Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  

The Bury St. Edmunds Cross at the Cloisters, front view.

Images from The Cloisters Cross: Its Art and Meaning by Elizabeth C. Parker and Charles T. Little (MMA/Abrams)

The Bury St. Edmunds Cross, back view.

The High Priest of the Jews and Pontius Pilate argue above the "King of the Confessors" placard.

The Easter Plaque

Adam and Eve at the base of the Tree of Life

The Lamb Medallion

Prophets holding scrolls on the left scroll bar

The Good Friday plaque

"To him all the prophets bear witness"

Moses and the Brazen Serpent

Full reconstruction of Cloisters Cross with the Olso corpus.
Super Art Gems of New York City
by Thomas Hoving

Back in 1962 when I finally got my hands on good photographs of the cross, I compared its style to all the surviving English monuments of the 12th century. I didn't bother with another country since reputable scholars had -- correctly, I thought -- made solid links with England.

Right away I found indelible similarities with the figures in a huge Bible, painted by a genius called Master Hugo who'd initiated a new, fresh style in England around 1135 at the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. Other Bury works had reasonable similarities. Nothing from the Continent was anywhere near as close.

Bury St. Edmunds had come into being to house the relics of King Edmund, who in the 9th century, despite being tortured by marauding pagans, steadfastly confessed his faith in Christ. The Abbey was destroyed during Henry VIII's dissolution of monasteries, but much of its library was preserved.

I learned from chronicles about the Abbey that Master Hugo had also created a magnificent set of bronze doors for the church, something that had never existed in England before. They were so wondrous that a chronicler wrote, "whereas in all other works Hugo surpassed all other, with the doors, he surpassed even himself."

You can imagine my feelings when I read that the extravagantly talented Master Hugo had in 1148 "carved in incomparable fashion a cross with a little Mary and Saint John for the altar of the choir."

Carved, not cast. No material was mentioned, but I assumed it was not wood, for wooden crosses were normally covered with silver sheets and not described as having been carved. Ivory was a highly precious material in the 12th century and I figured the cross mentioned was the one I'd purchased for the Cloisters, if only because of the numerous stylistic parallels with Hugo's magnificent Bible illuminations.

The front of this incomparable cross shows the Tree of Life and a deeply undercut central medallion depicting Moses raising the Brazen Serpent. Directly above on a placard that juts boldly out, the High Priest of the Jews and Pontius Pilate argue ferociously over the words written on the placard, "King of the Confessors." On the right square terminal is Christ being taken from the cross and the shrouding of his body. Adam and Eve occupy the bottom of the cross. Beneath them, on a square plaque that was attached to the pedestal is Christ being dragged before the High Priest. On the left square are the three Marys arriving at the empty tomb from which Christ has departed. We see him being lifted towards the hand, which reaches down from the placard -- the hand of God. Above is Christ rocketing into heaven after his brief time on earth after the grave.

The original Christ, a large, striking figure that is all but identical to the tiny Christ in the Deposition, was found in the Art and Industry Museum in Oslo by one of my colleagues in 1970.

The back of Hugo's cross is filled with the symbols of the evangelists on the squares and a series of prophets in niches or, on the crossbar, actively chatting with one another. The beautiful central medallion is a complex scene showing the Lamb of God, Archangel Michael, Evangelists and a distraught, blinded female figure who lances the breast of the Lamb.

All the prophets and many of the other figures hold scrolls, which are delicately inscribed with tiny Latin phrases. There are an astonishing number of inscriptions. No other 12th century (or 13th and 14th century, for that matter) work carries anything like the number; there are 56 in all.

By their words, the prophets demonstrate that every part of Christ's life is prefigured in some sentence or phrase of the Old Testament. This is called typology. During the Middle Ages it was standard procedure to explain how every word or sentence written by the prophets was a precise prediction of the coming of Christ and a description of his deeds.

Looking at it initially, I figured the cross was an exceedingly rich typology. But after weeks of probing, I realized I was wrong. The cross was far from a simple typology; it was a threatening and ugly polemic.

On one level, the cross is a powerful and beautiful tale of the Passion of Christ expressed through the testimony of the Evangelists and the predictions of the prophets of Israel. On another level, the cross is a fervent appeal to Jews to convert to Christianity. On yet a third level, the writings on the cross make up the harshest diatribe against the Jews to appear on any existing work of art.

The full realization of this came to me when I was poring over the inscriptions on scrolls held by figures in the front medallion representing Moses hanging a brazen serpent on a stick -- the standard Old Testament typology for the crucifixion.

