The Cloisters Cross, or Bury St. Edmund’s Cross, is an ornate and complex cross carved out of morse ivory (walrus tusk). The exact date of the cross’s origin is unknown, but carbon dating has been able to determine that the tusk came from a walrus that died some time between 676 and 694 A.D. The carving, however, most likely came much later in time, with speculations and research giving the time frame of 1150 to 1200 A.D. The cross is carved with figures and inscriptions on the entire piece, and is one of three surviving crosses carved from morse ivory from this time period. The cross’s true origins are unknown, but evidence suggests that it came from an abbey in Bury St. Edmund’s , a town in modern day England. The cross was most likely used in a liturgical sense, although today it resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
The Cloisters Cross is made entirely out of morse ivory (walrus tusk), is 23 inches tall, and has an arm span 14.5 inches wide [See Parker 1994, 13]. It has a glowing yellow color to it. The cross was most likely carved with such intricacy by first drawing the design in ink, and then by using a very small chisel to trace the design [See Ritchie 1975, 16]. The cross can be broken down into five separate pieces that interlock perfectly to form the whole cross: the cross bar, the vertical shaft, and three plaques, one on each end. The five pieces interlock like a puzzle by the tongue and slot method to hold them in place, and have holes drilled where they may have been previously connected by small dowels [See Parker 1994, 22]. The bottom of the vertical beam suffered a break, and evidence like a rectangular hollow shows where it might have once been connected to a fourth plaque and thus connected to a base providing stability [See Parker 1994, 25]. During the time the cross was carved, elephant ivory was a scarce commodity due to the collapse of the Roman Empire, and thus the trading routes [See Parker 1994, 17]. The tusk itself would have been quite valuable, and "the near-perfect dentine needed to carve the Cloisters Cross in all its detail was a critical task and suggests an important gift or long-held treasure" [See Parker 1994, 17].
There are multiple Biblical characters and stories depicted on the cross. On the front, there are depictions of Adam and Eve , Moses and the Brazen Serpent , Good Friday, Easter, and the Ascension of Christ , along with numerous Bible verses and couplet inscribed throughout. Towards the top there is a scene depicting the dispute over the titulus (sign over the cross), and the sides of the shaft depict Jews mocking Christ perishing and the story of Ham and Noah. The back of the Cloister Cross "originally presented a sequence of eighteen Old Testament figures-including the missing Jonas- plus a figure of Matthew, with scrolls bearing passages from their books" [See Parker 1994, 93]. Saint Luke and Saint Mark are on the left and right plaques, respectively, and John the Evangelist is on the top plaque. In the center of the cross is a carving of the Lamb of God surrounded by five Bible verses depicting Christ as a lamb for slaughter.
The cross originally surfaced in 1955 when the owner, Ante Topic Mimara, attempted to sell it to several different museums. The New York Met purchased the cross in 1960 where it remains today.
Local Historical Context Edit
The Christian crusades took place during the time the cross was carved, with the third crusade in 1189 lasting to 1192 and the fourth crusade called for in 1198 and lasting from late 1199 to 1204 [See Setton 1962, 183]. The crusades were battles fought by European Christians who were attempting to halt Muslim expansion into territory seen as theirs. The crusades were sparked by Pope Urban II when during a sermon he said, "Whoever for devotion alone, not to gain honour or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God can substitute this journey for all penance" [See Tyerman 2004, 12]. The Pope was seen as a major authority figure in this time, and joining the crusades on behalf of the Pope was seen as an act of martyrdom, and there was great honor in dying while fighting these battles. In exchange for their service in the crusades, Christian soldiers would be completely absolved of all sin. According the The Met webite, "Absolution from sin and eternal glory were promised to the Crusaders, who also hoped to gain land and wealth in the East." These promises led to four eventual holy wars.
The Cloisters Cross was commissioned in this time of Christian war along with two others which did not survive. Religion was of the utmost importance to civilians and soldiers, so the cross would have been seen as immensly valuable and a tangible reminder of what the crusades were for. During this time in what is now modern day Britain, the population was growing to unparalelled numbers and continued to do so until the Black Death in the mid 14th century. With this population growth, there was a correlated growth to the number of larger cities also being constructed in this time. A large portion of the population still lived or worked in manors , but urban settlements were also on the rise [See Pryor 2006, 199]. With these new cities came new churches and monestaries where the Cloisters Cross would have been displayed. A local or even state renowned artist was likely commisioned to carve this piece for the church as an act of service. Once gifted or sold to the church, it was likely that the cross was used either in ritual or as a story telling device [Parker 1994, 151].
World Historical SignificanceEdit
The Cloisters Cross is an artifact from a time of war in the name of religion. The Crusades had a lasting impact on Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. While the physical violence and structure of the crusades dissolved, the mindset persisted for centuries. If terrible acts were committed in the name of God, they were seen as perimissable, so religion became a scapegoat. The crusades tend to be overlooked by modern day Christians and "crusading slipped into the quiet reaches of history" [See Tyerman 2004, 137].
The Cloisters Cross today serves as a reminder and a tangible artifact of a time where religion was put above everything, including the regard for human life. It comes from a time in a religion that is seen as dark, and could serve as a great reminder that no people group has a perfect history.
Crosses have since appeared throughout modern day Europe and the Middle East, but the Cloisters Cross is one of only three surviving crosses carved from morse ivory from this time period. It served as a liturgical object in Christianity, just as other religions worldwide have symbols or relics that are seen as sacred.
Parker, Elizabeth C. The Cloisters Cross: its Art and Meaning. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994.
Pryor, Francis. Britain in the Middle Ages. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.
Ritchie, Carson. Bone and Horn Carving. Cranbury: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1975.
Setton, Kenneth. A History of the Crusades: Volume II. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Tyerman, Christopher. The Crusades: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Britannica Online, "Urban II" https://www.britannica.com/biography/Urban-II
English Heritage, "Bury St. Edmunds Abbey" http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/bury-st-edmunds-abbey/
The Met, "The Cloisters Cross" http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/470305
The Met, "The Crusades" http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/crus/hd_crus.htm
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, "What is Carbon Dating?" http://www.whoi.edu/nosams/what-is-carbon-dating