Freiburg Cross in the State Hermitage St. Petersburg

A remarkable collection of Medieval and Renaissance art was displayed during the Paris World’s Fair in 1878. The exhibited treasures caused a stir in the higher echelons of European Society, as well as among artists, dealers, collectors and the general public. Earlier in the XIX century, A.W. Pugin was a key figure in resurrecting critical and aesthetic interest in the early Christian art, but later architects, artists and collectors also played a very important role in bringing attention to art crafted between 200 A.D. and 1500 A.D. On the Continent, Alexander Petrovitch Basilevsky, Russian nobleman and diplomat, was among the most acclaimed connoisseurs actively cultivating admiration for Byzantine, early Medieval, and proto-Renaissance artwork in the XIX century.

The collection accumulated by Basilevsky and exhibited in 1878, was the fruit of over 40 years of research and travels in Europe, Middle East, and Asia. It included Limoges made chest reliquaries, ancient enamel plaques, Byzantine artworks, sculpted ivories, and of course, precious liturgical metalwork. Tzar Alexander III offered a staggering amount of money several years after the Fair ended and acquired the entire Basilevsky collection for Russia, specifically for the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The processional reliquary cross of St. Trudpert also known as the Freiburg Cross is among the most beautiful artworks from the Basilevsky group calling for closer consideration.

Alexander Basilvesky and His Collection. Sketch from the Catalog Raisonne, c. 1878

The Freiburg Reliquary Cross is currently housed in the Hermitage Museum where it was brought from Paris in the late XIX century. While never made entirely inaccessible, for many years and due to complicated political situation in Russia, this spectacular processional cross has not been studied in the West. It appears that it received wider attention only after it was exhibited in Amsterdam in 2009. The chalice, paten, and liturgical straw highlighted in one of my previous articles were crafted by the patronage of the same monastery that sponsored the Freiburg Reliquary Cross – St. Trudpert’s Abbey in Baden-W├╝rttemberg, in the southern region of the Black Forest valley, not too far from the border with France.

The Freiburg Cross, crafted between 1280 A.D. and 1290 A.D. survives almost entirely intact. At least fifteen of its gems can be traced back all the way to the 1st century – repurposing ancient cameos or previously worked stones was a common and much valued practice in the Middle Ages. Another characteristic that makes this Cross so important is the fact that several different fabrication techniques were employed to craft its different parts. Study of all these components, namely the timeline, the various techniques and historical practices make of Freiburg Cross a kind of object-encyclopedia of Medieval liturgical metalworking. We only have to learn how to read all the visual clues.

What prompted the Abbey of St. Trudpert to commission such a lavish object – possibly the most luxurious single artefact in its possession? It certainly was not vanity, arrogance or a passing fancy. In the XIII century, a relic of the True Cross was brought from the Holy Land to St. Trudpert’s Abbey. This momentous event occasioned a commission for a special reliquary cross that would house the relic which could be carried in processions. While the Freiburg Cross has survived almost entirely intact, the relic itself has been lost; nonetheless, the container for the relic is preserved and we have Abbey documentation to confirm that a relic was enshrined there. The Cross was professionally refurbished in the XIX century. At that time, two more gems were added to its body. It is entirely possible that the relic was removed during the restoration process and never reinserted. Another possible scenario - the Abbey was secularized in 1806 and the Freiburg Cross was made available for purchase around that time – perhaps, the relic was removed before the Cross even left the Abbey.

Like so many Medieval objects, the Freiburg Cross was not fashioned by a single artist but by a group of artisans working under supervision of a workshop master. The numerous gems and antique cameos found on the Cross must have been either donated or collected by the Abbey. All in all, there are over a hundred gems mounted on the Cross, including a heart-shaped garnet inset on the right side of the Crucifix in addition to rubies, sapphires, amethyst, carnelian and numerous semiprecious gems.

The entire structure of the cross is 28” tall and is fashioned as a miniature rood screen (which in Old English means “cross” or “crucifix”) – in its scale it is also reminiscent of an anchor shape. In the early Christian iconography (c. late 100-400 AD), one often finds anchors on or in close proximity to the resting places of Christians, mostly in the catacombs. In the early Church, the anchor shape was a symbol of firm hope in an eternal life and in Redemption and this iconographic significance is still actual in our own day. The wooden core of the cross is clad in precious metal – gold-plated silver. The cross is sumptuously decorated on both front and back. All the figures are very well modelled and details such as eyes, hair, and folds of garments are meticulously realized. The container for the relic is installed above the Crucifix, in a simple but clearly delineated templum shape. The reverse of the Crucifix features an Agnus Dei medallion surrounded by the symbols of the Evangelists on each arm of the cross as well as fabulous niello technique medallions with the scenes from the life of Christ and Our Lady. On the Freiburg Cross, Christ is shown twice as triumphant king – at the top of the cross as Pantocrator and on the Crucifix, crowned with jewels rather than thorns. The surface of the Cross is entirely ornamented with flora and fantastical fauna – similar in character to designs found in the Medieval illuminated manuscripts and column capitals.

I am spotlighting the Freiburg Cross, because it is such an important and beautiful representative of Medieval artmaking mindset and techniques. And also, because the history and provenance of this object demonstrate how crucial to Christian art is both patronage of religious art as well as discerning collecting practice. It is the role and responsibility of the patron and the collector, and not only of the clergy and the religious, to know when and how to intervene so that the Church can preserve and continue building its artistic and intellectual legacy.

Photography Credits: State Hermitage Museum

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