Cross of Justin II
Possibly Constantinople, 6th century
Treasury of St. Peter's Basilica, Rome
The Cross of Justin II (also known as the Crux Vaticana) is located in the Treasury of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It was a reliquary for a fragment of the True Cross. Its inscription refers to the Emperor Justin and his ‘companion’ giving this as a gift to Rome. While it has been suggested this is Justin I, it is generally accepted that it refers to Justin II (565-574) and his wife Sofia, who gave the cross as a gift to Rome or to its bishop, John III (561-574). This early medieval gift to the Pope offers a unique survival from a common practice of the era, when Rome was part of the Byzantine Empire and gifts were routinely exchanged to affirm the elaborate interconnections among courts and the papacy at the time.
This impressive, heavily restored cross was constructed from bronze sheet, overlaid with gilded silver, front side was inlaid with gems. Four gems also hung from its arms, while a capsule at its center contained a fragment of the True Cross. The lavishly bejeweled front side of the Crux Vaticana carries an inscription as well as a reliquary capsule. The reverse side is silver worked in repousee and depicts the Agnus Dei (the Lamb of God) at the center of the cross, the emperor and empress at the end of each cross beam, and medallion images of Christ at the end of the top and bottom arms. The lower one, however, could render John the Baptist. An ornate vegetal motif occludes the area between the medallions.
In contrast to the heavily reworked front, the reverse with the imperial medallions probably maintains to a greater extent its original appearance. Both emperor and empress are bust-length figures in the orans position. The emperor wears a slender diadem with three elongated tear-shaped protrusions over his forehead, and the emperor also possesses a jeweled collar. The empress wears a double-row pearl diadem with long prependoulia. In the middle are set three teardrop-shaped pearls, the four exterior points could be part of a crown bonnet, of which the faint line on the forehead is visible. The four-row pearl collar may belong to a dalmatic.
Inscription on cross front:
IUSTINUS OPEM/ ET SOCIA DECOREM (Horizontal inscription)
LIGNO QUO CHRISTUS HUMANUM/ SUBDIDIT HOSTEM DAT ROMAE (Vertical inscription)
Justin and his consort give to Rome a glorious gift, the wood by which Christ subdued the enemy of humanity.
Representations of Early Byzantine Empresses: Image and Empire by Anne McClanan
The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy by Robin Jensen