Initial from a Breviary (British Library, Stowe 12, f. 297v)
at the opening of the reading for the Exaltation of the Cross
Today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross ('Holyrood day in harvest', as it was sometimes called in the Middle Ages), so here's a fourteenth-century translation of the Crux Fidelis, a verse of the sixth-century hymn Pange Lingua:
Steddefast Crosse, inmong alle other,
Thou art a tree mikel of prise;
In brawnche and flore swilk another
I ne wot non in wood no ris.
Swete be the nalis, and swete be the tree,
And sweter be the birdin that hangis upon thee.
Steadfast cross, among all others
Thou art a tree great of price;
In branch and flower such another
I know not of, in wood nor copse.
Sweet be the nails, and sweet be the tree,
And sweeter be the burden that hangs upon thee.
From the Latin:
Crux fidelis, inter omnes arbor una nobilis:
nulla silva talem profert,
fronde, flore, germine.
Dulce lignum, dulces clavos,
dulce pondus sustinet.
This verse is used in the liturgy several times through the course of the year, and at different seasons its poetry will resonate in subtly different ways. This tree is like no other, and it bears at once both flower and fruit; what kind of tree you picture as you sing this verse will depend on what your eyes are seeing in the world around you. The hymn is sung in the spring, on Good Friday and at the cross' first feast in May, and at that time of year the image of a flowering tree evokes blossom and the spring of new life; and it's sung again at this feast in the autumn, when trees are laden with fruit (their own 'burden'), and the image instead speaks of fruitfulness, sustenance, the abundance of divine gift. Imagery of Christ as the 'fruit' of the cross is common in the liturgy of Holy Cross Day, perhaps in part because of the time of year when it falls. One purpose for the image is to draw a contrast with the fruit of the tree in Eden, to link the sin and the redemption, the sickness and the remedy: as one medieval antiphon puts it, 'Through the tree we were made slaves, and through the Holy Cross we are made free. The fruit of the tree seduced us; the Son of God redeemed us.'
The manuscript in which this little English translation of Crux Fidelis is preserved belongs to Merton College, Oxford, and you can look at the page of the manuscript on which the verse appears right here. It starts on the second line down from the top of the second column, following immediately on from the same verse in Latin (the first line of the second column begins 'Dulce lignum'). The manuscript originally belonged to John Sheppey, Bishop of Rochester, who died in 1360; it contains sermons in Latin by Sheppey and other preachers from fourteenth-century Oxford, and the sermons are interspersed with English verses like 'Steadfast cross'. Preachers like Sheppey regularly used bits of English verse in their sermons - and in the case of friars like William Herebert, whole translations of Latin hymns.
The cross as tree of life (BL Stowe 39, f. 23v)
My favourite thing about this verse is the use of the word steadfast for fidelis - usually translated in modern versions as 'faithful' or similar. The sense is the same, but steadfast conjures up an irresistible echo of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, in which the cross describes its memories of the crucifixion:
Ealle ic mihte
feondas gefyllan, hwæðre ic fæste stod.
'I could have felled all those enemies,' says the Rood, speaking of those who nailed his young Lord to the tree, 'but I stood fast.' And again:
Bifode ic þa me se beorn ymbclypte; ne dorste ic hwæðre bugan to eorðan,
feallan to foldan sceatum, ac ic sceolde fæste standan.
I trembled when that man [Christ] embraced me, yet I dared not bow to the earth,
fall to the ground; I had to stand fast.
This could almost be an answer to the emotionally charged moment in Pange Lingua when the hymn makes a desperate, impossible appeal for the cross to relax its hold and relieve Christ's suffering:
Bend, O lofty Tree, thy branches,
thy too rigid sinews bend;
and awhile the stubborn hardness
which thy birth bestowed suspend;
and the limbs of heaven's high Monarch
gently on thine arms extend.
But he can't; he must stand fast. Forced to take a part in his Lord's destruction, the loyal cross is shaken but stands firm; the disciples flee, and he alone is steadfast, rooted in position. I don't think the Dream of the Rood's unforgettable half-line - hwæðre ic fæste stod - could have influenced the choice of adjective in the Middle English verse, but it's a happy accident. And yet it's not surprising, because standing fast is one defining characteristic of the cross, 'the still point of the turning world': Stat crux volvitur dum orbis, the cross stands while the world turns.
