European sculpture specialist Milo Dickinson explains why this English figure of Christ — one of only two of its type known to have survived the 800-plus years since it was cast — was previously thought to have been made in Limoges in France
Cast from bronze using the ancient lost-wax technique and standing at 30cm high, with a small mounting-slot on the foot, this Anglo-Norman cross depicts an elongated figure of Christ nailed to a crucifix. It was made to be either placed in the nave of a church during mass, or to be mounted on a staff and carried aloft at the front of processions on holy days.
‘In 12th-century England the church was dominant,’ explains Milo Dickinson, Christie’s European sculpture specialist. ‘Almost all the patrons were ecclesiastical bodies, and the depiction of Christ suffering on the cross was one of the most important public images.’
Today, only a very small amount of English Romanesque art remains. ‘England lost an inestimable amount of its medieval artistic heritage in the 16th and 17th centuries,’ says the specialist. ‘So many churches, along with their contents, were destroyed during decades of war and periods of iconoclasm, including the dissolution of the monasteries and the Reformation. Survivals are rare and very important to scholars for our understanding of medieval art.’
So little is known about English Romanesque art that this crucifix was catalogued as being made in Limoges in France when it was last sold in 1979. Two years later, in 1981, a parishioner uncovered a similar 12th-century crucifix in the tower of St Mary’s Church in Monmouthshire, Wales, and it was this discovery that led scholars to begin comparing the two.
‘This sculpture will appeal to a small but highly competitive group of dedicated medieval art collectors, simply because there are no others that we know of’ — Milo Dickinson
Dickinson explains that in a number of illuminated manuscripts, including the Winchester Psalter in the British Library and the John of Worcester Chronicle in Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University, which are both from the 12th century, you can see the same S-shaped curve of Christ’s body, three coils of hair falling over each shoulder, and emaciation of the rib cage, that the two bronze crucifixes exhibit.
In 1992, both sculptures appeared alongside one another in the seminal survey of Romanesque bronze corpus figures by leading medieval art scholar Peter Bloch. Bloch suggested that because of their similarities they were made in the same workshop. Unlike the Monmouth example, which was most likely made by a team of metalworkers, both the figure of Christ and the cross of the example offered in London on 4 December were probably made entirely by a single craftsman.
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The church in Monmouthshire loaned its historically important crucifix to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, and as the only other example of a complete 12th-century English bronze corpus crucifix, this sculpture will appeal to a small but highly competitive group of dedicated medieval art collectors. As Dickinson states, ‘This is simply because there are no others that we know of.’