One word often used to describe Thomas Hoving was “brash.” A former U.S. Marine who earned a doctorate in art history from Princeton, Hoving (1931-2009) served as a curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then, from 1967 to 1977, as its director. A self-described “publicity hound,” Hoving’s self-promotion included a memoir, Making the Mummies Dance (1993), a best-selling page-turner that reviewers held at arm’s length for what they deemed its more than doubtful accuracy.
In the early 1960s, Hoving used his scholarly expertise and his military determination to track down and acquire for the museum a unique item. From the first time he saw photographs of a cross carved from walrus ivory and purported to be from the twelfth century, Hoving knew that, if genuine, his museum needed to have it. A bit over a cubit in height, the cross is missing its corpus but bears ninety-two sculpted images and ninety-eight Latin inscriptions. When Hoving first saw this intricate work of art, its owner was a wily and reclusive collector in what was then Yugoslavia, and its origins were unclear.
By late 1963, Hoving had bought the cross for the museum, where it became part of the museum’s branch for medieval art, a vast stone structure on Manhattan’s upper west side called the Cloisters. Thus, the museum’s new treasure became known as the Cloisters Cross. Hoving’s research on this cross convinced him that it had come from a medieval Benedictine abbey in eastern England, Bury St. Edmunds, and from the workshop of its Master Hugo.
In 1964 Hoving published a scholarly article on the Cloisters Cross, and others have published studies of it as well. In 1981, Hoving wrote a popular account of his quest for the Cloisters Cross, King of the Confessors. In 1994 Elizabeth C. Parker and Charles T. Little developed Hoving’s interpretations and produced a richly illustrated volume, The Cloisters Cross: Its Art and Meaning.
In a review of Parker and Little’s book, T. A. Heslop expressed skepticism about the Cloisters Cross’ origins and its meaning. “The cloak and dagger circumstances,” sniffed Heslop, “of its acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum in direct competition with the British Museum led its eventual purchaser, Thomas Hoving, to write an autobiographical romance on the subject under the title King of the Confessors, written in Raymond Chandler mode.”
More to the point, Heslop questioned Hoving, and Parker and Little, associating the Cloisters Cross with Bury St. Edmund’s. “Understanding the sentiments expressed by the figures and texts on the cross could take us quite a long way towards answering the unresolved questions about its origin,” Heslop noted, adding, “The style is not close to anything made at Bury and, even if it were, this would prove little at a time when artists and styles travelled widely and rapidly.”
While Heslop regretted that the book took “little account of the specificities and manifold idiosyncrasies of what is arguably the most challenging creation of late Romanesque art,” he hoped other scholars would investigate the cross’s possible connections to medieval artists across the Channel. By 2013 John Munns had done so, suggesting ties to craftsmen around Hildesheim, Germany.
Regardless of where the Cloisters Cross originated, a distinguishing feature is the nature of its inscriptions, taken from Scripture and forming a pattern of criticism of the Jews as deniers and killers of Christ. Moreover, the Cloisters Cross used a medieval variation on the words Pontius Pilate wrote for display on Christ’s cross on Golgotha. Instead of “King of the Jews,” the Cloisters Cross had “King of the Confessors.”
When Hoving was negotiating for the cross, his museum’s director was James Rorimer, whose family name had been Rohrheimer. During the Second World War, he had served in the U. S. Army as one of its now celebrated “monuments men,” scholars commissioned to find art looted by Germany’s National Socialists. Hoving braced himself for telling his Jewish boss about the cross’s anti-Semitic inscriptions. “Part of its message, only part, is vile,” he admitted to Rorimer, “but visually the cross is superb. . . . This cross stands for the whole Middle Ages—beauty, intolerance, passion, cruelty, and love.”
However, in their chapter on the intellectual context of the Cloisters Cross, Parker and Little proposed seeing it from a medieval perspective. They pointed out “themes of confession . . . and of penance on the Cloisters Cross,” themes they found, for example, in writings by a pre-eminent medieval Benedictine monk, Saint Anselm of Canterbury. “Insular penitential practices,” wrote Parker and Little, from well before the 1100s “provide the veneration of the Cross with a strong devotional history,” so that important to those practices “was the monks’ identification, through their sins, with the Jews who caused Christ’s suffering.”
Thus, an edifying approach to the Cloisters Cross would have its admirers appreciating it within its own time. As Parker wrote in 2006 in Gesta, “My plea is that, as we research this singular masterpiece of Romanesque ivory carving whose themes continue to resonate so strongly, we continue to work within the recent trend toward careful historical and art historical contextualization.”
Part of that context is the official teaching of the Catholic Church. From the early 600s to the present, popes and prelates have had to remind the lay faithful not to harm or insult the Jews and not to blame them for Christ’s crucifixion. It is a peculiar fact that across all those centuries, the Catholic laity have seemed to need such repeated reminders. Likewise, they have often seemed uninterested in making their own that medieval monastic spiritual practice of identifying themselves with the basic human sinfulness that tortured and killed Christ.
According to R. W. Southern, around 1082, Saint Anselm composed a prayer for meditation before a cross, possibly for use during devotions on Good Friday. In his prayer, Saint Anselm considered the men responsible for Christ’s Passion, and, as Benedicta Ward translated it, mused, “Therefore, O Cross to be wondered at, we do not value you because of the intention of their cruel folly, but according to the working of mercy and wisdom.” Later in his prayer, Saint Anselm acknowledged, “With what delight will I rejoice in you, when by you the servitude of hell which I inherited is exchanged for the kingdom of heaven.”
Whatever one thinks of Thomas Hoving or his conclusions about the Cloisters Cross, it can be historically and spiritually helpful to bracket that cross’ layers of meaning with that straightforward penitential prayer of Saint Anselm. As one meditates upon the many color photographs of the Cloisters Cross and wonders whose sins nailed Jesus to the cross, the answer is no farther than the nearest mirror.