This Crucifixion scene comes from a Psalter made in Winchester towards the end of the eleventh century (British Library, Arundel 60). Here's another from the same manuscript:
From a little earlier in the century, in a prayerbook belonging to a monk of Winchester named Ælfwine (for more on Ælfwine, see For the Wynn and this post from the British Library):
Note that both these crosses are tinged with green, perhaps to suggest the tree's viridity ('viride lignum' is an epithet associated with the cross in medieval liturgy, connoting the fresh greenness of the cross' life-giving power). The writing across the top of Ælfwine's image is both universal and intensely personal: it reads 'By this cross may Ælfwine be signed in mind and body, on which the Lord, suspended, drew all things to himself'. This is an adaptation of a verse from John 12:32, and it imagines the cross as a kind of magnet, drawing everything in the world; or alternatively figures those stretched arms as a welcoming embrace, wide open to encircle all creation. The intersection of Biblical and liturgical allusions here, in both image and text, is complex; something about the cross seems to have inspired radical and almost startlingly bold imagery in the minds of medieval writers. The cross is imagined, in distinct but simultaneous images, as tree and lodestone, gallows and throne, the balance-scales on which the ransom of the world was paid.
In appearance, too, we know that early medieval crucifixes could be incredibly elaborate. The speaking cross in the Dream of the Rood is adorned with gold and gems, streaming with colour, and so large that it stretches from heaven to earth.
Þuhte me þæt ic gesawe syllicre treow
on lyft lædan, leohte bewunden,
beama beorhtost. Eall þæt beacen wæs
begoten mid golde; gimmas stodon
fægere æt foldan sceatum, swylce þær fife wæron
uppe on þam eaxlegespanne...
Syllic wæs se sigebeam, ic synnum fah,
forwunded mid wommum. Geseah ic wuldres treow
wædum geweorðod, wynnum scinan,
gegyred mid golde; gimmas hæfdon
bewrigen weorðlice wealdendes treow.
It seemed to me that I saw a wondrous tree
lifted up into the air, wrapped in light,
the brightest of beams. All that beacon was
covered with gold; gems stood
beautiful at the surface of the earth, and there were five
upon the shoulders of the cross...
Wondrous was that victory-beam; I, stained with sins,
wounded with wickedness. I saw the tree of glory
adorned with drapery, shining with joys,
decked with gold; gems had worthily
wrapped the All-Wielder's tree.
This splendour is a vision but it is in essence no poetic exaggeration; the documentary evidence shows that the Anglo-Saxons built crosses on a grand scale, and decorated them extravagantly. Kings gave their crowns, earls their gold, noblewomen their jewels to adorn life-size crucifixes, and the richest churches and monasteries would have been full of such objects. To quote from a classic book on the subject, Barbara Raw's Anglo-Saxon Crucifixion Iconography and the Art of the Monastic Revival:
An inventory of the treasures of Ely made in 1075 or 1076 notes that the abbey possessed nineteen large crosses and eight smaller ones, including two processional crosses given by Archbishop Wulfstan and Bishop Athelstan. Worcester possessed fifteen crosses at the time of the Norman Conquest. Earlier in the century Brihtwold, bishop of Ramsbury (ob. 1045), gave his former monastery of Glastonbury twenty-six crosses together with other ornaments. Crosses were a favourite gift to monasteries. Edgar gave crosses to Ely and Glastonbury, Eadred presented a gold cross to the Old Minster at Winchester and Cnut gave a jewelled one to the New Minster...Quotations from Barbara C. Raw, Anglo-Saxon Crucifixion Iconography and the Art of the Monastic Revival (Cambridge, 1990), pp.40-2, 45-6, 63.
The most spectacular of these crosses were the life-size crucifixes and Crucifixion groups, often in precious metals, which dominated the interior of late Anglo-Saxon churches. At Peterborough a huge crucifix of silver and gold, the gift of Abbot Leofric (1052-66), towered over the altar. When Hereward and his followers broke into the church in 1070 they tried at first to remove the crucifix bodily, but having climbed up to it they found it too heavy to move and had to content themselves with stealing the gold crown and footrest. Bury possessed a large robed crucifix said to have been copied by Abbot Leofstan (1044-65) from the Volto Santo at Lucca...
By the end of the Anglo-Saxon period at least five churches possessed large Crucifixion groups. The earliest was given by Leofric of Mercia (ob. 1057) and his wife Godgifu to the church at Evesham. At Durham Tostig of Northumbria (ob.1066) and his wife Judith placed a large crucifix in the church accompanied by figures of Mary and John, all covered in gold and silver. Stigand (ob. 1072) had at least three large Crucifixion groups made, all in precious metals, for the churches of Bury, Ely and Winchester...
