Crucifix of Gero Conundrum

Okay, Ottonian art experts, I need help. I’m trying to resolve an issue regarding the Crucifix of Gero (c. 970, Cologne Cathedral, shown left). The most recent editions of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages and Stokstad’s Art History mention that this statue functions as a reliquary. According to both books, a cavity in the back of Christ’s head contains a piece of the Host.1

HOWEVER, I recently read here that no cavity exists behind the sculpture. “Despite older sources even citing the exact dimensions of such a reliquary opening in the Cologne sculpture, the restoration of the Gero Cross in 1976 revealed that no receptacle exists in the corpus’ head.”2

What’s the real story behind this? Who should I believe? I’m inclined to believe the 1976 restoration news, but it seems incredulous that both major art history textbooks would have missed the “There is no reliquary cavity!” memo that was written almost 35 years ago. Did any further evidence come about after the 1976 restoration? Or should I continue to lose faith in canonical art history textbooks?

One other thought. Despite that there might not be an opening in its back, I think this statue could still function as a reliquary: in the 10th century Archbishop Gero allegedly placed the Host and True Cross in the once-cracked wood of the statue (see footnote #2 below). But I guess there’s no way to prove that miraculous story through scientific analysis, is there?

1 Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 448. See also Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (Backpack Edition: The Middle Ages), 13th ed. (Boston: Wadsworth: 2010), 201304.

2 Søren Kaspersen and Erik Thunø, Decorating the Lord’s Table: On the Dynamics Between Image and Altar in the Middle Ages (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006), 59 (available online here). This same book also mentions the tradition of how the Crucifix of Gero came to be a so-called reliquary: “The early eleventh century Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg contains a miracle story involving Gero of Cologne, who served as archbishop from 969 to 976. The passage in Chapter Two of Book Three reads: ‘Meanwhile, Archbishop Gero of the see of Cologne died. As I have only spoken briefly about him, I will not relate a few things which I previously held back. He had a crucifix artfully made out of wood, which now stands above his grave, in the middle of the church. When he noticed a fissure in the crucifix’s head, he healed it, trusting not in himself, but rather in the healthy remedy of the highest artisan. He took a portion of the body of the Lord, our unique comfort in every necessity, and part of the health-bringing cross, and placed them together in the crack. Then, prostrating himself, he tearfully invoked the name of the Lord. When he arose, he found that the damage had been healed through his humble benediction.'” See Kaspersen and Thunø, 45-46 (available online here).

  • H Niyazi says:

    This is a wonderful example of canonical art history textbooks(paper or electronic) not keeping up with scientific advancements – even if the research is almost 35 years old!

    The reliquary tradition seems to come from a description in the 11th Century Thietmar Chronicon which the 1976 German study firmly put to rest via dendrochronology.

    From an evidential standards point of view I feel a bit safer siding with the scientific analysis than an 11th Century chronicle, which for all intents and purposes could be referring to another piece – which is where some of the scholarly debate has now shifted.

    The Kasperson and Thuno's 2006 volume you cited, 'Decorating the Lord's Table' seems to be the most recent and definitive text on this genre.

    I believe this is the third error you have cited in Stokstad!

    Maybe we science types are a bit stricter but that would make it unacceptable as a textbook!

    Keep up the diligent work M! If art history work out doesn't you could easily make it in the sciences with an analytical method like that!!

    Kind Regards

  • Hels says:

    I am not familiar with this debate, but I can remember one thing. The Crucifix of Gero, when I saw it, hangs in its own chapel in Cologne Cathedral. This is not the original Gothic building for which the crucifix was made.

    So anything could have changed. Even if it _had_ originally functioned as a reliquary, it may be too high now or too remote or too isolated for pilgrims to get close to its godliness.

  • Dr. F says:


    You are a web Art History pioneer. Why persist in making your students buy these expensive and bulky textbooks? They have a virtual on line global museum on their ipods and laptops. All they need is a guide like you to teach them how to see.

    Even if a textbook could be 100% free of errors, it would still be full of prejudice and pre-conceived notions passed down from generation to generation of Art historians.

    Just look at the marvelous crucifix on your post. It's incredible to think that such a work could have been done in the 10th century! The hair of Christ, and the drapery are extraordinary. Also, the pose seems very unusual for the time. What difference does it make if it was a reliquary?

    A teacher should certainly use textbooks as a reference but I doubt if most students even open the pages once they have purchased them.


    I don't think you should be so sanguine about the "infallibility" of science texts. What Med school prof would use a 20 year oldtextbook?


  • sara says:

    H, do not flatter your 'science types'! We art/arch historians appreciate a bit of empirical data and analysis too! It really helps the research, but is not the be all/end all, as aethetic experience has yet to be measured by machine.

    Interesting observation in the article. Conservators have recently noticed slash marks across the neck of the Cemaes Rood. They look deep enough to be deliberately scored, but I will await information from the lab before jumping to conclusions!

