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Athos Holy Mount

Byzantine Minor Arts
9.23 Cross of the Empress Helena Palaeologina
15th c.
Dionysiou Monastery
Wood and silver with high and low relief work
Height 36.2 cm, length of long crossarm 18.8 cm,
length of short crossarm 11.2 cm



The Original New Testament

According to the inscription on the rectangular silver plate at the base of the vertical arm, this cross was a votive offering from the Empress Helena: she was the daughter of the Serb ruler Dragas, the wife of the Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos and the mother of the last Emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI Palaeologos; in 1448 she became a nun, adopting the name Hypomoni (Patience), and died two years later. The inscription, set out in thirteen lines, reads: 'ΑΝΑΘΗΜΑ / ΕΛΕΝΗC ΔΕ / CΠΟΙΝΗC ΡΩ / ΜΑΙΩΝ ΤΗC / ΠΑΛΑΙΟΛ / ΟΓΙΝΗC CΥΖΥ / ΓΟΥ ΒΑCΙΛΕΩC / ΜΑΝΟΥΗΛ ΤΟΥ / ΠΑΛΑΙΟΛΟ / ΓΟΥ ΘΥΓΑΤ(Ο)C / ΤΟΥ ΔΡΑΓΑC ΑΥΘΕΝΤΟΥ / ΤΗCΕΡΒΙ / ΑC' (Votive offering from the Lady Helena Palaeologina, Mistress of the Romans, wife of King Manuel Palaeologos, daughter of Dragas, Prince of Serbia).

This wooden cross has a silver cover, ornamented with relief work. It belongs to the patriarchal type of the Anastasis cross, but with a third slanting crossarm at the suppedaneum's height, a feature which was adopted and widely used in post-Byzantine Orthodox Russia (Uspenskij 1880, pp. 17-28). The decoration covers both sides of the cross, in a combination of panels with figurative scenes and flora motifs, the latter consisting of intricately intertwining fluted tendrils terminating in half-leaves. Cabochon gems in intricately wrought raised settings ornament four of these flora scroll panels. There are figurative panels on both the front and back of the cross.

The front of this cross, with the votive plaque at the bottom, has at its centre a cruciform plate with the figure of Christ on a cross, in high relief, with a square suppedaneum and a plaque engraved with his monogram. Above the outstretched arms of the crucified Christ is the inscription 'The Crucifixion'. Christ is depicted already dead, his slender, slightly flexed legs supporting the weight of his robust but drooping body. Small square panels at the ends of the large crossarm contain two half-length figures which, in the Western manner, gesticulate their despair. The corresponding compartments on the upper crossarm display two half-length angels in adoration; they are turned towards the vertical crossarm on the end of which is represented the Road to Calvary. The slanting crossarm has a flora decoration interrupted by the plate with the figure of the crucified Christ.

On the reverse, the focal decoration is the naked figure of Christ standing, relaxed, on the bank of the Jordan, in which a fish is swimming. Above his head, a series of concentric semicircles indicate the presence of God. The ends of the crossarms are decorated with half-length angels, similar to those on the front, except for the left-hand end of the larger crossarm, on which John the Baptist is represented, according to Western models. On the top of the vertical crossarm there is a miniature representation of the Baptism of Christ.

This cross is of the same type, and in decoration very closely with the so-called 'Cross of Constantine the Great' in the Monastery of Vatopedi, which in all likelihood is also connected with some member of the Palaeologoi family (Loverdou-Tsigarida 1996, pp. 481-2, figs. 431-2). The iconography of the scenes displays a combination of two distinct trends: the single figures show a Western influence, while the two miniature scenes adhere to Byzantine models. The flora ornaments are comparable to those on fourteenth- and fifteenth-century icon revetments (Grabar 1978, pp. 61-2).

Bibliography: Kondakov 1902, p. 216. Millet - Pargoire - Petit 1904, no. 461, p. 159. Mosin 1937-38, pp. 136-7. Gabriel D. 1959, p. 72. Kadas 1979. Kadas 1997, p. 114, fig. 52.

K. L-T.
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