The Crux Gemmata and Shifting Significances of the Cross in Insular Art

The Crux Gemmata and Shifting Significances of the Cross in Insular Art

Schweitzer, Ilse

Marginalia, Vol.3 (2006)


This image of the triumphant jewelled cross, alternately gleaming with blood and treasure, from the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’ has often been juxtaposed with various artefacts from early medieval Britain. Elizabeth Coatsworth suggests a parallel between the ‘blood, gold, and jewels’ of the poet’s dream-rood and the gold and garnet cross of St Cuthbert. Indeed, several metalwork crosses and brooches bear similarities in their decoration to the crux gemmata of the poem, as do monumental stone crosses and miniatures in gospel manuscripts. As we investigate these forms of media and the significances of their designs, we see that the concept of the crux gemmata has transcended its own materials and that its preciousness may lie outside the value of its golden and jewelled decoration. However, like light playing over the surface of the dreamer’s rood, interpretations of these artefacts are many-faceted, and are likely to shift and change hues according to the vantage point of the viewer. This paper will investigate the various ‘identities’ represented by the sign of the cross and, through surveying crosses in Anglo-Saxon metalwork, stone sculpture, and manuscripts, will demonstrate how these identities are signified by the design and numerical and colour symbolism of these artefacts.

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