If the cross would protect one at the hour of death or – as the poet of The Dream of the Rood saw it – would fetch one to the next world, what better gift could one make to a church than a cross or crucifix? Æthelwold gave three crosses to Peterborough ‘for the redemption of his soul’. Byrhtnoth gave two gold crosses to Ely for burial rights just before the battle at Maldon in which he lost his life and King Eadred bequeathed two gold crucifixes to Winchester for the same purpose. Cnut, who was buried in the Old Minster, gave a large cross to the New Minster; the picture recording this gift forms the frontispiece to the monastery’s Liber vitae.
Cnut's cross is recorded by this, a drawing of incredible skill and beauty, which I simply never get tired of:
It dates to c.1031, and it shows Cnut and his queen Emma at the height of their glory: they interact with Christ and the saints and angels above them and with the monks below, the cross standing at the centre, at the very intersection of earth and heaven. On another occasion, Cnut presented his own crown to a figure of the crucified Christ; later legend said he did this after demonstrating that he could not control the waves, because, he declared, "there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws". As late as the fifteenth century, Winchester believed it was in possession of the crucifix bearing Cnut's golden crown.
As for life-size figures of the crucified Christ, a sense of their scale is given by the extraordinary stone crucifix at Romsey, which also dates to the reign of Cnut (c.1025):
Such figures, by virtue of their size, possess a presence that is almost human, and people did indeed interact with them as if they were living beings. There are various stories of these figures speaking or coming to life to intervene in human affairs. A legend from Abingdon Abbey tells how when a group of Vikings had plundered the monastery and were sitting down to dine in the monks' refectory, the figure of Christ on a crucifix was so enraged by their intrusion that it came to life and with miraculous strength pulled stones out of the wall (!), pelting them at the Vikings, who fled in terror. An eleventh-century story about St Dunstan says that once when Dunstan was in council with the king and nobles at Winchester, arguing for the rights of monks over corrupt clerics, an image of the crucified Christ suspended high above their heads suddenly spoke up on his side, and won him the debate.
Most famous and most touching is the story of Harold Godwineson's interaction with the 'Black Rood' of Waltham Abbey, a life-size figure of Christ made of black marble. This had supposedly been dug out of the ground in response to a miraculous dream-vision in the second quarter of the eleventh century (which would date it around the same time as the Romsey crucifix and the illustration of Cnut's gift). The Danish lord who owned the land where it was found, Cnut's standard-bearer Tovi, girded his own sword around the figure, and his wife adorned it with gold made from her jewellery. King Harold was a patron of Waltham, and had a special devotion to the Black Rood. When he was on his way from the Battle of Stamford Bridge to Hastings in 1066 he stopped at Waltham and humbly prostrated in prayer himself before the Rood, arms outstretched in the form of a cross. The Waltham Chronicle records that the sacristan, busying himself putting away things on the altar while the king prayed, saw that the figure of Christ bowed its head to ill-fated Harold as if in sorrow, grieving for what it knew was to come.
[Harold] had entered the church of the Holy Cross in the early morning, and placing upon the altar relics which he had with him in his chapel, he made a vow that if the Lord granted him success in the outcome of the war he would endow the church with a large number of estates as well as many clerks to serve God in that place, and he promised to serve God in the future like a purchased slave. Accompanied by the clergy, and with a procession leading the way, he came to the doors of the church where, turning towards the crucifix, the king in devotion to the holy cross stretched himself out on the ground in the form of a cross and prayed. Then occurred an event pitiable to relate and incredible from an earthly point of view. When the king bowed low to the ground the image of the crucified one, which had previously been looking directly ahead above him, now bowed its head as if in sorrow, a sign portending what was to happen.The Waltham Chronicle: an account of the discovery of our holy cross at Montacute and its conveyance to Waltham, ed. and trans. Leslie Watkiss and Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1994), p.47.
Turkill, the sacristan, testified that he had seen this while he was himself collecting together and putting away the gifts which the king had placed on the altar, and that he told many people about it. I heard this from his very lips, and it was confirmed by many bystanders who with their eyes saw the head of the figure upright, though none of them except Turkill knew the moment it had bowed.
Harold went away to fight at Hastings and never came again to Waltham as a living man. It's hard not to be reminded again of The Dream of the Rood, and the steadfast cross standing fast, powerful in its passivity, witnessing with almost overpowering emotion events it can but will not alter.
Romsey's other Saxon crucifix