The story is from Numbers. The Israelites had escaped Egypt and were making their way through the wilderness when they began to mutter against Moses and God. I didn't take long for God to strike back.

He sent a horde of fiery serpents. The complainers were bitten; many were wounded, some died. The survivors confessed their sins and begged Moses to persuade God to get rid of the serpents and cure them. God ordered Moses to fashion an image of a serpent in bronze and to hang it on a forked stick. And it "came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass he lived."

The typological nature of the Brazen Serpent is confirmed by the words of the dynamic individual standing just to the left of the serpent -- John the Evangelist. His scroll reads: "Just as Moses raised the serpent in the desert, so shall the Son of man be raised up."

But the message goes deeper -- and is harsher, if one reads the full text. I found that although the inscriptions were a line or two they stood for the entire passage in the biblical text. "...whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life… he that believeth him not, is condemned..."

Eternal life with Christ, but eternal condemnation without him.

The confirmation that the cross is a more than simply a dense typology is imparted by the scroll carried by a stunning little figure with a dagger-like beard who leans out over the lower left rim of the wheel (the wheel of Life held up four angels) and points down with a long, expressive finger. It's Peter speaking from the Acts of the Apostles: "To him all the prophets bear witness."

But there's more, as one understands from the whole Biblical passage surrounding the phrase:

"God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good... for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree... To him all the prophets bear witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins."

Moses had hanged a Brazen Serpent on a tree, and the Jews had been saved. The Jews hanged Christ on a tree, killed him, and will be condemned for all time.

This anti-Jewish point is further underlined by the scroll held by the dynamic figure in the center of the medallion. He is enraged. He tosses his head back in anger at the Israelites, who, wearing the exaggerated conical hats seen in numbers of works of art of the Middle Ages to identify Jews, peer in awe at the snake. He jabs out one hand at them like a boxer and, with the other, brandishes his curving scroll like a weapon.

His words are from Deuteronomy, 28:66, taken out of context to apply to the episode of the serpent. "Your life shall hang before you... and you shall not trust your life." These were the words of an enraged God quoted by Moses, a God who admonishes the Jews for their disbelief and who launches a series of curses:

" shall be plucked from all the land..."

" ...the Lord shall scatter thee among all people... and among these nations shalt thou find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest..."

" shall be sold unto your enemies..."

"Moreover all these curses shall come upon thee… because thou hearkenedst not unto the voice of the Lord thy God..."

The next scroll in the medallion is tucked under the arm of the prophet Isaiah, who peers down over the lower right-hand side of the rim. "Why are you red in your apparel, and your garments like a man who has trod in the wine vat?"

This is not just a reference to the scourging of Christ, the standard medieval typology. There's a secondary meaning, one of raw vengeance.

Isaiah had been sitting alone in the wilderness, meditating, when a giant of a man, garbed in blood-red clothing, strode out of the horizon and across the plain. Isaiah called out in fear, "Who is this who comes from Edom, with dyed garments…?" The figure responded, "I speak in righteousness, mighty to save." It was God. Isaiah then asked, "Wherefore art thou in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the wine vat?" God responded, "I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments... For the day of vengeance is in mine heart..."

The scroll carried by Jeremiah, who reclines across the top of the medallion says, "Why should you be as a man wandering, like a mighty man who cannot save?" It lends itself to several interpretations: On one level, the phrase refers to the mocking of Christ on the cross, "He saved others; himself he cannot save..."

On another level, the message is also linked to vengeance. For the surrounding verses in Jeremiah state: "Thus saith the Lord unto his people. Thus have they loved to wander... Therefore the Lord doth not accept them; he will now remember their iniquity, and visit their sins... I will consume them by the sword, and by famine, and by pestilence." The Jews, of course.

The message on the front medallion is clear. Christ will be hanged on the cross and will die. Those who believe in him will be saved, but those who refuse to believe, the Jews, will be destroyed.

Even though I was aware that the Scriptures contained comments against the Jews, I was amazed not so much by the vehemence of the Biblical quotations as by their frequency on the cross. It was as though someone, inspired by some malevolent event, had deliberately chosen passages from the Scriptures to create a litany of hatred. Later, I was to find what that malevolent event was.

Not all the prophets scrolls on the cross are anti-Jewish. Some of them are standard typologies. The scroll held by the eagle, symbol of Saint John, on top of the cross, proclaims, "They shall look upon him whom they have pierced. You shall not break a bone of him." And David, just below the eagle, predicts the crucifixion,: "I shall ascend into the palm tree and will take hold of the fruits thereof." And at the very bottom of the vertical bar Saint Matthew and Jonah are paired. Matthew calls out, "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth".

