by Gregory Bloch, Director of Communications
The Thomsen Chapel processional cross is one of the most liturgical adornments in the collection of Saint Mark's Cathedral, but unless you attend the a.m. service, you may never have seen it. It has always been clear just by looking that the cross is a precious object. However, after a recent restoration, repair, and cleaning, it now gleams and sparkles in a way that it has not for many decades.
We know an unusual amount of detail about the creation of the cross, thanks to the whoever had the foresight to preserve a brief article in the August 1967 issue of Canadian Jeweler magazine [pdf]. The article explains that the cross was the creation of Jeffries & Co. Ltd. of Victoria, British Columbia, designed and crafted by Norman Griffin, one of the parters in the firm. It was made specifically for Saint Mark's, and is described as "Jeffries' most important single export to date." The article includes the following description:
"The cross, made of one-quarter-inch sheet sterling and plated with 24-carat gold, has 100 [actually 94] synthetic and semi-precious stones and agates bezel-set in pairs on the reverse sides.... [It] weighs 77 troy ounces and measures 22 inches high by 16 inches across. Synthetic stones include rubies, emeralds, blue sapphires, aquamarines, and tourmalines. Pierced-through openings in the cross permit light to shine through many of the larger pairs of stones. Semi-precious settings settings include: carnelian, turquoise, topaz, jasper, amethyst and agate."
The article also notes that the design was inspired by "an illustration of an original made by a Visigoth goldsmith in about 800 A.D." In fact, its design is a close copy of the famous Cruz de Los Ángeles de Oviedo, that is, the Cross of the Angels from the collection of the Cathedral of Oviedo in the region of Asturias northern Spain. An inscription on the cross dates it precisely to the year 808 C.E., a gift to the cathedral of Oviedo from King Alfonso II of Asturias. This artifact is so famous locally, in fact, that a version of it has appeared on the Coat of Arms of the city of Oviedo since at least the 15th century (see two versions, above).
The Canadian Jeweler article is inaccurate when it describes this ancient treasure as "solid gold"—in fact it is made of thin gold sheets attached to a wooden core. The delicate filigree decoration, made with minuscule wires of pure gold, has been identified by scholars as the oldest metalwork of its type in Spain, showing the influence of north Italian and Byzantine styles in this period. (In Saint Mark's version of the cross, this filigree pattern is reproduced as engraving.)
The collection of images below includes several images of the 9th-century original, including the illustration which may have been used as the basis for the design, as well as a photo of the cross as it appears today. Interestingly, the original cross has a completely different design on the back of the cross, while for Saint Mark's version, the jeweler duplicated the same design on both sides, even down to the seemingly-random placement of the gemstones.
However, while the 1967 article provides a level of detailed information that we have for very few other objects—including the name of the artisan who set the gems, the artisan who did the engraving, the fact that the original ebonized wood staff has been replaced, etc. But a piece of information we do have for many other objects is now mysterious for this cross: who gave it to the cathedral and why?
The article states only that "It is a gift of a parishioner who is a longtime customer of Jeffries & Co." Unlike many cathedral objects, it has no engraving naming a donor or a dedicatee, and a search of the cathedral records has revealed no details of what must have been, even in 1967, a gift of extraordinary generosity. If anyone has any additional knowledge about this object, please contact the cathedral! (Or leave a comment below.)
The Thomsen Chapel processional cross is normally brought out for chapel services and kept securely locked away at other times. However, for the time being it will not be brought out at all... simply because the cathedral does not have a stand robust enough to support it! The solid silver cross is extremely top-heavy, as evidenced by the large dent in the orb at the base of the cross that marred its appearance for many years. As soon as an appropriate stand has been constructed, it will again lend its glittering adornment to our prayers and praises in the Chapel.
The abundance of jewels on the cross brings to mind the description of the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem, and its pearly gates, in the 21st chapter of the book of Revelation:
"The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass." —Rev. 21:18–21
The author of Revelation does not present this litany of gemstones in order to impress us with their monetary value, but rather as a way to express in, words and images, the inexpressible and unimaginable beauty of the Divine Reality, of God's dream for our world.
Thanks to the generosity of this anonymous donor, and of all our forebears in this place, worship in this cathedral works in a similar way: the beautiful objects (and flowers and music and poetry) are just faint shadows of, and metaphors pointing towards, God's perfection. In the words of The Book of Common Prayer, they grant to us, even now, glimpses of God's beauty—may we be worthy, at length, to behold it unveiled for evermore!