Desiderius' Cross

25/08/2018 12:44

Santa Giulia Museum, in Brescia, Italy, exhibits an old and exceptional Lombard crucifix. It is covered on both sides by dozens of stone, glass and even Roman patrician portraits inlays. This is the Desiderius’ Cross.

Desiderius, or Didier of Istria, was, between the years 756 and 774, the last Longobard monarch before his kingdom in the Italian peninsula fell into the hands of Charlemagne's Franks. Before, Desiderius and his wife Ansa founded the monastery of San Salvatore - Santa Giulia, and among the donations they made, was a liturgical treasure, a large wooden cross clad with metal plates and loaded with inlaid jewels.

The crucifix is 62 inches height by 39 wide and is framed in the tradition of pre-Romanesque goldsmithery related with other ceremonial decorative crucifixes as the Cross of the Victory in Oviedo’s cathedral, Spain, where a replica hangs under Cangas de Onís Roman Bridge; or the Cross of Lothair, preserved in Aachen, also laden with precious stones, or those of Bischofshofen and the Ardennes one, all of them smaller. Precisely its dimensions discard that it was thought as reliquary or as votive cross and that its use was to be exhibited in processions or liturgical rituals.

In a seemingly casual way but with a predetermined hierarchical organization, the cross is covered by two hundred and twelve pieces set on its four arms and on both sides: precious stones, cameos, coloured glasses and even portraits. These follow a three-row alignment on each arm by inserting the major pieces into each centre row and at the ends. Some fifty of these objects are older than the very crucifix; they come from other ornamental pieces that come to be dated in the first century. Others, were belatedly incrusted up to XVII century, which is explained by the substitution of some of them by different reasons, among them, in 1812, seventeen stones were substituted because the nuns considered pagan or offensive to their Christian feeling. 

On the obverse, at the intersection of the arms, there is a Pantocrator, a Christ in majesty seated on a throne. Covered with a cape, He keeps the looking upwards surrounded by a metal circle decorated with ten stones. At the tip of each arm there is a polychrome rectangular portrait. Two of them are the work of the fifteenth century miniaturist Giovanni Pietro Birago, a Madonna and a figure of Christ, both finely elaborated. Above the Madonna is embedded a mid-third century cameo with a bust of Minerva dressed in a Corinthian helmet carved on sardonic stone. These kinds of jewels were popular in Roman Pannonia and they were used as ornament or necklaces, they were found numerous specimens in grave goods. Above it stands out one of the two onyx alsengemmen belonging to the Cross, these are stones made with vitreous paste in two different strata. In Brescia there are four more of them in the known as Cross of the Field in the old Cathedral, the Duomo Vecchio. One of the most prominent parts of the front is in the lower arm. It is a large enamelled medallion with the portrait of three members of a Roman family that are identified with the Empress born in Constantinople, Aelia Galla Placidia and their children Valentiniano III and Giusta Grata Onoria. On them is written in Greek the supposed signature of goldsmith BOYNNEPI KEPAMI, Bunneri Kerami.

The intersection of the reverse is focused on a figure of Christ crucified, in this case, flanked by four sardonic cameos located at the beginning of each arm. Except the one on the right side all are Roman made, from the first century to the first half of the IV. The upper one shows a horizontal Hellenistic air composition of the New Muses. The left cameo exhibits the head of an eagle and should have belonged to a more complex composition in which Jupiter must have appeared; the bottom piece is the profile portrait of a prince with helmet and shield. To the right is the portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who was known as Stupor Mundi or Son of Apulia, this is a piece added in the thirteenth century.

At the ends stand out a Hellenistic Nike, which is probably one of the oldest pieces and a Hercules fighting against Omphale, queen of Lydia, both in the upper arm; on the sides there are profile portraits and a Victory with a palm leaf, in a position similar to that of the Vittoria Alata which is the symbol of Brescia. In the lower arm there is a fourth century sardonic stone cameo with the representation of Pegasus next to a nymph, and beneath a Medusa head in profile dated in the first century. One of the later incrustations is a bust of the philosopher Fulvio Orsini elaborated between centuries XVI and XVII.

The only historical written testimony about the presence of the cross in the monastery dates back to 1657; these are the Annali di Santa Giulia by the abbess Angelica Baitelli: “Una Croce grande, incrostata di gioie, camei, e altre cose degnissime. Hà in mezzo dall'una, e dall'altra parte uno scudo, alla parte anteriore N.S. in Croce, nella posteriore la Santissima Trinità, opra Gothica. Questa Croce è residua del Tesoro che donarono Desiderio, Adelchis e Ansa”. (“A large cross, encrusted with jewels, cameos, and other dignified things. There is in the middle, on both sides, a shield on the front of which is Our Lord on the Cross and on the back the Holy Trinity, a Gothic work. This Cross belonged to the treasury donated by Desiderius, Adelchis and Ansa”).

The Cross was kept in Santa Maria in Solario Oratory, a Romanesque dependence in the complex of the monastery where the treasure was kept and only left on Good Friday, when the abbess took it to the Choir of the Nuns and to the high altar of San Salvatore church. In 1798, during the rule of the ephemeral Cisalpine Republic created by Napoleon, the monastery and its assets were disentailed. The Cross was transferred to the Queriniana Library on Via Mazzini until in 1882 it was moved to the Museum of the Christian Age in Santa Giulia and to the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo in Piazza Moretto. In 1993 the Cross returned to Santa Giulia, where, in 1998, the monastery finished its conversion into the present museum. The Cross was set up in Santa Maria in Solario Oratory upper room, almost its place of origin, a spectacular location. The oratory dates from the twelfth century and in its construction were used numerous tombstones from a Roman necropolis as witnessed by the epigraphs that disorderly appear on both the internal and external walls of the building, the central pillar of the lower room was the altar of the temple Roman dedicated to the sun. Narrow stairs lead to the upper room where the crucifix is ​​displayed. The walls and the dome are covered by frescoes by Floriano Ferromola, painted between 1513 and 1524. The pictorial cycle includes in the apses the Sposalizio mistico di santa Caterina, the Madonna in trono tra i santi Sebastiano, Scolastica, Rocco e Antonio vescovo and the Storie di san Bendetto. The rest correspond to the stories of Sainte Giulia and the life of Christ. Above, covering the inner face of the dome, a Father God crowns a heavily blue firmament that extends to the top of the walls.

© J.L.Nicolas


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