  • H Niyazi says:

    @Frank – the whole point here is that the scientific approach accepts and incorporates new evidence on the fly. In some disciplines, this is even done in real-time(computer science is a great example). The book in question has failed to incorporate evidence which is 35 years old! This is symptomatic of the schism between the arts and sciences – which were once part of the same discipline going as far back as antiquity. Something changed, and you can see the ripple effects of it in funding policies – the Browne Report in the UK being a perfect example.

    @Sara – I know some Neurophysiologists with some PET scanners who would disagree with you about measuring the human aesthetic experience, but that is another discussion! The aesthetic experience has nothing to do with verifying the existence of the reliquary. The prior accepted level of evidence by Stokstad was an 11C document and a more recent analysis has not been included. That was what Schulze and Senger verified in 1976.

    That all being said, reliquary or not – it seems like quite an important work as far as the development of sculpture was concerned. That is its most noteworthy quality. Why people needed to invent that extra endowment of a reliquary is more a discussion for theologians and sociologists than art historians.


  • heidenkind says:

    Hm diddly dum. One of my professors was actually an expert on the Cologne Cathedral (or one of them, anyway), and I can remember him talking specifically about this piece, but I don't think he ever mentioned there was a piece of the Host in it. Of course, that was several years ago, so I might not remember.

    It is strange that Stockstadt would get something like that wrong–isn't she a Medievalist?

  • heidenkind says:

    I amend my statement to add that it's part of Catholic doctrine that no pieces of the Host can exist, because Christ was resurrected and ascended, full-body, into heaven. The very idea that a piece of Him remains on earth would be heretical, so the story of a Host being contained in this crucifix has to be an error. A secondary or tertiary relic, however, could be incorporated into the piece, making it a reliquary.

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    H Niyazi, I think that in this instance most art historians would agree that it is safer to side with scientific evidence than with the 11th century text. It seems like Sara feels the same way. Despite how much historians rely on historical texts, in this instance empirical observation is pretty important! And Sara is right – art historians do appreciate scientific analysis (especially when it supports our arguments! Ha ha!). Obviously, either the cavity is there, or it isn't. I'd rather rely on my eyes (and empirical observation) than on a text!

    Hels, I also heard that the statue originally existed in another location. You bring up a good point – it might be difficult to function as a reliquary in its new location.

    Dr. F, sometimes I ask myself the same question about textbooks! Up until this point, I haven't found a good online substitute for a textbook. I have heard of some professors who use Smart History exclusively, but I haven't been impressed enough with the website to make that switch. But who knows? Perhaps sites like Smart History are a better option. That being said, I do like students to have some type of written material to supplement my lectures. Some students absorb information better through reading (as opposed to lecture), and I want to help those students out.

    heidenkind, I'm not an expert on the intricacies of Catholic doctrine, but I'm pretty sure that the host can still exist as a Eucharistic body of Christ. The Crucifix of Gero is supposed to hold a piece of communion bread that was already consecrated by a priest.

  • sara says:

    Just to add: what real difference does it make to our understanding of the object? Would it have been treated differently from other similar sculptures which aren't reported to have reliquaries?

    These Rood-type sculptures were the focal point for the Laity's understanding of Transubstantiation, and the physicality of the Passion. If it was understood as having a piece of the Host in there, then worshippers would believe it, in the same way they were encouraged to believe the Communion Cup to be full of Christ's blood during the Elevation of the Host. They never got to check, as I believe it was customary for the Priest to take the wine on his parishioners' behalf. Despite this, part of your function as a worshipper was to bear witness to this change in state.

    Art-historically speaking, the form of the sculpture asserts this- in parts of Europe during this period, many depictions show a perpendicular Christ, arms open in welcome, omnipotence. When he comes down the cross (so that the arms make a 'V' shape), you bring in so much more pathos -sinews are visible, the head droops etc. The sculpture itself is as much about Christ's physical body as the corresponding story about the reliquary.

  • M says:

    Sara, you bring up an interesting point. Perhaps this knowledge wouldn't change our understanding of the object (or its historical treatment) too much. On the other hand, the longstanding tradition that this statue was a reliquary makes it seem like this crucifix was held in extra special regard. Nonetheless, I do think it's good to dispel any myths that may have originally surrounded the sculpture, right? 🙂

    I love that you brought up the idea of pathos and "V" shape of the arms. I always think about how this sculpture is so different from earlier representations of the crucifixion (like this ivory carving which is found in the British Museum (ca. 420)). As opposed to this carving (where Christ is depicted perfectly erect with straight arms), the Crucifix of Gero puts a much greater emphasis on the pull of gravity and the weight of Christ's body. You're right: this sculpture really does focus on Christ's body (and His suffering), whether or not it contains a relic.

    Thanks for the comments! This is a fun discussion.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.