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The Motif of Chrismon and Calvary on the Early Christian Plutei from the Zadar Region

Catholic Faculty of Theology, University of Zagreb; [email protected]
Publication Date
  • Križ
  • Crux Gemmata
  • KalvarijA
  • Stablo života
  • Obred.
  • Cross
  • Crux Gemmata
  • Calvary
  • Tree Of Life
  • Rite.
  • Literature
  • Religious Science


From early days of Christian religion the motif of the cross was its identifying and most commonly represented symbolic sign. Although the cross represents the religion itself, that is, the Christ’s Passion and Death, this simple graphic representation, together with some other motifs, can have more than one meaning. Thus, it can represent a victorious sign of battle (Constantine’s cross), the Tree of Life (cross with floral motifs), the hill of Calvary in Jerusalem, or, as a festive cross enclosed with diamonds (crux gemmata), it can be carried at the head of a religious procession. The reasons why these last two versions of cross appeared – the one representing Calvary and the one enclosed with diamonds – were found in writings of the Church Fathers, imperial donations, and other literary texts. It is interesting to note that these artistic representations are mostly found in the region of Constantinople, Northern Italy, and Dalmatia. This suggests a common source of these types of iconography, which is found in Byzantine liturgy. Certainly, the pre-exemplar of Calvary’s iconography is the cross that emperor Theodosius II erected at the place of Christ’s Crucifixion. However, it is also probable that the Constantinople’s rite had an influence on the development of this representation. This is suggested in the aforementioned writings of the Eastern Church Fathers, especially those that had an influence on the emperors, such as Theodor of Mopsuestia had on the emperor Theodosius II. The Eastern Fathers who were the most responsible for constituting the Byzantine rite (John the Gold-Mouth, Theodor of Mopsuestia), emphasised the sacrificial character of the mass, especially the moment of consecration of bread and wine when, according to the Christian belief, the Christ’s Passion (Calvary), his Death on the altar (grave), and his Resurrection by the power of the Holy Spirit are re-enacted. The poet Venantius Fortunatus who lived in the region of Ravenna in the middle of the sixth century, aft er the re-conquest of Byzantium, praises the Cross and its remains (sacred relics) and his hymns are still sung today in the evening prayers during the Holy Triduum, when the Christ’s Passion is celebrated. These literary sources, the texts of the Church Fathers and poets, confirm an influence on other artistic expressions, which is especially evident in liturgical inventory, particularly in surfaces of stone furniture, which are responsible not only forthe symbolic representation of the space in which they are found (churches as imaginary of Paradise), but also as a kind of early Christian Biblia pauperum. The examples of plutei from the wider region of Zadar illustratively limn the aforementioned iconography. What the author has in mind are gravestones with inscriptions from the Zadar Cathedral or, more precisely, the two pulpit tablets with Calvary motif and a tablet with a representation of crux gemmata surrounded by animal and floral motifs symbolising Paradise. At a close location - Glavčine next to Podvršje – a large number of fragments with variations on Calvary motif are found. These suggest a previous existence of a whole sanctuary fence with the same iconography. Finally, the island of Rab, where the evidence of the early Christian workshop of Zadar have been found, is the home of another exemplar of cross with diamonds, erected on Calvary. All this suggest the same iconography and the same time period after re-conquest of Byzantium.

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