“I observed the urgent portent shift its coverings and its hues; at times it was soaked with wetness, drenched by the coursing of blood, at times adorned with treasure.”
These words about the triumphant jeweled cross, alternately gleaming with blood and treasure, are from the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Dream of the Rood,” one of the earliest Christian poems in Old English literature. The author is unknown, but scholars suggest the Anglo-Saxon poets Caedmon or Cynewulf.
This month we celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The image of the cross has been nuanced in each age. When Our Lord hung on it, it was a sign of humiliation and shame. For a time after that, Christians shied away from depicting it explicitly, instead disguising it in the form of an anchor.
With the finding of the True Cross by the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, in the early fourth century, interest in the cross greatly increased. It is believed that after that a large jeweled cross was set on the presumed site of the Crucifixion by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408–450). It was around this crux gemmata (“jeweled cross”) that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built.
The paradox whereby the instrument of execution is rendered the vehicle of Christ’s triumph in the Resurrection remains to the present day a key theme in Christian devotion, and the jeweled cross was one of its first visual manifestations.
The figure of the cross recalls not just the True Cross upon which Christ was crucified at Golgotha, but also the Tree of Life that grew at the center of Paradise. It also points us toward the triumph of the Cross at the end of time. The mosaic at Ravenna, shown here, suggests this in the image of the crux gemmata encircled by stars and placed directly under a half-image of Christ in Majesty and the evangelists as apocalyptic beasts.
I often have thought that it would be beneficial to our worship to nuance the processional cross as we progress through the liturgical year. Perhaps in Ordinary Time using a cross with corpus; during Lent, just a bare wooden cross, reminding us that it was by the wood of the cross that we were saved; then in the joy of the 5O days of Easter raising high the crux gemmata, the jeweled cross.
“We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
FATHER VINCENT DE PAUL CROSBY, OSB, is a monk, priest and artist at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. To see his work, visit fabricart.net.