But far more prophets' scrolls cry out for vengeance, destruction, and death to the Jews.

Amos: "They sold the righteous for silver".

Joel: "The sun and the moon shall be darkened…The Lord also shall roar out of Zion, and utter his voice from Jerusalem; and the heavens and the earth shall shake… for the violence against the children of Judah, because they have shed innocent blood in their land."

Nahum: "I have afflicted thee, I will afflict thee no more.... and the Lord will take vengeance upon his adversaries..."

Malachi: "Will a man afflict God? Yet ye have afflicted me… Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have afflicted me, even this whole nation..."

Zephaniah: "I will kill all those who have afflicted you at that time".

The climax of this harsh message on the cross appears in the medallion on the reverse of the cross, which depicts the Lamb of God from the Apocalypse. The Brazen Serpent is the first chapter on the cross, and the Lamb is the last, expressing deep love and joy -- and, at the same time, profound hatred.

Jeremiah is portrayed twice in the Lamb medallion -- once reclining on top, and a second time just under the body of the Lamb. His two scrolls, intended to be read as one, are: "But I was like a Lamb… brought to the slaughter; and I knew not that they had devised devices against me, saying, Let us destroy the tree with the fruit thereof, and let us cut him off from the land of the living that his name may be no more remembered. But, O Lord of hosts... let me see thy vengeance on them..."

By the time I'd traced this scroll to its Biblical source, I'd become accustomed to the vehemence inscribed on the cross. Still, when I read the phrases, I must admit to being astonished by Jeremiah's diatribe.

What is even more startling, Jeremiah is engaged in a physical attack too, which leaves no doubt who his adversaries on the cross are -- the Jews. For his second scroll is thrust like a weapon directly at the pathetic figure of a woman standing off to the left, on whose enigmatic scroll is the word, "maledictus,""cursed."

She's hooded; her head is bowed. Her eyes are closed; she seems almost blinded. With a lance, she is piercing the breast of the Lamb. She is Synagogue. The writing on her scroll amounts to a twofold sign of contempt: It reads, "Accursed is he who hangs upon a tree."

The Old Law prescribes that anyone who commits a sin worthy of death shall be hanged on a tree until dead and forever cursed. But Saint Paul, in Galatians, rejects the Old Law, saying, "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law…." Paul turns the phrase around and says, in effect, "Cursed are those who say, 'Accursed is he who hangs upon a tree'." Or, the Jews shall be cursed for hanging anyone on a tree.

The harshest inscriptions of all appear on the sides and front of the vertical uprights -- in lovely capital letters. They are not Biblical in origin.


This brutal statement -- the Jews don't cheer, they LAUGH -- refers to Cham, the third son of Noah and, traditionally, the symbol of the Jews. His story is in Genesis. After the Ark lands and the waters subside, Noah plants a vineyard. He gets drunk and falls asleep naked in his tent. Cham looks upon his father's genitals, laughs and rushes from the tent to tell his brothers, Shem and Japeth. They are shocked. Walking backward into the tent, they avert their eyes and reverently cover Noah. When the patriarch awakens and learns what Cham has done, he accuses him of blasphemy and punishes him with an everlasting curse.

The second inscription on the front describes what happens the moment Christ dies on the cross: This, too, is not Biblical. EARTH TREMBLES, DEATH IS CONQUERED AND BEWAILS. FROM THE OPENING GRAVES LIFE SURGES FORTH AND SYNAGOGUE FALLS AFTER VAIN AND STUPID EFFORT. The Latin word for "stupid" happens to be a particularly low and demeaning one.

On the placard over the head of Christ, which juts out dramatically from the upright and is carved out of a huge walrus tusk, definitely not attached to it later, there are three inscriptions, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" in a pseudo-Aramaic. But in Latin and Greek, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Confessors."

Above the High Priest of the Jews, wearing an exaggerated conical hat, literally flails at Pontius Pilate, "Write not, King of the Jews, but that he said he was." Pilate contemptuously replies, "What I wrote, I wrote." Even the Romans disdain the Jews.

For the man who chose the inscriptions for the cross, and it had to have been Master Hugo, all the prophets did bear witness: grace, salvation and eternal life for believers; and death for those who did not believe.

