A small early procession cross, 33.3 cm high and 28 cm wide (13.11 x 9 inches), with a Christ figure in gilded bronze presents the strangest image of Christ that I have ever seen: the head is that of a woman and its finely carved lapis lazuli features contrast sharply, both stylistically and artistically, with the rest of the figurine. What prompted such an unorthodox solution? An attempt to solve an 11th century riddle.
Nothing was known about the cross’ provenance before it entered the collection of the Diocesan Museum (now Kolumba Museum) in Cologne in 1893. Its condition has suffered over the ages: several of its precious stones are lost and part of its gilded bronze cladding has disappeared. Christ’s left forearm had gone missing and was replaced in the late 19th century. Had it not been for the portraits of the donors on its reverse, it would have been difficult to date it, let alone connect it to a specific location. That donors were portrayed on crucifixes was not unique in itself, but that their names are inscribed and that there is a dedicatory inscription as well certainly is and this provided important clues as to its origin.
The donors are a brother and sister: Hermann (ca. 995-11 February 1056) and Ida (?-1060/65), children of Ezzo, Count Palatine of Lotharingia and Mathilda, daughter of Emperor Otto II. A powerful and wealthy aristocratic family: all of Ida and Hermann’s eight siblings (except for one sister who became queen of Poland) came to hold high church offices which brought them considerable political influence. Especially Hermann, who became archbishop of Cologne in 1036, steadily climbed up the career ladder until he became the most influential man of the country after its Emperor. He is known to have traveled to Rome twice in the company of Emperors Konrad II and Henry III respectively and became Archchancellor and Librarian of the Holy Roman Church. He would also baptise and later crown king Henry IV of Germany.
Hermann’s sister Ida, judging from the scarce records about her life, must have been a formidable and determined woman. She is first heard of in 1026 when, together with her sister Sophia and against the will of their aunt, the Abbess of Gandersheim Abbey where the girls were raised, she left Gandersheim to enter the convent of St. Maria in Mainz. Their escape, if one can call it that, did not last long for they were forced to return to Gandersheim the following year. Only a year later, in 1028, they were back in Mainz, this time under the protection of the city’s Archbishop, Aribo. Three years later, however, Ida returned to Gandersheim.
What prompted their recurrent escape is difficult to say. Perhaps they found the Gandersheim regime too lenient: Gandersheim was frequented by the imperial family and the main task of its canonesses, who did not have to take monastic vows, was the education of daughters of the nobility. Perhaps this also explains Ida’s later choice for a Benedictine convent with stricter monastic rules. Her educational background, however, would have instilled her with the artistic taste that would later become apparent. She became Abbess of the Benedictine church and convent of St. Maria im Kapitol (St Mary’s in the Capitol) in Cologne in 1036, the same year that her brother Hermann became archbishop of that city.
The church of St. Maria im Kapitol, built on the remains of a Roman first century AD temple complex, was a small edifice dating from the late 7th century. Ida undertook to enlarge the existing church, a monumental enterprise that took some 25 years to complete. When it was finished it not only became the largest of Cologne’s many Romanesque churches but it is today considered the most important example of German church architecture of the Salian dynasty. Of course Ida had other than merely religious motives for creating her great church: it had to be extraordinary not only as a monumental edifice but also had to express imperial claims of power and predominance.
The presence of both Ida and Hermann’s portraits on the small procession cross did not itself link it to the church and convent of St. Maria im Kapitol but we also see above the portraits the figure of the Virgin. She is shown with her hands held up in prayer. This Maria orans type is Byzantine in origin and rare in Western European art. This image and the fact that Ida is shown reverently touching the Virgin’s foot points to the cross having been commissioned for the Marian church and convent of St. Maria im Kapitol. How important Ida was considered to be at the time is illustrated by the presence of Pope Leo IX, Emperor Henry III and as many as 72 bishops at the consecration of the church’s main altar in 1049 and it is very well possible that the procession cross was commissioned for this occasion.
So far we have somewhat securely dated the procession cross and connected it with a specific location. With the head of the Christ figure, clearly that of a woman, we enter the realms of uncertainty. In literature the precious lapis lazuli head has been identified as Livilla, sister of the Roman Emperor Claudius. To me, however, it shows closer resemblance to that other Livilla: Julia Livilla, niece of Claudius and sister of Caligula. At any rate there seems to be a definite Claudian connection which takes us back to Cologne in the first century when a Roman garrison was situated there. It was Agrippina, Claudius’ fourth wife who had been born in Cologne, who persuaded Claudius to elevate her birthplace to Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Colony of Claudius and Altar of the Agrippinians), giving it city rights under Roman law. Could the head even be that of Agrippina? Whatever the case, because of Cologne’s Claudian roots it seems quite possible that the small lapis lazuli head was found there, perhaps even during Ida’s construction works on the church of St. Maria im Kapitol which, after all, had been built on the foundations of a Roman temple. Such a find would have been immediately recognised as being of great symbolic significance. Another possibility is that Hermann had received it as a gift during one of his journeys to Rome, either in 1036 or 1049.
The most intriguing question is why this female head for a figure of Christ who, at this time, was depicted with a beard whereas the small lapis lazuli head is clearly beardless. Here we enter the realm of speculation. There is ample evidence that Roman spoils were highly regarded at this time and that gems were often used to embellish valuable crucifixes such as in the case of the famous Lothair Cross, dated ca. 1000, which prominently sports a cameo of the Emperor Augustus where one would normally expect to see a Christ figure. Both the Lothair cross and our procession cross are thought to have been made in or in the immediate vicinity of Cologne.
An object such as the lapis lazuli head was deemed at once beautiful, precious and extremely valuable. What could be more suitable to embellish the holiest of images: the body of Christ itself? Moreover, the teachings of the Venerable Bede were widely read in Germany at the time and he had written that the colour blue stood for heavenly bliss.
It is thought that at this time any connection between the head and its Roman origin might have been lost and that it may no longer have been recognised as a woman’s head. But given the intellectual education both Ida and Hermann received and their religious, political, and even imperial ambitions, could it not be possible that this exquisite lapis lazuli head was indeed recognised for what it was: an imperial image, albeit a masculin one, and could it not have been deliberately used as an additional symbol of their dynasty’s imperial claims? Dangerous speculation, I admit, and we will never know, but to underestimate the intellect of these people based on the fact that they lived in an era that is today considered to be “medieval” in its pejorative sense might, I believe, be equally inadequate.
- St. Maria im Kapitol at Förderverein Romanische Kirchen Köln e.V.
- Rhein und Maas: Kunst und Kultur 800-1400 – Ausstellung des Schnütgen Museums, Cologne, 1971
- Ulrike Surmann, Das Kreuz Herimans und Idas, Cologne, 1999