Reliquary of the True Cross

Left: Top of the lid. Right: Underside of the lid.

Byzantine, early 9th century
Cloisonné enamel
Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession 17.190.715a, b

The lid of the reliquary has an image of the Crucifixion surrounded by the busts of eleven men in blue (perhaps the 12 apostles minus Judas?) and three others wearing red. Jesus is shown still alive and wearing a colobium, with the sun and moon on the left and right above his head. As usual, Mary stands on his right and John on his left.

The underside of the lid pictures four episodes from scripture in iconographic traditions typical of the age. In the upper right is the Annunciation. The Virgin Mary makes a palm-out gesture of humility with her right hand while her left holds a distaff. Thread leads from the distaff to a basket at her feet. This detail refers to the tradition from apocryphal literature that she was preparing thread to be woven for the Temple's veil at the time of the Annunciation. At the top is the phrase ΚΑΙΡΕ [ΚΕ]ΧΑΡ[Ι]ΤΟΜ[ΕΝΗ], "Hail full of grace."

The Nativity on the right also follows the Byzantine tradition in placing the Christ Child and the animals at the top, Mary recumbent in the middle, and midwives washing the child at the bottom. The letters ΗΓΕΝΑ at the top are probably a shortenting of Η ΓΕΝΝΗΣΗ, "the birth."

In the bottom left of the underlid the Greek phrases written on either side of the cross mean "Behold your son" and "Behold your mother," words that Jesus spoke from the cross to John and the Virgin Mary. The portrayal of Jesus is also in keeping with 9th-century practice. He wears a collobium, his eyes are open, and his arms stretch horizontally without sagging. As usual, the crosspiece is flanked by stylized representations of the sun and moon.

Finally, in the lower right we see a traditional Anastasis. Christ draws Adam up from Hell while standing on an anthropomorphic Satan and just a hint of a broken door. Eve stands behind Adam, her gesture echoing that of the Virgin Mary in the upper left.

Read more about the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and the Anastasis.

Photographs: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City