Where had the particular choice of inscriptions come from? To find out, I searched for parallels through the works of hundreds of ecclesiastic Greek and Latin writers from early Christian times down through the end of the 12th century. These writings are published in two sets of volumes, the Patrologia Latina and the Patrologia Graeca. Two hundred and eighteen volumes for the Latin authors, each containing over 2,000 pages printed in double columns of tiny print. Four hundred volumes for the Greek ecclesiastic authors.

Thank goodness the compilers provided a comprehensive index so that every author, every subject matter, every line quoted by any writer from the Bible is indexed and cross-referenced, by date, place, Biblical phrase, verse and chapter.

I started with the Brazen Serpent. I found in the works of the 10th-century theologian Walafrid Strabo, an observation that corresponded to my interpretation of the inscriptions on the cross as an anti-Jewish diatribe: "No more severe accusation must fall upon the Jews, and with good reason owing to their arrogance, than that they saw their life, that is the Son of God, hanging upon the wood and they disbelieved him."

I found from the Latin index that eight quotations on the cross, including the one about the Brazen Serpent, appeared in an essay, "Tract Against the Jews," composed by Saint Cyprian in the late 5th century. It's vicious: "You Jews who murdered Christ, you who looked upon him and did not believe, will be cast aside through all of time, punished and destroyed."

I found fully 20 of the inscriptions -- about half -- on the cross in a particularly ugly broadside denouncing the Jews, written during the 7th century by Saint Isidore of Spain, entitled, "Concerning the Catholic faith from the Old and New Testaments Against the Jews." Later, I was to learn that in the 12th century Bury's library had an Isidore manuscript, which, sadly, hasn't survived.

I next searched in the index for "Iudeos," Jews, and encountered a large body of literature I had no idea existed. The titles differed, but they all embraced the same theme: Against the Jews; The Perfidiousness of the Jews; Sermon Against Jews; Jews as Persecutors of Christ; The Second Coming of Christ Against the Jews.

In the fourth century the author of the most respected and learned history of the early Christian Church, Eusebius, had written a number of anti-Jewish tracts and essays. In one of them he says that he had clear proof that Jews of every community of the world kidnapped a boy every Easter and crucified the child in a "ritual killing." Later I would find, not to my surprise, this would happen in Bury St. Edmunds four years before Hugo's cross was commissioned.

Even Saint Augustine, the creator of one of the most benevolent books of philosophy of all Christianity, The City of God, had issued a Tract Against the Jews: "The true image of the Hebrew is Judas Iscariot, who sells the Lord for silver. The Jew can never spiritually understand the Scriptures and forever will bear the guilt for the death of Jesus because their fathers killed the Savior."

Under the same index heading, I encountered another category of anti-Jewish writings with a sizeable number of quotations identical to those on the cross. These writings were called "Disputationes" or Disputes, and in them a Christian and a Jew discussed their faiths. Some early Disputes were gentlemanly throughout. Most, however, soon degenerated into vituperation. The Christian always vanquished the Jew.

Violent sentiments against the Jews appear like swords over and over in the writings of the church fathers. The blows of Saint John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, writing in the late 4th century were typical: "The Jews are the odious assassins of Christ, and for killing God there is no expiation possible... Christians may never cease vengeance, and the Jews must live in servitude forever. God always hated the Jews, and whoever has intercourse with Jews will be rejected on Judgment Day. It is incumbent upon all Christians to hate the Jews."

Nowhere could I find a single reference to Christ's own words that he had been crucified because of his own free will or that he had come "to fulfill the Torah of Moses and not to destroy it." Or that the Romans had killed him. Nowhere did I find a reference to Christ being a Jew himself.

In 1963, shortly after the cross came to New York, I went to England and Pembroke College at Cambridge University to see what I could find in those Bury manuscripts, which had survived Henry VIII's pillaging. Some blessed Bury monk had in the 14th century marked the abbey's books with a special bookmark. Three hundred and fifty out of 2,500 had survived.

At Cambridge I gained permission from the librarian at Corpus Christi College to take Hugo's masterful Bible in my hands. After so many months of poring over photographs of the illustrations, I believed I had become fully sensitive to its majesty of style and execution. But when I turned the heavy cover and looked for the first time upon the huge illuminations, fresh as the day they had been created, with sparkling greens, lush reds and pastel shades of blue, lavender and yellow exploding from the pages, my hands trembled. Despite the disparity in size between the tiny figures carved from walrus ivory and the enormous illuminations, seeing the Bible in the flesh made me even more convinced that Master Hugo had created both.

