The Cross in Codex Usserianus Primus

The only surviving image in Codex Usserianus Primus is situated on folio 149v at the end of the Gospel of Luke (fig. 1).  The image is a cross set inside three frames of red and black ornament.  The cross is formed by an outline of black dots and filled with red color.  At the terminals, additional sets of curved dotted lines model the shape of the cross and give it a more three-dimensional appearance.

Figure 1 Codex Usserianus Primus, early 7th century, TCD MS 55, f. 149v © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 1 Codex Usserianus Primus, early 7th century, TCD MS 55, f. 149v © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

Under each cross arm are the Greek letters, alpha (Α) and omega (Ω).  These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.  In the biblical text, Revelations, Christ is called the alpha and omega, a phrase that came to signify his eternal nature.

Other interesting points about this manuscript are highlighted by this painting.  The Latin text which accompanies it indicates that the image marks the end of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of Mark’s.  Jerome’s Vulgate translation set the order of the Gospels as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  The order of the Gospels in Usserianus Primus is in a different, pre-Vulgate order that organized the texts as Matthew, John, Luke and Mark.1

The location of the ornament differs as well.  Unlike the other Gospel books in our project which place paintings before each Gospel, Usserianus Primus seems to have used decoration at the end of Gospels where in earlier manuscripts, a colophon might be expected.

Figure 2aApse Mosaic, Santa Prudenziana, Rome, 4th century. Source. Figure 2b Apse Mosaic, Sant'Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, 6th century. Source.
Figure 2a Apse Mosaic, Santa Prudenziana, Rome, 4th century. Source.  Figure 2b Apse Mosaic, Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, 6th century. Source.

The form of the cross itself is notable.  Dots run down the centre of the stem and arms.  This may have been an attempt to approximate a type of metal-work cross which was studded with gems called a crux gemmata.  Representations of this type of cross are know from the apse mosaics at Santa Prudenziana in Rome (fig. 2a) and Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna (fig. 2b) as well as a fifth century textile, likely made in Egypt or Syria and now in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (fig. 3).  Images of jeweled crosses likely referenced the monumental cross used to commemorate the location of Christ’s crucifixion on Golgatha Hill in the Holy Land.2  It was the focus of considerable cult activity from an early date.

Figure 3 Curtain, Coptic, 5th-6th century, Minneapolis Institute of the Arts (83.126). Source.
Figure 3 Curtain, Coptic, 5th-6th century, Minneapolis Institute of the Arts (83.126). Source.

The small loop that extends from the top of the cross in the Usserianus Primus painting suggests that it was meant to be a more complex symbol.  One interpretation is that it was an attempt to form an ankh cross which combined a Latin cross with the Egyptian ankh symbol.3  An example from the Victoria and Albert Museum shows a band of ankh crosses on a fifth century textile fragment (fig. 4).  Christian symbols like equal-armed crosses and a Chi-rho are situated inside the ankh circles.

Figure 4 Textile Fragment, Coptic, 3rd-6th century, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London (258-1890). Source.
Figure 4 Textile Fragment, Coptic, 3rd-6th century, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London (258-1890). Source.

Another interpretation is that the cross is a staurogram,4 a combination of the Greek letters tau (τ) and rho (Ρ) to abbreviate the word for cross.  Most scholars now identify the symbol as the monogram of Christ.  Christ’s initials rendered in the Greek letters chi and rho (see previous post) were often used in Christian art of the early Middle Ages.  When the Chi-rho was combined with a cross, it was typically accompanied by the letters alpha and omega.  This motif is used in the roundels on the Theodore Sarcophagus in Ravenna (fig. 5).

Figure 4 Sarcophagus of Theodore, 5th c. (lid, 7th c.), Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew. Source.
Figure 5 Sarcophagus of Theodore, 5th c. (lid, 7th c.), Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew. Source.

Alexander has suggested that the framed cross in Usserianus Primus is a precursor to the Insular tradition of the cross-carpet page.5  In later display Gospel books, the carpet page was ornamented with a cross or several crosses set in a field of decoration.  Along with Evangelist portraits and symbols, carpet pages came to form part of the prefatory material for Gospel texts.

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Footnotes

  1. N. Netzer, Cultural Interplay in the Eighth Century: the Trier Gospels and the Making of a Scriptorium at Echternach (Cambridge, 1994), p. 12.
  2. M. Werner, ‘On the Origin on the Form of the Irish High Cross,’ Gesta, 29.1 (1990), 98-110.
  3. G.O. Simms, ‘Early Christian Manuscripts,’ in P. Fox (ed.) Treasures of the Library, Trinity College Dublin (Dublin, 1986), p. 55. Simms uses the terms crux ansata and monogram cross to describe the figure on f. 149v.
  4. C. Nordenfalk, ‘Before the Book of Durrow,’ Acta Archaeologica, 18 (1947).
  5. J.J.G. Alexander, Insular Manuscripts: 6th to the 9th Century (London, 1978), p. 27.