It is natural to focus upon sculpture and painting when visiting Italian museums. Italy's international reputation in the arts is rightly established by her artistic genius in these media, and she was, of course, the cradle of the Renaissance. Who can resist those great masterworks by Giotto, Ghiberti, Botticelli, or Michelangelo while traveling in Italy? Yet, Italian artistic excellence extended equally to the decorative arts, especially goldsmith work. In the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art is such a masterwork produced by an Italian goldsmith of the Quattrocento, Pietro Vannini (1413-1496).
This remarkable object, a processional cross, is an example of the high level of skill achieved by Italian goldsmiths. The cross, probably created around 1440-50, was made from hammered, chased and gilded sheets of silver attached to a wooden core. The figures on the cross were made individually in a technique known as repoussé, in which the goldsmith hammered the silver from beneath to create a form or design. This was a difficult technique to master and only the most skilled artists were successful. Silver was typically used instead of pure gold, which would have been too soft. The silver was then gilded, since silver would tarnish, in order to produce the stunning appearance of a gold surface. Our processional cross is a large object measuring nearly 30 inches in height by 25 inches at its width. It would have been heavy to carry and highly visible from a distance.
On the front of the cross is the figure of the Crucified Christ, flanked to his right and left by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist. Above is God the Father, while at the foot is a seated musician, perhaps a music-making angel or a local saint. The cross was intended to be seen from both sides when carried in procession. On the back, we find a figure of Christ in Majesty surrounded by the four evangelists. This stunning masterpiece would have been visually striking in a church, perhaps reflecting the flicker of candlelight and surrounded by the smell of incense.
All liturgical processions are led by a processional cross today, as they were in the Middle Ages. This is a tradition of great antiquity extending back to the early centuries of Christianity. The processional cross speaks to all Christians as followers of Christ. In following the processional cross, the clergy, as well as the faithful, are symbolically following Christ. All churches had at least one processional cross, and many examples from the Middle Ages and Renaissance survive today in museums and church treasuries. They were generally made of sumptuous materials and were sometimes further embellished with some decorative technique such as filigree, niello, or gemstones. In some instances, processional crosses included relics sealed behind a rock crystal making them true votive objects. In the early Middle Ages, processional crosses seem to have been placed in a stand near the altar when not in use. Typically, the cross was permanently affixed to a long shaft so that it could be carried in procession. Eventually, in the 11th or 12th century, the shaft was designed to be removable. This enabled the upper portion, the cross itself, to be placed in a stand on the altar when not required for procession. Particularly sumptuous crosses or those containing relics were thus able to serve two functions, as processional and as altar crosses. During the Renaissance, processional crosses evolved into wondrous sculptural objects, like our example, with multiple figures to compliment the Corpus of Christ at center. Visually, they would have presented a stunning focus to liturgical processions.
The Church was one of the great patrons of goldsmiths during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. By commissioning reliquaries, censers, monstrances, chalices, patens, ciboria, and other liturgical objects that were required for the Mass or the sacraments, the Church kept many goldsmiths employed. Such valuable objects were often stored in church treasuries when not in use. There, they were sometimes displayed to the faithful. The exhibiting of small-scale, highly sumptuous, works of art produced for the liturgical needs of the Church is a tradition of considerable antiquity. Such precious objects frequently symbolized the dignity or importance of a church. Our processional cross, given its large size and lavish decoration, would have been an expensive object in its time. Unfortunately, information about its original location has not survived, but we may assume that it was made for an important and wealthy church.
Little is known about the career of the goldsmith, Pietro Vannini. He died in the Marche in 1496, but his origins are obscure. He may have spent most of his career there. It seems likely that the cross now in Cleveland may have been originally made for a church in this region, perhaps in Urbino, Pesaro, Ancona or Ascoli Piceno. Several works by Vannini, including similar processional crosses, reliquaries and monstrances, survive in Italian museums of the region, showing him to be one of Renaissance Italy's consummate goldsmiths and suggesting he specialized in liturgical objects for the Church.
Gilt-silver and repoussé over wood, about 1440-50
Italian, active in Marche, ca. 1413-1496
The Cleveland Museum of Art,
Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund 1926.243