From these esthetic delights I turned to the drudgery of searching through Latin texts in the library at nearby Pembroke College, where the bulk of the surviving Bury manuscripts were to be found. I was seeking any parallel to inscriptions of the cross. There were only a couple of dozen which dated to the 12th and 13th centuries. I cannot say why I reached first for manuscript number 72, an annotated Saint Mark. Perhaps it was because I knew it to be from around the time of the cross.

I carried the thick volume to a desk and marveled at the feeling of age that its stout vellum pages seemed to exude. With the help of a Latin Bible, I could soon interpret the handwriting of the monk who had copied the text of Saint Mark. Between the lines and on most of the margins was a body of notes commenting on virtually every verse in the text.

I leafed through fairly rapidly, scanning the pages for any elements common to both the manuscript and the inscriptions on the cross. I reached the passage where Mark describes the Crucifixion: "And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments, casting lots upon them."

I was startled when I read the notes in the margin next to the text. There, in a neat hand, someone had written: "Cursed be all those who hang on wood, becoming a curse, for they who said it are cursed…." The words were close to those referring to Synagogue on the cross.

I knew I was onto something critically important. I forced myself to slow down and read every word. Next in Mark was: "And it was the third hour, and they crucified him." Adjacent to that passage the annotator had written: "Noah became drunk and was nude under the tent and was laughed at ... and the wood became stained with Christ's blood."

My mouth was dry.

I read the next verse in Mark: "And the superscription of his accusation was written over, THE KING OF THE JEWS."

There, between the lines, the annotator expanded upon Saint Mark in highly abbreviated Latin:

Quod in tytulis psalmorum prae notatur in finem ne corrumpas et cum tribus linguis malchus judeorum Basileos examolisson rex confessorum; hetres linguae in crucis tytulo coniuncte sunt ut omnis lingua commemoret perfidiam judeorum hebreice grece et latine.

I made a stab at translating what the annotator had written about Saint Mark:

That superscription, that placard over his head, called incorruptible forever in the Psalms, was written in three languages: [Hebrew] King of the Jews, [Greek] King of the Confessors, [Latin] King of the Confessors, all carved into the placard of the cross: all of these languages commemorate the perfidiousness of the Jews.

Later on I found a far more accurate translation:

Because in the title of the psalms it was indicated "Unto the end do not destroy," and with three languages: in Hebrew "King of the Jews" in Greek "King of the Confessors" in Latin "King of the Confessors"; these three languages are joined together in the title of the cross so that every tongue may commemorate the perfidiousness of the Jews.

If these words existed any place in the world other than on the cross and in the Bury St. Edmunds manuscript I was looking at, I did not know of it. In fact, as I learned later, there is another Bury manuscript of the 12th century, MS. 175 in Balliol College, Oxford, which contains a note using almost exactly the same words. Had I known this, I would have been even more thrilled. It may also be significant that a similar mistake in the Greek word for "Confessors" occurs both on the cross and in the Pembroke manuscript. The word should have been exomologeson, but it was exomolisson on the cross and examolisson in the manuscript. Identical but for one similar letter. This curious mistake appears only in these two monuments, one known to have been created in the mid-12th century at Bury St. Edmunds.

I then looked into the history of the Jewish people in England during the middle ages.

The Jews arrived in sizable numbers only with William the Conqueror. For several generations their presence was tolerated. Henry the First issued a charter granting the Jewish community the privilege of being a separate and protected group. The continued existence of the community was to the King's economic advantage, since Jews alone were allowed to lend money. Although Henry's arrangement was not entirely benevolent, the Jews did flourish until almost the middle of the 12th century. But in the year 1144 something happened which caused a profound change in their status.

On the eve of Easter, in 1144, a horrifying event was said to have taken place in Norwich: a ritual murder of a Christian youth by the local Jews. Late in the afternoon of Good Friday, the partly decomposed corpse of a 12-year-old skinner's apprentice named William was found in the woods. It was thought that William had been a victim of some Jews who had lured him away from his home and crucified him on the second day of Passover -- in mockery of the Passion of Christ. Such a ritual killing was first mentioned by Eusebius and parroted by countless Christian writers, especially those who wrote anti-Jewish tracts and disputations.

The story of little William immediately spread throughout England along with a wave of violent anti-Jewish sentiment. William was entombed in Norwich cathedral. Various miracles were reported at the time of his burial and for many years after. William was proclaimed a local saint.

