Gold and Enamel Reliquary Cross

Byzantine (Constantinople?), early 11th century

Gold and cloisonné enamel, 6.1 x 3.1 cm


Inscribed: The Virgin, Saint Basil the Great, and Saint Gregory the Miracle-Worker are identified by abbreviated uncial inscriptions in Greek: MP ΘY (Mother of God); BA/CIA (Basil); ΓPI O Θ/AYM (Gregory the Miracle-Worker)


This small gold enkolpion, cross shaped with slightly flaring arms, was originally composed of two halves that opened and were hinged at the foot of the cross. The surviving enameled back of the cross is made of two gold sheets joined together. The silhouettes of the enamel figures are cut out of the top sheet, creating a gold background.

On the vertical arm of the cross the Virgin is depicted frontally, standing on a footstool with hands raised to her chest, her palms facing the viewer. The arrangement of the enamel cloisonné delineates the drapery of her dark maphorion and the simplified features of her face, where a single cloison is used to render her eyes and nose.

On the horizontal arm of the cross, bust-length likenesses of two bishops and Church Fathers flank the Virgin: on her right, Saint Basil the Great, and on her left, Saint Gregory the Miracle-Worker. Saint Basil is portrayed as a middle-aged man with short, dark hair and a dark, pointed beard; the upper part of his omophorion is visible. Saint Gregory is shown with short gray hair and a trim, rounded beard; the upper part of his omophorion is also visible. The inscriptions and the outline of the Virgin's halo are executed in red against the gold of the cross. A variety of saints in different combinations can be seen surrounding the Virgin or the Crucifixion on small pectoral crosses such as this as well as on larger processional crosses , indicating that the individual taste of the cross's owner may be reflected in the particular choice of the two Church Fathers who flank the Virgin.

As the sign of Christ's victory over death, the cross was the most popular Christian symbol, and small cross-shaped enkolpia were worn around the neck as powerful amulets protecting their bearers from evil. The talismanic power of these objects was usually enhanced by placing little relics inside them; many pendant crosses were constructed as cases that could be opened to reveal their contents. Such enkolpia were very popular in Byzantium. Made in assorted shapes and materials, including gold, silver, bronze, and lead, they have been found not only in the territories of the empire but also in neighboring states, signifying the piety of their owners. A small silver pectoral cross was found in Bulgaria, for example, and similar cross-shaped enkolpia were excavated from tombs in Denmark.

Small gold and silver crosses were given as gifts by the emperor to the court on Palm Sunday and other occasions. The present cross, said to have been found in the area of the Great Palace in Constantinople, may have been one such imperial gift.

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The Byzantine Legacy
Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016