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Reliquary Cross with the Crucifixion

Like most medieval cross-shaped reliquaries, this precious gold and enamel reliquary was made to hold a fragment of wood from the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The identity of the relic within is signaled by the shape of the reliquary itself and the representation of the Crucifixion on its lid. The image shows Jesus nailed to the cross with his head slumped over to his right. In contrast to this slack gesture, he seems to stand with his arms held outwards rather than supporting the weight of his body. Although the figure refers to the Gospel event, Christ's gently curved body, outstretched arms, and isolation are incompatible with a truly narrative representation. Rather than illustrating Christ's mortal suffering, the image records his triumph over death, expressed by the inscription over his head, "Jesus Christ, King of Glory," a reference to Jesus' transcendent nature that distinguishes him from the rest of humanity (compare Psalms 23 [24]: 7-10). This reference contrasts with the titulus on Christ's cross as recorded in the Gospels, "Jesus Christ, King of the Jews" (Mt 27:29 and John 19:19). 

The brilliant, glinting colors of cloisonné enamel are the aesthetic essence of this technique. This painterly yet durable medium was recognized during the Middle Ages as among the eminent artistic creations of the Byzantine Empire. It requires placing very fine gold partitions, or cloisons, on edge against a gold background to create individual compartments. These are filled with frit, essentially powdered, colored glass, which vitrifies when heated and then hardens as it cools. Finally, the surface is polished to produce a smooth, highly reflective surface with the appearance of precious or semiprecious stones.

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