A Florentine Altar Cross from the Early 1500's

It has been my experience that liturgical objects such as altar crosses and candlesticks (not to mention thuribles) seldom get the attention they deserve where popular consideration of liturgical art is concerned. Perhaps in part this is due to the fact that they are located on the altar in places where they are not always easily accessible, so to that extent this is somewhat understandable. That said, anyone who has walked into any one of the great churches and basilicas of the world where the traditional altar arrangement has been maintained will know just how much of an impact they can and do have. An altar either stripped of these ornaments or which have seen lesser versions replace them, will have a significantly different impact upon those gathered in the church.  
Examples of the high altar of St. Peter's Basilica. Above: The altar ornamented by a traditional set of candlesticks and cross.  Below: The same altar ornamented by a very minimalistic set of cross and candles. 

Much of this impact has to do with their particular proportions of course, and how they can concurrently both anchor the altar and lend it a sense of verticality and sacred drama, but we should never lose sight of the importance of the details either.  Elements like precious stones, painted work, guilding, or details like budded cross endings, rays and so on, all contribute not only toward the beauty of the liturgical object itself, but they also draw your attention to the subject of the cross itself.

Today I wanted to share an example of a sixteenth century altar cross made in a Florentine workshop between the years 1500-1510. The cross is carved in wood that has then been gilt in gold leaf with painted scenes then added. The painted imagery includes images of Christ crucified, the pelican in her piety, Our Lady and St. John, as well as St. Francis of Assisi.  (And while not visible here, on the back of the cross are depictions of the various instruments of the Passion.  Further, saints also appear in roundels at the base of the altar cross). 

The base of this cross is done in a style that was common in the medieval period (as opposed to the more common three-footed design of later centuries), but it is the cross proper which is what really stands out by virtue of both its colour and the beauty of its form. In many ways it presents a nice bridge between the gothic period and the evolving tastes of the Renaissance. 

Here is a a look at some of the painted details:

Christ Crucified

The Pelican in Her Piety

The Virgin Mary

St. John

St. Francis

Crosses like these could certainly be a model for our own time, appealing to the modern desire for symbolic imagery while also presenting a design that could work either in gothic churches or non-gothic one's. 

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