The cross – the sacred treasure

Alexander B. Ostrovsky, Ph.D., professor, leading research fellow

The collection of the orthodox crosses in the Russian museum of ethnography has been forming since 1903 till the present days.  About a half of the gathered crosses are made of silver, the others are made of copper or tin alloy. The majority of the collection consists of crosses that were in use outside the church. There are crosses that are worn upon the bosom - telniks and pectoral crosses. Such a cross was worn over the clothes and usually was used as a detail of a festive costume. The other type is a cross for icon case – kiot – which was an important part in religious tradition among Russian Old Believers. 

The collection covers all the historical periods of cross making and reflects the distinctive styles. In 13th-15th centuries the crosses called engolpions (encolpion) were used. Also there were cast variations of engolpions with their peculiar iconography (14th – 16th centuries). In  17th – 18th centuries  specific Russian bosom crosses with diverse forms and semiotic meanings were used. The crosses of the 19th century had simple forms and means of expression. Also the collection possesses contemporary items. It contains traditional crosses that are partly equal to the principals of icon-painting. These crosses are made by the contemporary craftsman Yrii Fedorov.

The collection of the bosom crosses shows main directions of the development of Orthodox artistic thinking that is visualized in crosses, the individual sacral object. The main functions of a cross are: to be the symbol of the Bible Tree of Life as well as to be the sun of the Orthodox doctrine.  

V. Grusman

The cross – sthe sacred treasure

On the materials of the exhibition of the Orthodox crosses.  

For people who practice Eastern Orthodoxy a bosom cross is a personal relic, the medium for permanent connection to the other strong believers and God. It is a symbol of desire to spiritual and aesthetic integrity.  A cross symbolizes Jesus Christ endeavor and His Resurrection. This collection reflects the historical symbolism as well as typology, forms of using bosom crosses by Orthodox Christians in Russia and in different ethno-cultural traditions.

The first section of the exhibition presents the steps of the cross making craft from late 12th to 19th centuries. Also collection shows the main types of Orthodox cross design and two ideas common for all Orthodox people The true Cross is like the Biblical tree of life and symbolizes the light of Christian teaching and Apostolic church.

Telniks (bosom crosses) and other bigger crosses worn over clothes, were widespread since the first centuries of christening of Rus’. In 12th – 13th centuries the most common type of a bosom cross was engolpions (encolpion) – bivalve cross with relics - motshevik. There were different forms of four-point Kiev engolpions: with round trapezoidal edges, with cruciform formed with arcs or lozenge.

Iconographic composition usually bounds two valves: the image of the Crucifixion (without Golgotha cross) on the obverse, on the reverse side there was the image of Holy Mother and Sancti. At the same time engolpions could be with images of Russian Saints and SS Boris and Gleb appeared. 

In 15th – 16th centuries along with engolpions, their variations were very popular. Such crosses repeated the shape of engolpions (quadrifoil etc.) but were cast and with more detailed image of the Crucifixion and with substantial Saints representation. Sometimes on the top point of the cross one of the key Christian theme was depicted - Image of Edessa, Hetoimasia etc. Sometimes there were inscriptions on the crosses: ЦРЬ СЛВЫ (INRI "King of Jews” in Old Believers tradition “King of Gloria” “Царь славы") and NИK ("Nike", glory, victory). 

17th -18th centuries were the time of flowering of Russian cross-making tradition. Not only Byzanthine samples or Old Russian pieces were the base of this tradition. In Russia at that time cross-making centers  already existed in Moscow, Tver, Veliky Novgorod, Yaroslavl, Vologda, Veliky Ustyug etc.

There were several factors which influenced the cross shape developing. One of them is the development of the religious and art thinking in Rus’ church crosses construction (dome, frontal crosses). The other is an uprising of different original types of shapes. Iconography, ornaments and methods of sculptural and color expression also had influenced: the symbol of the Biblical Tree of Life and Light of Christian teaching. 

Since 15th – 16th centuries on Russian bosom crosses, unlike Catholic crosses, Crucifixion could be substituted for the image of eight-pointed Calvary (Golgotha) cross (with lower slanted beam – footrest of the Crucified). This composition became widespread since the 17th century and expanded symbolical capacity of the design. Thus eight-pointed cross, depicted on the surface along with spear cane and Adam skull, is the True Cross and four-pointed cross meant that the owner of the cross belonged to the Orthodox Church.

The other feature of the Orthodox crosses, unlike the West European tradition, is the very detailed image of the Crucifixion. Along with IНЦИ (Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews) there was inscription IС ХС // СНЪ БЖIИ (Jesus Christ Son of God) on the cross. 

In addition to glorification inscriptions on the vertical and horizontal beam of the bosom cross the following phrase: Lord, The Cross Which We Worship and Glorify Your Resurrection could be put. The idea of victory over death and opportunity of resurrection due to the Christ feat was reproduced by the inscription near the Adam skull: М. Л. Р. Б. ( “Место лобное рай бысть” - Calvary where Christ was crucified). 

The symbol of the Life-Giving Tree of Life was expressed in a peculiar shape of the cross points. They were roundish, oval petal, or bud-like, or shamrock-like.  Also it could be conveyed by grown floral sprout framed with curls, leaves and other floral elements in the corners of crossing decorated with vitreous enamel (generally light-blue, green and yellow color) and setting with gems on the front of the cross.   

