Gallery blog


Illuminating Objects: The Mount Athos Cross

30 October 2012 by Eleni

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Dr Eleni Dimitriadou, Visiting Lecturer at The Courtauld Institute of Art

Illuminating Objects is a new series of displays that shines a light on unexpected objects from the decorative arts and sculpture collection.

All these objects have interesting stories to tell, but have rarely been shown and are unknown to all but the most specialist scholars.

The first object we have chosen is an exquisitely carved Orthodox cross.

The Athonite Cross

The Mount Athos Cross

This cross was made in one of the monasteries on Mount Athos in the 17th or 18th century.

For centuries this complex of twenty monasteries was a centre of miniature wood carving, a craft still practised by the monks there today.

This cross was originally used for the benediction of the congregation during the liturgy. It, along with two others, was bequeathed to The Courtauld Gallery in 1966.

Over the last 46 years it has been looked after by the respective curators of Sculpture and Decorative Arts.

The Cross during conservation

The cross during conservation

It goes on display to the public for the first time today.

Gallery Technician Jack Kettlewell installs the cross

Gallery Technician Jack Kettlewell installs the cross

Over the last six months I’ve been working with Dr Alexandra Gerstein, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, on the research and display of this first Illuminating Object.

Working so closely on a single object is not as straightforward as you might think, especially when dealing with a piece as intricate as this cross.

It’s been an interesting challenge to  try and communicate the complexity and purpose of the cross’ decoration and place it in its cultural context.

The very first task was to choose which one of the three carved wooden crosses of the collection we were going to display.

Making a decision was not easy – but in the end the size of this cross (it’s the largest of the group) and more importantly the quality of carving dictated our choice.

Both sides of the cross are covered in intricately carved miniature scenes.

These scenes are from the Great Feasts cycle, known as Dodekaorton in Greek, essentially events from the life of Christ and the Virgin.

Three different moments of the episode are shown: Christ and his disciples climbing up and then down Mount Tabor, and in the middle His Transfiguration in glory flanked by Elijah and Moses, while the disciples are hurled to the ground by the Divine Light.

Three different moments of The Transfiguration episode are shown in this scene: Christ and his disciples climbing up and then down Mount Tabor, and in the middle His Transfiguration in glory flanked by Elijah and Moses, while the disciples are hurled to the ground by the Divine Light.

Foliate ornaments around the cross are carved with Old Testament narratives, prophets and saints.

A miniature scene on the cross: Prophet Elijah fed by a raven

Detail: Prophet Elijah fed by a raven

On the lateral sides of the cross are two acronyms, referring to the salvation of mankind through sacrifice.

We wanted to make sure all of these details are visible to visitors, so we’ve placed the cross in a freestanding case. You can also explore the image in more detail on our website.

Our next challenge was to work out how orientate the viewer through all 18 scenes, not to mention the singular images of prophets and saints.

Eleni and Dr Alexandra Gerstein examine the cross

Eleni and Dr Alexandra Gerstein examine the cross

We suggest following a chronological order, starting from the scene of the Annunciation on Side A and working your way down to the Raising of Lazarus and then to Side B.

This is not, however, the only way of looking at it.

What is important to understand about this cross is that the choice of placing specific Old Testament events around certain New Testament scenes is not coincidental – they interact to emphasise the salvation of mankind, a profound human concern for thousands of years.

Working on this project alongside the curator has given me real insight into the process of organising exhibitions.

It’s also meant that I’ve become aware of a group of artworks – carved wooden crosses – which have attracted very little scholarly attention. I’m intending to do further research on the subject culminating in an academic article.

Finally, I would like to thank Klairi Angelou for compiling documentation on the crosses for the object files.

The Mount Athos Cross will be on display from 30 October 2012 – 4 February 2013.

Other objects in the Illuminating Objects series will include African and Oceanic wood carvings, Renaissance and later ivories, and German and Venetian glass, to name but a few. Watch this space to find out more!

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Categories: Displays, Illuminating Objects | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 comments

Comments (2)

  1. this is a fabulous object! I have only just caught sight of it . I need to know if it will still be on display on the Monday 4th February, the day advertised for its ending. I have to travel up to London from 100 miles away and should hate to miss it.. What time will the gallery close? And what would the hours on the Sunday (3rd) be for seeing it?

    • Hi Frances,

      Glad you like the cross, and thanks for checking! Sunday 3 will be the last day to see it as it is being de-installed on the morning of Monday 4th. The Gallery will be open from 10am – 6pm on Sunday. Hope that helps.