Enamelled cross of Paschal I (Reliquary of the True Cross) by Roman workshop

Roman workshop [?]

Enamelled cross of Paschal I (Reliquary of the True Cross), c.817–824, Gilded copper and cloisonné enamels, 27 x 17.8 x 3.5 cm, Museo Sacro, Vatican Museums, Vatican State, 61881, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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For This Was I Born

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Timothy Verdon

This cross-shaped object is a stauroteca—a reliquary for fragments of Christ’s cross—and its iconography, comprising six scenes from the Gospel infancy narratives and the Baptism of Christ, clearly insists on the intimate relationship suggested in Hebrews 10:4–10 between the Saviour’s coming into the world and his later sacrifice of his life on Calvary.

The Nativity, at the point of intersection of the vertical and horizontal arms of the cross, perfectly illustrates the phrase attributed to Christ:

Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired,
but a body hast thou prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God,’
as it is written of me in the roll of the book. (vv.5–7)

This is followed by the author’s affirmation: ‘[a]nd by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’ (v.10).

The criminal charge against Christ, recorded on the placard affixed to his cross, was that he had declared himself to be ‘King of the Jews’. In examining him before his condemnation to be crucified, Pontius Pilate had asked him directly whether he was a king (see John 18:33). The positioning of the Nativity at the centre of the cross alludes to Jesus’s response to this question: ‘For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth’ (John 18:37).

The scene of Christ’s baptism is included because, during his ministry, he spoke of his impending passion and death as another baptism (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50). The anonymous artist has shown the thirty-year old Christ as a child, however, in order to link this scene too to the affirmation that Christ’s willingness to accept bodily death was clear from the earliest stages of his life.