The contemporary miracles are exhaustively discussed in the literature of medieval England. In 1152, a woman from nearby Bury St. Edmunds, bent double from infancy, heard "Saint" William's voice in a dream: "Come, oh come, to my shrine." She went as close to the tomb as the crowd would allow, and was instantly cured. On another occasion a man who had murdered his brother and two nephews with a pitchfork, was making a penitential journey to the shrines of saints. His right hand was bound tightly in a ring he had fashioned from the murder weapon. When he reached Bury St. Edmunds, the ring snapped free and the man's arm became even more painful. Saint Edmund appeared before the man in a dream and instructed him to go instantly to Norwich and visit William. He did as he was told; his arm was healed and his conscience cleared. Contemporaries marveled not so much at the miraculous cure as at the bond between Edmund and William, saying "the one withstood the heathen raging against the law of Christ, the other endured the Jews, who renewed, in him, the death of Christ."

The death of William of Norwich was not the only supposed ritual murder in the 12th century. There were others: at Gloucester, Bristol, Winchester and, finally, on June 10, 1181, at Bury St. Edmunds, where a ten-year-old boy named Robert was found dead in a stream and called a ritual killing.

When I read about William of Norwich I instantly recalled that Master Hugo's cross had been commissioned when Abbot Ording had taken command in 1148. It seemed to me likely that the violently anti-Jewish object had been made in memory of William and placed on the altar in the choir where the locals came to hear sermons.

The process of attributing a work of art to an artist or locale is never based on a single element, be it purely stylistic or documentary. There must be a chain of elements each supporting another. In addition the way the evidence is discovered must be taken heavily into consideration. In the search for attribution the discovery of one piece of evidence should properly and logically lead to discovery of the next, and the next and so on. To find stylistic relationships between an object and an English manuscript of a certain period and then to discover an apparent textual parallel with a French liturgical event of 50 years later is not exactly revealing.

The chain of evidence-collecting with the ivory cross is persuasive. I was first attracted to the stylistic relationships between the cross and the English St. Albans Psalter of the early 12th century, no matter how minimal they were. Various scholars had concluded that the sole appearance of the "rocketing" Christ in the Ascension as undeniably English.

I was next intrigued by the striking stylistic comparisons between the cross and the Bury Bible. That closeness then got me to look into the history of Bury, which is where I found Master Hugo's name and his accomplishments, the circumstances of his painting the illuminations, his remarkable doors, the bell, and his incomparably sculpted choir cross.

In looking through the history of the Abbey I was struck by the persuasive comparisons between what is written on the cross and the legend of St. Edmund -- that he was like a Lamb led to the slaughter and confessed his faith before his faithless oppressors.

I traveled to London and Cambridge, and in known Bury manuscripts on the history of the abbey I came across literary similarities that are too close to be mere coincidences. One was the startling appearance of two virtually identical verses pertaining to Cham and the Jews on both the cross and in some late 12th century verses on the choir paintings -- verses that appear nowhere else in medieval times in the same way.

And then, of course, in that annotated 12th century Bury Gospel of Mark in the Pembroke College library in Cambridge, I found the stunning notation referring to the three languages on the placard, "King of the Confessors." Except for 'a' instead of 'o' in the word exomolisson, this is identical to the inscription on the walrus ivory cross. The only two examples in all of the Middle Ages.

This Pembroke College manuscript, by the way, also has references to the brazen serpent and the inscription, "cursed is everyone who is hung upon a tree" and, finally, the following marginal note next to where Mark describes the moment when Christ died on the cross, "Here is Noah drunk and naked, covered by the sky and the earth as a dark mantle, and laughed at by a man; and here blood dripped down from the wood."

In my researches I also came across the lugubrious history of widespread and violent anti-Jewish feeling in England and at Bury from around 1144 to the early 13th century when the Jews were expelled from the land.

Some scholars say that there simply are not enough stylistic similarities between Hugo's surviving Bible and the cross and that perhaps the work is from another English center or from abroad. Fine. But how then can we explain the many striking specific literary and historical links to Bury? Or the wave of anti-Jewish sentiment in East Anglia? Coincidences? Hardly. Circumstantial evidence? Sure, but as the courts have long known, that's far more compelling than eyewitnesses. Even if one volume of Hugo's Bury Bible hadn't survived, these pieces of circumstantial evidence might alone be enough to attribute the cross confidently to Hugo and Bury. The bottom line is that throughout the middle Ages there are only a handful of works for which there is as much evidence to support an attribution to a specific place.

Despite the fact that the Bury chronicles fail to mention the material used by Hugo when he carved a cross with a Christ being mourned by a little Mary -- mariola -- and John, this overwhelming body of evidence points to the inevitable conclusion that the Cloisters cross and Hugo's is one and the same.

