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Desiderius' Cross

Wed, 05/03/2014 - 11:13 -- Laura
Brescia, Desiderius' Cross

Desiderius’ Cross is a processional cross that used to be carried on a tall staff by hand or on carriages.  Considered its use, it was built in wood and covered with golden metal plates. Tradition recounts that it was a gift to San Salvatore and Santa Giulia monastery from the Longobard king Desiderius, who founded it between 753 and 760 together with his wife Ansa.
Among the examples of crux gemmata survived to the present day, this is the largest and it is covered with 211 gemstones set on the four arms. As unique case for this type of decoration, the goldsmiths here reused numerous ancient gems – about 50 – many of which came from other decorative pieces.

Where the arms cross there are two large medallions: the front shows the embossed figure of Christ Enthroned, possibly a 9th-10th century work, surrounded by four miniatures (10th-16th centuries AD). On the reverse side there is the figure of Christ Crucified added during the 16th century. The stones from the Imperial and Late Antiquity ages can be found especially on the reverse of the cross and their large number witnesses the remarkable availability of high quality material possibly derived from ancient imperial treasures. The stones tell mythical and fantastic stories such as: a sardonyx cameo with the Muses and one with Pegasus (the winged horse) and Bellerophon; a chalcedony in two layers with the fight between Hercules and Omphale, the queen of Lydia; a cameo depicting a Victory crowned with a laurel wreath, similar to the winged Victory exhibited in this museum; a cameo with a hawk, which in Medieval times was probably interpreted as symbol of Christ, and an onyx portraying a princess from the Julio-Claudian dynasty. On the front, where the medieval gemstones prevail, the famous vitreous medallion with gold leaf portraits stands out, from the half of the 3rd century AD. On the medallion there is a family: a mother with her two sons, and a line in Greek characters probably referring to the head of the family, Vunnerio Cerami.
The pieces belonging from the High Middle Ages are highly important because of their number and probably their origin, contemporary to the creation of the cross itself. Among them, two are particularly relevant: the double-layered pseudo-cameos from the half of the 8th century to the 9th AD, and eighteen vitreous gemstones with stamp decoration, all coming from the same artisan shop. The pictures are portraits echoing the classical style in blue and green shades, the latter of which recalls the overall colour of the cross decorations. It is unusual though that there are no sacred pictures. Other rarities inserted in Desiderius’ cross are a portrait of Frederick II of Swabia (13th century AD) and two unique gemstones carved by North-European artisans, of which only seven pieces are in Italy. Of these, six can be found in Brescia: they are the so called Alsengemme, of which two are in Desiderius’ Cross and the remaining four are in the Croce del Campo preserved in the Old Cathedral.
This masterpiece from High Middle Age goldsmiths, dating back to the second half of the 9th century, is still in perfect condition but over time it has been restored several times, probably because it was often used during processions. Many of these interventions are documented, such as in 1812 where seventeen new stones replaced some ‘pagan’ gemstones taken away by nuns, because they were considered offensive for Christians.
The cross is located inside the upper floor of Santa Maria in Solario Oratory, a Romanesque style building dedicated to the religious functions of nuns, where in ancient times was probably preserved the monastery treasure. From here the abbess on Good Friday took the cross in the Nuns’ Choir and then on the main altar of San Salvatore church to be worshipped.
The cross was still exhibited in Santa Maria in Solario at the end of the 18th century “upon an altar in the middle of burning torches”, but in 1798 the Government of the Cisalpine Republic eliminated the religious order and the monastery treasure was therefore dispersed. Some of the most precious pieces (the Cross, the Purple Gospel book known as Evangelario Purpureo and the Brescia Casket or Lipsanotheca) were transferred to the Queriniana Library, where the Cross was preserved until 1882, when it was further moved to the Museum of the Christian Era in Santa Giulia and again to the Tosio Martinengo Art Gallery. Only in 1993 did the Cross return in Santa Giulia museum, its original collocation.

Desiderius’ Cross
cm 127 x 100
9th century (2nd half)