Grisaille Panel ca. 1265 made in Roen, Normandy, France. White glass, pot-metal glass, and vitreous paint. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, 1969
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Icons Decoded: Discover the Artworks That Inspired Our “Heavenly Bodies” Store

From jackets to tees to totes, our offering draws inspiration from icons of Catholicism

The Reliquary Cross

(full image at left, detail at right) Reliquary Cross ca. 1180 made in Limoges, France. Silver gilt, rock crystal, glass cabochons; wood core. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, Michel David-Weill Gift, The Cloisters Collection, and Mme. Robert Gras Gift, in memory of Dr. Robert Gras, 2002.

 

This stunning 12th-century cross, made in Limoges, France, melds a range of luxurious material as a symbol of devotion. Featuring silver gilt, rock crystal, and glass cabochon “gems” adorning a wood core, this object would have held immense material value in its day. Though it might seem insignificant to us now, rock crystal was extremely prized for its clarity and hardness – which would have far exceeded the clarity that glassmakers of the period could achieve and would have dazzled contemporary viewers.

Even more resplendent is the innermost material that the work is composed of – a fragment of wood believed to be taken from the cross that Jesus died on, as well as relics of his tomb, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Innocents, and the early deacons of the Church. Each is identified by Latin inscriptions on the exterior of the cross, which list these holy contents. These relics lend the work its most powerful spiritual value. Relics were believed to have healing power, and those associated with Christ and the Virgin Mary were considered the holiest.

 

Adam & Eve

Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) 1526. Oil on panel. The Courtauld Institute of Art, Lee of Fareham, Arthur Hamilton (1st Viscount); bequest; 1947. P.1947.LF.77 Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

 

This delightful depiction of Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder portrays the biblical scene informed by scenes familiar to the artist and his own fantasy.

First, take a moment to notice the lushness of the apple tree, ripe with dozens of apples. Cranach uses the fully fruited tree looming above Adam and Eve as a symbol of the immense temptation to which the pair ultimately succumb. The artist masterfully portrays the verdant scene of paradise, which features ordinary pastoral creatures like the sheep, elk, deer, hog, and fowl, which would have been familiar to the artist. It also incorporates exotic animals, like a lion in the foreground and a unicorn trotting past in the background, which the artist likely modeled on previous works of art, texts, and his own imagination. In the Bible, the unicorn is mentioned as a symbol of the power of God’s creation. In the Middle Ages, texts like Physiologus describe the unicorn as an elusive animal that could only be captured by a virgin. As such, the unicorn can be regarded as a symbol of Christ in this work.

Looking to Eve, you’ll notice her posture and face are similar to other works that Cranach painted around a similar time. In particular, Eve pays an uncanny resemblance to the artist’s portrayal of Venus in this 1525-27 painting in The Met collection – even her hair curls outward in just the same way – suggesting that the artist used the same model for both works. The model likely appears again as the central female figure (again, Venus) in his 1528 painting, The Judgment of Paris, also in The Met collection.

Contextualizing the work a bit more, this 1509 woodblock is among more than 50 known portrayals Adam and Eve created by the artist during his lifetime. Similar to the 1526 painting, the woodblock is dense with symbolism, and features many of the same animals in similar poses placed in differing locations throughout the composition, as well as a plumper Eve and what could very well be the same model for Adam. Lucas Cranach the Elder clearly dedicated himself to perfecting the scene over his lifetime, striving to lend his own unique point of view to his composition. These works by Cranach the Elder differ greatly from more staid portrayals by other artists of the period, such as this engraving by Albrecht Dürer from 1504.

 

Saint Michael

(full image at left, detail at right) Saint Michael by Master of Belmonte (Spanish, Aragon, active ca. 1460–90) 1450-1500. Tempera and oil on wood . The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, 1955.

 

Saint Michael represents the triumph over evil. As the commander of the Army of God, he is responsible for the defense of the Church and assists souls at the time of death. In this depiction, the archangel is shown with a demon at his feet, representing the Antichrist.  Saint Michael’s boyishly handsome appearance, exquisitely detailed suit of armor and cape, and the luxurious courtly setting are presented in stark contrast to the gruesome appearance of the devil. Through this symbolism, the artist hints not so subtly about the virtues of goodness and the horrors of evil.

Saint Michael and the Dragon attributed to Spanish (Valencian) Painter (active in Italy, early 15th century) ca. 1405. Tempera on wood, gold ground. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1912.

 

This portrayal of Satan likely takes inspiration from the book of Revelation 12:7–9, “Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it.” The artist presents evil in its most horrifying form, with multiple faces, bird-like legs with sharp talons, and crawling with beetles and serpents; it even boasts a dragon who grows from the top of the head.

  

Pendant

Pendant by Edward Everett Oakes (American, 1891–1960) ca. 1925. Made in Boston, Massachusetts, United States. Silver with colored stones including blue, pink and yellow sapphires, garnets, a tourmaline, and an emerald. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Jacqueline Loewe Fowler, 2014.

 

This 20th-century example of a cross necklace follows in the historic tradition of wearing crosses as a sign of faith. A master of the Arts & Crafts style, Edward Everett Oakes was widely recognized during his lifetime, and one of his pendant designs was purchased by Tiffany & Co’s Edward C. Moore as a gift for The Met in 1923. Similar to the reliquary cross shown earlier in this post, the fine materials that comprise this artful piece—silver, sapphires, garnets, tourmaline, and emerald—testify to the wearer’s religious conviction and love of God.

Though the cross now commonly stands as a symbol of Christianity, in biblical times the cross was commonly used for crucifixion, and it may have held significance as a pagan religious symbol for Babylonians. Early followers of Christianity would have been persecuted for displaying a cross or any other devotion to the new religion, and it wasn’t until the 4th century that crosses began to be introduced inside private devotional chambers and in churches.

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