University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Summer 2000


Italo-Byzantine crosses part of the Lillian Malcove Collection

This intricately carved cross, produced in northern Italy, is made from two pieces of wood. Although there is a definite Byzantine influence here, the cross is certainly of Western origin, as witnessed by the Latin inscriptions. The cross portion is divided into six units, each of which displays a scene from the New Testament. Each of these panels is approximately the size of a 35-millimetre negative.

Elaborately carved cross on a base, with case, Italo-Byzantine, late 15th or early 16th century
Elaborately carved cross on a base, with case, Italo-Byzantine, late 15th or early 16th century

On the base are three sets of images. However, here the scenes are not quite so easily recognized and do not have inscriptions. An unusual feature is the common background, repeated from one unit to another, which might suggest that the scenes are from the performance of a late medieval play based on Christ’s Passion. Such representations are not common, which enhances the importance of this work.

A further point of interest is the cruciform box that houses the cross. The wood frame is covered with parchment and varnish, and lined with red silk. On close examination, left, there are letters printed on the parchment. Infrared photographs make the reading quite easy and provide a large clue to the date of the box and, by extension, the cross. It is clear that several sections of the text were scrambled during printing, which explains why the sheets were discarded. The text is A Commentary on the Decretals of Gregory IX, written by Nicholaus de Tedeschi around the middle of the 15th century. Assuming the box was made not long after the sheets were discarded, the box (and presumably cross) must have been made sometime in the last quarter of the 15th century, or early 16th century.

The carved cross is part of the permanent collection of the Art Centre.

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