The ensemble must have been decked out with a rectangular bronze base adorned with a series of thin square walrus ivory panels showing episodes from the Passion. The plaque with Christ being dragged before Pilate was paired with the Harrowing of Hell. The little figures of Mary and John grieving must have been glorious. I wonder if some day they will reappear.

During the 12th and 13th centuries precious few works of art or artists were ever praised for their esthetic excellence. In medieval literature there is simply no parallel to the characterization of Hugo's amazing bronze doors -- "in his other works he surpassed all others, but with the miraculous doors he surpassed even himself" -- or, indeed, to the cross, "incomparably carved by the hands of Master Hugo." The walrus ivory cross, one of the most splendid half dozen monuments to have survived from the Middle Ages, is all that and more.

But is it hot? Did the master art criminal Ante Topic Mimara Matutin find it amongst the plundered, holocaust goods stashed in the Collecting Point?


He told me a bunch of stories of how he'd found the cross -- how just before the war he'd found it, in pieces, in a broken-down monastery and acquired it piece by piece before and after the war.

Another story was that he'd bought all of it after the war from a dealer, presumably French. This story was a dodge.

Another tale, which I believe, is that in 1938 in a small antiques shop in Mons, Belgium, before he found the cross, he discovered a square plaque carved on all sides, exactly the dimensions of the terminals on the cross. This plaque had a "complex two-tiered scene on the front" and the Angel representing Matthew on the back. Topic had no idea of what he was describing but when he told me but I immediately figured it had to be the Harrowing of Hell, which is referring to on the cross at the bottom in one of the inscriptions and which would have fitted in perfectly with the narrative. Matthew is, of course, the missing Evangelist on the back lower terminal.

I was able to track down a French dealer who remembered selling in 1956 a golden ivory square block, elaborately carved and decorated with an Angel on one side, to someone whose name he couldn't recall. I have advertised for it several times with drawings of what it might look like -- taking Hugo's Matthew from his Bible and a Harrowing of Hell from a Bury-related illumination, but have heard nothing. So far. It'll turn up, I'm convinced.

I believe Topic found the cross in pieces before the war, in an all-but abandoned monastery on the border between Hungary and Yugoslavia.

In 1962 I spoke to Erich Meyer, the curator of decorative arts at the National Museum in Berlin, who told me, "Topic Mimara? I recall our last meeting clearly. It was just before the war, in 1938. The man and his object were unforgettable."

His first reaction when his secretary informed him that the "sinister Yugoslav art dealer" had shown up again in his outer office without warning was that anyone who could enter and leave Germany in 1938 to collect works of art had to be an agent for the Third Reich.

Meyer had no desire to see the fellow. It was late and he had just locked his briefcase, an act emphatically symbolizing the end of his working day. It would be fruitless, as it had been several years before when this same mysterious art dealer had shown up with a "golden treasure trove." Every piece in the "trove" had turned out to be worthless. "Balkan things," Meyer had characterized them disdainfully at the time. The man obviously had no knowledge of art. How could he survive as an art dealer? Who would buy such ludicrous pieces?

Nonetheless, Meyer consented to see Topic. His decision was made partly out of guilt for labeling the visitor a Nazi without the slightest actual knowledge, and partly because Meyer, one of the most gifted connoisseurs in Europe, could never resist examining any work of art, no matter how unpromising the circumstances.

"I deeply appreciate the honor, Herr Doktor Professor, of having the opportunity to see you," he recalls Topic Mimara saying deferentially. "I always value your observations. I have always hoped that some day I might discover a work of art measuring up to your standards. And I have. It is this plaque of walrus ivory which I humbly believe is Italian and dates to the early Christian period, probably the beginning of the 5th century."

With these words, Erich Meyer recalled, Topic laid a square block of ivory on a small velvet cushion. The ivory seemed to shine against the deep blue fabric. Meyer's trained eyes reacted instantly to the object before him.

He told me he thought, "Splendid piece. Crisp, finely carved and strong in composition. The work of a master. The claim that it is early Christian is nonsense! The figures are far too thin, elongated, but they could have been inspired by something early Christian. Yes. Remarkable! Have I seen anything like it? No. It is unique. Who would have thought this Slavic bumpkin could find such a piece!"

