Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Of crosses, bells and pigs

(I promise this is my last post about Twelfth Night this year!)

One of the best gifts anyone gave me this Twelfth Night was a little gold cross. It was the gift of a friend to whom it was personally meaningful, and who thought I would likely appreciate both the cross and the meaning. I do.


This is a type of cross called a Tau cross, shaped like a capital T (Tau in Greek). It's a little over an inch high, and hollow. On the front it has a representation of the Holy Trinity (you can see God on his Throne and Christ on the Cross -- and supposedly a dove at God's right hand, though I can't make it out). On the back is the Virgin and Child. The engraving is done mostly in short, angled strokes, and there are distinctive, cross-hatched triangular "flowers" in the corners.

The more I looked at this cross, the more intrigued I became, because it looked familiar. I was sure I'd seen it before. So I started pulling books off my shelf and looking for pictures. My hunch was that this was one of the handful of named medieval crosses from England: there are several, of which some have descended through families and others have been found in archaeological contexts.

Sure enough, I found a tau cross with a name -- the Winteringham Cross. After considerable hunting, I discovered I did have a photo, in my copy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York's Mirror of the Medieval World. Here it is:

Winteringham original

Clearly it's a match.

The Winteringham Cross was found by an amateur archaeologist with a metal detector, near Winteringham in north Lincolnshire, and was acquired by the Met in 1990. I was able to find out a good deal more about it from a paper published in 1992 in the Metropolitan Museum Bulletin, accessible in libraries or through academic paper sources like JSTOR (if you have access to that).

The paper, written by the curator of the Cloisters medieval collection, compares this cross with other medieval crosses, such as the Clare cross, the Matlaske and Bridlingham crosses, and another one found in Bath. It's worth looking at as an example of how artifacts like this are studied.

Metal detecting is far from ideal from an archeological point of view, since items found this way are seldom dug up with careful attention to soil layers, associated pottery shards, color changes in nearby soil, and other clues archaeologists are trained to look for. These can often be very helpful in determining an object's date and context. On the other hand, there are no doubt plenty of medieval objects that fell out of someone's pocket in the Middle Ages and don't have much context anyway.

One way to make at least an educated guess at the date of such objects is to look at the artistic style. For paintings, this has been studied by art historians in intensive detail, such that they can often tell just by style who painted something. In this case, there are similar motifs, including the cross-hatched flowers, on two English rings, one associated with Wytelsey, archbishop of Canterbury. These suggest a date for the Winteringham cross of around 1485. (Of course, dating by style assumes you do have a reliable date for at least one object you're comparing a new one with.)

Another helpful clue to an object's meaning is iconography, that is, what people or motifs are shown on it. Since we often have documentary evidence of when and where certain stories or things became common, sometimes this provides clues to possible dates or origins for a displaced object, as well. Here's where the bells and pigs come in.

In this case, while tau crosses are associated with St. Francis of Assisi, the story of Moses, the apostles Philip and Matthew, and Christian stories about the Passover, what drew the author's attention in particular was its association with St. Anthony Abbot. This St. Anthony was a fourth-century Egyptian hermit, one of the "Desert Fathers" of the early church. A Tau-shaped staff was an early symbol of bishops and other authority figures, an earlier symbol in fact than the later curly-headed crozier or shepherd's crook. There are several surviving bishops' staffs with this shape and it's still common in the Eastern church. It is also associated with Egypt, and its crutch-like shape may relate to the fact that St. Anthony is supposed to have lived a very long life.

Saint Anthony is said to have founded a hospital in Egypt, and an order of canons, the Hospitalers of Saint Anthony (different from the more familiar Hospitalers of St. John in Palestine), was established in Paris around the beginning of the 13th century. By mid-century they had hospitals in London and York.

To raise funds for the hospital, they went around town ringing bells to announce their presence, rather like a medieval version of the Salvation Army. They also sold little Tau crosses and bells of bronze or lead, similar to the pilgrim tokens sold by shrines to those who came to visit.

Associations of lay supporters, like the modern "Friends of..." associations, quickly sprang up, and a number of paintings such as this and this show people wearing a collar or chain with a Tau cross with a bell suspended from it. The Winteringham cross also has a hole at the bottom, which may have held an attachment loop, suggesting a bell may have hung from it originally. (But as you can see, that's speculation rather than evidence.)

The pig often shown with St. Anthony may have originally symbolized the evil spirits with which he struggled in the desert. But the Antonine canons in London obtained the privilege of letting their pigs run free in the streets, foraging on whatever food they could find. They were identified as "St. Anthony's pigs" by bells tied around their necks, and it was considered an act of charity to feed them.

Another theory about the pig is that it's associated with St. Anthony because he was the saint invoked against a degenerative disease that resulted in gangrene and the amputation of arms and legs. One theory is that this disease was erysipelas, a bacterial infection of deep skin and fat tissues once thought to be associated with pigs. In fact, it was more likely ergotism, also called St. Anthony's fire. This is now known to result from eating bread made from rye grain infected with the ergot fungus. It causes impaired circulation in hands, feet, arms and legs, and in the Middle Ages its cause was not known, and there was no treatment for it except amputation.

The paper goes on at some length about this association, also suggested by a gold Tau cross found in Bath, which is engraved with a figure of St. Anthony holding a bell and accompanied by a pig. The author suggests that because the Winteringham cross is a Tau cross and hollow, it may have contained either saints' relics or protective herbs against St. Anthony's fire.

That's certainly possible, but nothing about the Winteringham cross supports it specifically. Crosses are often hollow, Tau crosses not necessarily more often than any other type. Nothing about the images shown on the Winteringham cross suggests St. Anthony. He was certainly a popular saint, and perhaps would have been the most common to associate with a Tau cross in the late Middle Ages. But it's important to be clear how much of this reasoning is from actual evidence and how much is speculation.

I wouldn't be so arrogant as to suggest that my interpretation is necessarily any better than that of a museum curator who probably has ten times my education and background in the subject. But my point is that museum curators also engage in guesswork and speculation. Dates, identifications, and meanings are not set in stone just because they are on a museum label. If we're interested in something, we have a responsibility to gather the evidence and think for ourselves.

The cross is something I'm delighted to have. It's an excellent reproduction of a piece with a lot of history behind it, and being the gift of a friend makes it even more valuable. I don't think my friend knew its full history and significance, but a gift that leads me to new discoveries is a gift indeed.

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