The second symbolic meaning which is common for all Christians was conveyed by the sun beams running from the middle of the cross – along a bisecting line of the angle. Moreover there were three sun-beams from each angle and in this case the total number of beams was twelve as the number of the Apostles, Disciples of Christ. 

Usually on the back of the cross there was the text of one of the two glorifying prays:  "ДА ВОСКРЕСНЕТ БОГ И РАЗЫДУТСЯ ВРАЗИ ЕГО И ДА БЕЖАТ ОТ ЛИЦА ЕГО НЕНАВИДЯЩИ ЕГО И ЯКО ИСЧЕЗАЕТ ДЫМ ДА ИСЧЕЗНУТ И ЯКО ИСЧЕЗАЕТ ВОСК ОТ ЛИЦА ОГНЯ ДА ПОГИБНУТ БЕСЫ ОТ ЛИЦА ЛЮБЯЩИХ БОГА НАШЕГО" (Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered; and let those who hate Him flee from His face. As smoke vanishes, let them vanish; and as wax melts from the presence of fire, so let the demons perish from the presence of those who love God )or "КРЕСТ — ХРАНИТЕЛЬ ВСЕЙ ВСЕЛЕННОЙ КРЕСТ КРАСОТА ЦЕРКОВНАЯ КРЕСТ ЦАРЕМ ДЕРЖАВА КРЕСТ БЕСОМ ЯЗВА"(The Cross is a guard of the Universe/ The Cross is a church beauty/The Cross is a Tsar’s orb/ the Cross is a demon’s sore ). The pray enforced the protective function of a bosom cross. 

Bosom crosses emerged in the 19th century had more simple form. Sometimes those crosses were without any decoration. At the same time they had more detailed iconography of the Passion. On the back side of a cross a hammer, nails and a ladder could be depicted. 

The collection of Orthodox crosses also shows types of diversity of bosom crosses in different Orthodox cultures of Russian Empire in 19th – 20th centuries. A bosom cross was an essential part of the traditional festive costume. It vividly presented traditional functions such as creating complete aesthetic image and protecting of the owner. 

In Russian peasant traditional culture of 16th-18th centuries a cross was worn on a massive chain. Its links could be round-shape filled with scrolls or S-shape elements and were composed in 2-3 rows or more. From the late 18th century silver and bronze chains usually consisted of triple or quadruple 8-shape links. In the 19th century peasant women wore bosom crosses as a part of a festive costume. Such a cross was worn on a special chain called gaitan. It is a wide glass-beaded chain, or woven braid ,or a red calico stripe decorated with glass-beads, two amber insets near a cross (which had a special protective power ), colored glass and paste.

Ukrainian crosses which were made in 17th -19th centuries in Voronezh, Kharkov Provinces as well as in Galicia (West Ukraine) had features of Early Middle Ages decorative traditions. In this area there were widespread two types of crosses. The first type is a cross with crossings expanded from the middle. It had a trapezium shape. The second type is a straight side cross with triangles, diamonds and/or crosses on every end. On the surface of the cross usually there were no inscriptions, but there was the Crucifixion (without Golgotha cross). 

Two symbols common to all Christians connected with Jesus Cross presented with elements which were placed on the ends of the crossing. Simultaneously there could be both gleams and double scrolls supplemented with crossings. On the ends of Hutsuls crosses 8-pointed stars and concentric circles (detail of Early Middle Age cross decoration) were depicted. Crosses were made of bronze and brass rare of silver. They were worn on tree-edged twisted metal chains or on leather lace decorated with brass pendants. Hutsuls women used to wear neck decoration zgarda. It was widespread among the Hutsuls. It consists of several (from 3 to 12) cross-shape pendants overhung on a chain and divided with little strings and tubes. 

Georgian craftsmen in 18th -19th centuries made crosses of silver rarer of gold. Sometimes Greek crosses withal broadened half-beams could be seen. The feature of the Georgian crosses iconography was the image of St. Georg who is regarded as a patron of the Georgians. Crosses which were a part of the festive costume were decorated with gems and metal pendants (petal-shape and jingles) which were typical for Byzantine art. Breast decoration could contain several crosses fixed on a single silver chain. 

Among the Orthodox Estonians – the Setu who had been living in Pskov Province - silver crosses were widespread. Crosses usually were made by the Russian craftsmen. Till the mid-19th century young Setu women had a tradition to wear several crosses as pendants on a massive silver chain. While walking pendants were clinging and this had a protective function. Later such an adornment contained no more than 2 crosses.    

Peoples of Volga district – the Mordvins, the Mari, the Christianized Tatars and the Chuvash – used silver or brass crosses, made by Russian craftsmen, in breast and neck decorations. Women wore such a decoration like Russia women did. A cross (rarer several crosses) was hung on glass-beaded gaitan with coins as an additional adornment. Sometimes a cross was inset into a beaded fasten on a shirt or on a necklace of cowries.  

The Yakut, the Evenks and the Evens used not only crosses brought from the European part of Russia, but there were pieces made by Yakut craftsmen. Crosses were cast of silver or alloy according to the Russian samples. Traditional cross making forms were added with engraving of Golgotha cross (without Crucifixion), Adam skull and short inscriptions. A cross was worn on a metal chain over the clothes. Sometimes the Evenks fixed several crosses on a fur breast decoration simultaneously and thus created individual kind of decoration set.  

As a personal sacral relic in all times. a cross  unites all Christians of different ethno-cultural traditions. 

 The Collection presents historical forms of combination of a cross symbolic and esthetic of the traditional way of life.