned Virgin with Child - with reliefs of Marian typologies from the Old Testament interlaced with the scenes from the life of Mary at the top, sides, and at the bottom. The background is gilded indicating a spiritual and glorious vision; even so, in contrast to the Crucifix side, the figures on the Marian elevation are varnished wood rather than rich polychrome finish of the front.

Marian Elevation
The forma crucis with budding leaves is an ancient Christian iconography, one reaching back to the early IV c. and the Church in Syria. It was the Antiochene Christians who drew parallels between the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden and the wood of the Cross planted on Calvary. They originated the use of the foliate motif on or around the cross inside churches, on liturgical furnishings, chalices and ciboria. The living tree symbolism found its way to the North through the churches of Greece and the Roman Empire, spreading throughout Medieval Europe. By the XIV c., the Tree of Life iconography became a familiar one in the Christendom, elaborated theologically and well-supported by scriptural exegesis.

Relief of Adam and Eve
Since Doberan Abbey is a Cistercian foundation, it is requisite to take a look at the writings of St. Bernard of Clarivaux for some additional light on the aesthetic and spiritual semantics of the Doberan Cross. Bernard’s concept of formosa deformitas especially comes to mind – the beautiful deformity of the Crucified. The body is fixed to the beams of the cross and scenes from the Passion recall the countless sufferings of Our Lord, yet the splendor of His beauty is not obfuscated. The instrument of torture and death is also a budding tree – source of delight and vitality, conceived artistically by the sculptor, inspired by the word of the Revelation. Visual representation of paradox highlights correspondences between the tenor of the Scriptures and the tenor of the aesthetics. The body of the Lord is stylized and eternally graceful yet the historicity of the narrative surrounding the Crucifix leave no doubt that we are beholding a specific and particular figure, situated in time and place. Eternity and temporality, love, beauty and the pain of sacrifice meet and embrace in the Doberan Cross making this a sincerely compelling and evocative religious image.

Relief of Carrying the of the Cross to Calvary
The Cistercians were forced to leave the Abbey during the Reformation. Currently, the grounds and the church are a museum. It seems that the privilege for occasional offering of the Catholic Mass were granted only recently.

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