In the Shadow of the Cross: Western European Crosses and Crucifixes in the 8th–9th Centuries
On 23 September 2011, as part of the Year of Italy in Russia and the Year of Russia in Italy an exhibition opened in the State Hermitage from the collection of the major Milanese collector Giovanni Cova Minotti “In the Shadow of the Cross: Western European Crosses and Crucifixes in the 8th-9th Centuries”. The exhibition was prepared by the State Hermitage with the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, Lombardy Region, Province of Milan, Italian municipalities, with the participation of the Embassy of Italy in Russia, the Consulate General of Italy in Saint Petersburg, the Italian Institute of Culture in Moscow and the Rotary Club Milan Monforte.
The exhibition contains forty altar and processional crosses and crucifixes, including examples from various countries with most from the regions of Italy.
The earliest is an 8th century Byzantine silver cross, which has a simple form and is decorated with only semi-precious stones, without any figurative representations.
In later exhibits the crucified Christ takes the central place and the decoration of the crucifix becomes more elaborate and varied: ivory, bronze, wood. To the right of the image of Christ is an image of the Madonna, to the left John the Apostle. On the reverse side is usually an image of Christ Pantocrator, surrounded by apocalyptic symbols of the evangelists. Lion – Mark, Eagle – John, Ox – Luke, Angel – Matthew. Sometimes other images are added. This iconography is connected to the fundamental idea of Christianity: Christ died to save Humanity. In the Romanesque period (11th – 13th centuries) these figures are still quite crude and primitive. For the Romanesque artist the accuracy of the details was not as important as a clear embodiment of the idea. Among the expressive silver reliefs which decorate 11th century crosses, as well as the strictly canonical type figure, there is an inset with an image of a cloud, inside which is an apparent infinite number of open eyes corresponding to the representational concept of the early Middle Ages. There are several crosses with an interesting technique and iconography with pictorial or enamel insets.
During the Gothic era (13th–15th centuries) the professional skills of the artists make it possible to better portray the complexity of the outside world. The anatomy of the figures is more correct, some realistic features appear, open emotions are replaced by a thoughtful and accurately depicted subject. The main theme in Gothic crucifixes is that Jesus suffered in the name of justice and the eternal life of humanity. A rare and unusual example is a small 13th century gilded silver reliquary cross with twenty precious and semi-precious stones which contains part of the Holy Cross. Among the works of art in the exhibition stands out a large Limoges school reliquary cross. It is richly decorated with enamel, representing scenes from the New Testament, and also a copper cross with gilded figures decorated with amethysts and lapis-lazuli.
The Renaissance (14th–16th centuries) brought great interest in the outside world, and jewellers filled their works of art with bright and lively features. However, the figure of the crucified Christ remained the central part of the composition.
Baroque (17th–18th centuries) style splendour was also reflected in religious art works. This is particularly noticeable in the varied and complex forms of the cross itself and the variety of materials used. Items made from ivory were especially popular.
The exhibition “In the Shadow of the Cross: Western European Crosses and Crucifixes in the 8th–9th Centuries” provides an opportunity to follow the development and to see the variety of these kinds of church monuments over twelve centuries.
An illustrated colour catalogue (State Hermitage Publishing House 2011) has been prepared for the exhibition. It includes several articles by Italian and Russian authors which discuss the history of the collection, the significance of the cross as a Christian symbol and the common Christian roots of Italian and Russian art.
The exhibition curators are Sergei Androsov, Head of Western European Fine Art Department, doctor of art history, and Marta Kryzhanovskaya, Chief Researcher of the Western European Fine Art Department of the State Hermitage, doctor of art history.