11th Century Reliquary Crucifix


A long-time friend of my parents wrote me a letter recently, telling me that she’d found something unusual in her late mother’s jewellery box. Today I visited her and had a look.


i-2f33d44b57b7940b73f75812bac37285-DSCN8101-lores.JPGIt’s a small cast copper-alloy crucifix, darkly patinated, with a semi-obliterated image of the crucified Christ incised onto the front surface. The piece is made like a box, hollow on the back side, with loops at the top and bottom as if it had originally been joined to a back piece. Its dimensions are 82 by 45 by 5 mm, length 70 mm if you disregard the loops.

The crucifix has no provenance, and its owner can only guess how it ended up in her mother’s jewellery box. This is a little frustrating, because unless I’m entirely mistaken, we’re looking at an 11th century enkolpion, a reliquary crucifix intended to hold a small relic. They’re not common finds. A more elaborate one was found in the 1990s at Uppåkra near Lund, one of Scandinavia’s richest 1st Millennium settlement sites and beyond doubt a Dark Ages royal seat. So this is breaking news!

(Twoflower’s gonna cry now, because his scale markers were at my office and I couldn’t get them before I left this morning. I apologise!)

Update 5 December: Dear Reader Tobias has found an exact match for the piece on the web site of a Californian antiques dealer. The Californian enkolpion is complete, retaining both its halves, but it is also unprovenanced.



Update 8 December: Writes Jörn Staecker, Scandinavia’s foremost authority on these things (and I translate):

“The find belongs to my type 3.3.1 (p. 161 ff). Date, 10th century, probably a mass product from Palestine. Most likely, the reliquary cross came to Scandinavia with a traveller in the 19th or 20th century. In the bazaar in Istanbul, there are more Byzantine objects than there are in the museums…”

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  1. #1 felicia
    December 4, 2007

    Not so far from this in style?

  2. #2 Martin R
    December 5, 2007

    The incised image on the new crucifix is very similar to the left-hand half of the one you’re linking to. The new one even seems to have the same kind of lettering under the arms of the man! Roger Wikell suggested in email that it might be runes. I can’t tell because I didn’t notice the lettering when handling the crucifix.

  3. #3 Mattias
    December 5, 2007

    Nice find! Generally I am not sure that all pieces of this type were enkolpia in a literal sense, since some of them would be far too heavy for that purpose. In this case it seems likely, however – what is the weight of the piece?

    In the profile picture, it seems like the upper and lower end of the piece have had holes for a hinge mechanism, is that so?

    / Mattias

  4. #4 Martin R
    December 5, 2007

    I don’t know the weight, didn’t have a set of scales, but it’s not very heavy.

    The loops I mentioned do seem to have formed part of a hinge and a lock, respectively. The back piece would have had two pairs of loops.

  5. #5 Tobias
    December 5, 2007

    Nifty find indeed! Did you as if the old lady had travelled a lot (it might very well be a souvernir). Found a quite similar (byzantine) one while googling that could serve as an indication for how the missing piece might have looked: http://www.ancientresource.com/images/byzantine/byzantine_crosses/byz_encolpion01.jpg

  6. #6 Martin R
    December 5, 2007

    Well done, Tobias, that’s an exact match!

    Judging from its price with an on-line antiques dealer, these things must be pretty common somewhere in the world. A complete enkolpion of this type fetches only $210.

  7. #7 Twoflower
    December 5, 2007

    There’s something missing from those photographs.

  8. #8 Tobias
    December 5, 2007

    Even though I do not support selling artifacts like this (especially unprovenanced ones), these sites do provide a significant image resource, especially for non-scholars like myself, which I appreciate…

    Irrespective, google is the sh*t!

  9. #9 Rita Richter
    July 31, 2010

    Hi, I was wondering if I would be able to send you a picture of a cross that I purchased recently and shipped to me from Bulgaria. My purpose in writing to you was to see if you’d be able to date the pendant crucifix and a little history about where it may have originated. Thank you and I appreciate your reply. Mrs. Richter

  10. #10 Martin R
    July 31, 2010

    You’re welcome to send me a pic, but I’m afraid Bulgarian crucifixes are way, way out of my area of expertise.

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