For nearly a century, scholars have interpreted a Byzantine reliquary of the True Cross at the Vatican Museums using the framework of gift-giving, as famously theorized by Marcel Mauss (figs. 1a–b).1 Brought to light in 1903, the reliquary is constructed of wood and consists of a shallow base with a sliding lid.2 Decorated with painted images outside and in, the reliquary’s unusual iconography has led scholars to suggest that it must have been designed as a gift from the Byzantine Church to the papacy.3 The outer surface of the lid displays a dramatic scene of the Crucifixion. Mary, who typically was shown standing beneath the Cross, drawing her hands to her mouth in grief, is instead represented bending forward to kiss her son’s feet.4 Dominating the inner side of the lid is an unprecedented, imposing image of the early bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom (340/50–407). Finally, at the bottom of the reliquary’s rectangular base, Peter and Paul, the foremost disciple and leading apostle of the Church, flank the relic cavity, a position artists often reserved for Constantine I (306–37) and his mother, Helena, who was believed to have miraculously discovered the True Cross in the fourth century. It is the latter two sets of images—the depictions of John Chrysostom and of Peter and Paul—that have led to the conclusion that the reliquary was a gift from the Byzantine to the Catholic Church: scholars have claimed that Chrysostom was positioned to “face” the “Western” saints, Peter and Paul, when the reliquary was closed, as a sign of reconciliation between the Eastern and Western Churches.5 The present essay, drawing on liturgical texts overlooked by scholars writing about the reliquary, will instead argue that these iconographic features, in combination with the unusual representation of the Virgin, are better understood in relation to an important Byzantine feast: the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In the first half of the essay, I shall introduce the complexity of the reliquary’s design in conversation with earlier scholarship. In the second half, I will show that these features can be explained through the liturgy of the Exaltation.
Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics
© 2019 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.
Willson, Justin. “A Gift No More: A Byzantine Reliquary of the Holy Cross.” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics, vol. 71–72, 2019, pp. 131–44, https://doi.org/10.1086/707128.