Treasures Unveiled (3): A gold and garnet cross from the relics of St. Cuthbert

Here is another treasure to feast your eyes on, as we continue to explore Durham Cathedral’s Collections in words and images.  Durham Cathedral’s artefacts are diverse, from embroideries to chalices, grave crosses to incunabula (books printed before 1501, with movable type); you can learn more at http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/heritage/collections.  Indeed, new exhibition spaces are currently being created in the Cathedral’s major development project, Open Treasure – see http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/open-treasure for further details.

The third vignette in our Treasures Unveiled series is an object: St. Cuthbert’s Pectoral Cross.  This stunning, iconic piece of artistry probably dates from the mid-7th century.

In early Northumbrian Christianity, the pectoral cross was designed to be worn by priests, or (often wealthy) laity, around the neck on a ribbon or chain – it was believed to assist in personal worship and to safeguard a person spiritually.  Some were buried with the cross, with its symbolism of resurrection.  As a Bishop, St. Cuthbert may well have worn this regularly; vestiges of a silken cord were found around his neck.

The central, principal garnet is set in a white Mediterranean shell; six of the original gemstones have disappeared (© Durham Cathedral Library)

When the shrine of St. Cuthbert (c. 634-687) was destroyed in the throes of Henry VIII’s Reformation, his remains and relics were moved under the floor of the feretory for safe-keeping; then, over 250 years later, the cross was discovered lying on the saint’s breast when the coffin was opened in 1827 – probably at the behest of local antiquarian, clergyman and onetime Cathedral Librarian, James Raine (1791–1858).  Other treasures were also discovered, including an ivory comb, a silver-coated portable altar, and richly embroidered vestments.  It is thought the King’s Reformation commissioners failed to spot the cross when they plundered the shrine in 1538, as it was concealed within the folds of his vestments.

The pectoral cross (above and below, from different angles) is a lavish creation of gold and garnet.  The craftsmanship is intricate, with gems in tiny gold cells, reminiscent of cloisonné techniques used in Anglo-Saxon jewellery – the craftsman must have been very dexterous!

This side view is an opportunity to see the exquisite detail of the cross from close quarters (© Durham Cathedral Library)

This side view is an opportunity to see the exquisite detail of the cross from close quarters (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Analysis of the stones suggests one or two are in fact red glass.  The decorative dog-toothing and beaded wire decoration is painstakingly worked.  By 1827 Cuthbert’s body was a skeleton, after having been discovered in saintly wholeness in 1104.  The remains were placed in a new coffin and the cross was kept aside for display.

We hope you have found this vignette illuminating (pun intended), and that we’ve whetted your appetite for further delights from our collections…

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