Erich Meyer readily identified the scene as the three Mary's coming to the empty sepulcher where the majestic angel of the Lord sat. Aided by a magnifying glass, he gazed raptly at the minute letters carved into the scroll held by the angel. Taking up a pencil, he copied the inscription: QUERITIS NAZ. IHM: RENUM CRUCIFI, which is the one that appears on the Cloisters cross. He mumbled to himself, "Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which is crucified.

"The little figures were exceptionally beautiful. I could even see the delicate bones of Christ's naked chest. Incredible! And the wounds in his hands -- so tiny, yet easily visible. Such an accomplished chain of little people. So alive! Ah!"

Meyer told me how his eyes took in the tightly bunched group of sleeping soldiers lying beneath the open sarcophagus. There were five of them. He examined the differing shapes of helmets and noted with interest the apron-like tunics, slit on each side, worn by the warriors. Distinctly early 12th century, he concluded.

Meyer described how he'd set the carving back on the pillow and looked into the face of his visitor. "The piece is fascinating," he said with a smile. "It is of extremely high quality. But it is definitely not early Christian. What is a key to the date of the ivory are the draperies, which cling to the figures as if they were slightly wet, so that the anatomy is subtly revealed. This is an element, which can be dated with assurance. I would say somewhere within the first half of the 12th century.

"Now, as to the place of origin, I cannot be sure. A lengthy comparison with other pieces would be needed. But, offhand, my impression is that this ivory -- and it has been carved by a grand master, I can assure you -- is probably a product of what we art historians call the 'Channel School'. Not that the piece was made on an island in the middle of the English Channel. 'Channel School' is simply a convenient way to describe those works of art which could have been made either in England or in France during a time when there were frequent associations between monasteries and artistic workshops in England and on the Continent."

"Is the piece valuable?" Topic queried.

Meyer didn't hesitate, "I should say so!"

Once, long after buying the cross, when I visited Topic in his castle near Salzburg, I asked him to come clean on his Collecting Point activities and the provenance of the cross.

"Look, it's been 40 years since you discovered it. What harm could there be now? I need the information because it might help my continuing search for the missing block."

He smiled wanly. He leaned forward, started to speak, but abruptly fell silent.

"Yugoslavia?" I asked softly.

"Never! I would never have taken anything out of my beloved country," he protested.

"Hungary?" I quickly asked.

"No." But his eyes flickered.


He shook his head slowly and then smiled again.

"Rumania?" I said in a whisper.

He raised his eyebrows. "Signor Hoving, you cannot expect me to reply to every step of your journey through the Eastern countries." "Will you ever tell me?"

Topic Mimara smiled and shrugged.

It may have been Hungary. For shortly after the Reader's Digest published a condensed version of King of the Confessors, I received a telephone call from a Hungarian, now an American citizen, by the name of Josef H. Kugler, who told me that after reading my account he recalled that he'd seen the cross in the early 1930s, with his grandfather. Young Josef was accustomed to accompany his grandfather to a Cistercian monastery near Zirc in the Bakony Mountains and socialize with the priests. One day they were talking about curses for some reason and a priest mentioned that the monastery owned a complex and beautiful cross, which was accursed. He brought out a chamois bag in which there were three or four pieces of a blackish ivory. The priest assembled the cross by locking the pieces together by their carved ivory flanges and showed the word maledictus. The priest also explained that in the bag was a paper that seemed to indicate that the cross had been on its way to Jerusalem with a crusade when its English bearer had died. The priest showed the impressionable Josef some gravestones with English names.

I was instantly intrigued by the tale. In the Reader's Digest condensed book, which Kugler had read, there was no mention of how many pieces the cross was made or of the clever flanges which allowed it to be taken apart and assembled so easily. Or that it was definitely blackish in hue. I was also fascinated by Kugler's recollection of the "curse."

The blackness also intrigued me, for in the British Museum archives I have recently learned to my surprise that Topic had told the English curator that when he found the cross it was filthy black all over and that he had spent months cleaning it.

When I was doing a bit of unauthorized physical examination of the object myself when it first came to New York, I found inside one of the repaired breaks, an ugly blackish surface that reminded me of the coating on ancient graves that I had excavated in Sicily.

Topic promised to put the provenance in an envelope addressed to me, which I'd receive when he passed away. But I never received anything from his widow or son, Nicholas, who is a lawyer in Salzburg. In view of what I have written about Topic, two times now, I doubt that I will ever hear from either of them.

But you never know.

THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A new edition of Thomas Hoving's King of the Confessors, first published in 1981, is now available online for $17.95 from Cybereditions as a downloadable PDF file. For more information, go to Cybereditions