In the Middle Ages, people believed that dazzling liturgical objects gave honor to God, and the more lavish and resplendent the materials used to make them, the greater the praise they proclaimed. By such a measure, the Freiburg Cross—a combination of gold, silver, rubies and sapphires; amethyst, carnelian and other semiprecious gems; and cloisonné, enamel, glass and niello—must be an equivalent of the Seraphim, the highest-ranking angels who constantly sing of God's glory. By earthly standards, too—its exquisite intricate design and expert craftsmanship—it is without peer among similar existing objects of the period.
Also known as the Cross of St. Trudpert, the Freiburg Cross was made as a reliquary around 1280-90, when a piece of what was believed to be the True Cross, on which Christ was crucified, was brought from Palestine to the Abbey of St. Trudpert, near Freiburg, Germany, in the Rhine valley. So many materials and techniques (engraving, filigree, chasing, among them) went into its creation that the cross had to be the work of many. Most likely, a master artist designed it and supervised its making by several artisans, according to Ekaterina Nekrasova-Shedrinsky, a curator at the State Hermitage Museum in Russia, which owns the cross. (It is on view at the Hermitage's Amsterdam branch until Aug. 25, after which it will return to St. Petersburg.)
Shaped like an anchor, the cross has a wooden core, sheathed in silver-gilt, that stretches just over 28 inches from top to bottom. At its center is a crucifix, which is flanked by side shafts holding silver-gilt figures—Mary on the left and St. John, the apostle Jesus loved, on the right, both almost totally wrapped in voluminous, gracefully draped robes. In contrast, muscles and bones are visible on Christ's body, made of gold and naked but for a similarly draped loincloth, and the tension in his bent right knee is evident. His angular face, with furrowed brow, downcast eyes, and curly hair, is capped not with thorns but a kingly crown. Behind him, a black-and-white halo inscribed with I.N.R.I. (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) contains a raised filigreed cross, set with five stones that represent his five wounds.
These beautifully modeled figures alone make this an extraordinary object, but there is much more to admire. The cross is studded with gems, numbering nearly 75 on the front alone (a few have been lost) and more on the sides. Two, from the 19th century, were added when the cross was restored at some point during the 1800s, but many are ancient. Some 15, most dating to the first century B.C., are carved with classical figures like Diana, Minerva and Cupid. A heart-shaped garnet, inset upside-down below and to the right of Christ's feet, symbolizes a drop of his blood.
Just above Christ sits a little shelter, reminiscent of a medieval pilgrim's rest station, which houses a rock crystal cross. This, the simplest element of the design, was intended to hold its most sacred part—the relic, now lost. The shelter posts Mary and St. John at the sides of the cross, and the sun and the moon, a reminder of the passage of earthly time, above the crossbar. A hand of God reaches from heaven to touch the crystal cross, a sign that he ordained the crucifixion to redeem mankind.
At the top of the cross is a medallion with a relief of Christ enthroned; he is set in a sextifoil, surrounded by a roundel, then a square, then a quatrefoil. That pattern is repeated at the end of each side shaft: On the left, the relief image, with a raised cross, represents the Church, while on the right, the goat's head, an Old Testament sacrifice, and rent banner, for the broken covenant with God, symbolize the synagogue.
The back of the cross, nearly as richly ornamented as the front, encapsulates many Christian teachings. At the center, a relief depicts Jesus as the Lamb of God. On the cross's ends, medallions depict the evangelists using their traditional symbols: Matthew as a winged man, Mark as a winged lion, Luke as a winged ox and John as an eagle.
Six little plaques, carved and engraved in silver relief on niello quatrefoils, line the vertical and cross shafts, each revealing a moment in the life of Mary or Jesus: The Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Virgin and Child, Adoration of the Magi and Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Although not even two inches across, including the background, they are so detailed that their figures' irises, facial wrinkles and hair strands are easily visible.
As if all these elements were not majestic enough, the cross's shafts, front and back, are filled with embossed flowers, leaves, birds and winged animals, sometimes set against a hatched background. But nowhere does the ornamentation seem overdone.