The Sign of Christ, the Sign of Salvation: an Exalted Cross in a Late Medieval Armenian Gospel Book

The Sign of Christ, the Sign of Salvation: an Exalted Cross in a Late Medieval Armenian Gospel Book

By Orsolya Mednyánszky

Paper given at the Vagantes: Medieval Graduate Student Conference, held at the University of Pittsburgh (2011)

By the later Middle Ages, illuminated gospels became very popular among Armenians, with even lower class families owning their own copy. Many of these books have survived to the present day, and Mednyansky examines one manuscript which is held at the Armenian Library and Museum in Watertown, Massachusetts. This 15th century work includes a full page illustration on an exalted cross, and this paper focuses on what this image is trying to say, and how it might have been influenced by other Armenian religious images.

The image itself is of colourful cross, made of a series of boxes which depict flowers or patterns. At the very top of the cross the beardless head of Jesus is depicted, and below one can see four angels. The page also contains several short pieces of writing, such as noting the ‘Angels’ and the line “The Cross shining in the East”.

The image of the cross was very important in Armenian religious belief, and was considered to be a talisman could possess supernatural power. Mednyansky shows examples of other illustrations of Armenian crosses, which share similarities with the one she is examining today, such as the depiction of angels. The cross was very much a devotional image that would be a useful tool for meditation. The viewer’s focus would move from the bottom of the page to the top, which could be seen as a symbol for the moving from the earthly realm up to the heavenly. The crosses are also often described a Tree of Life,or Wood of Life, and the images give it a kind of organic look similar to that of a tree.

Finally, Medyansky points out that the image would reinforce the Armenians monophysite identity of Christ and Christianity – unlike Roman Catholic depictions, which put Jesus’ body on the cross to emphasize both his human and Godly personae, the Armenian manuscript just shows his head as part of the cross itself – to emphasize him as being a deity.

Click here to read more papers from Vagantes

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine