A Rare 16th/17thC Post Medieval Ebonised Wooden Penance Cross

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Origin: English
Period: Probably Mid / Late 16thC
Provenance: Formally the property of a City Gentleman, from an important collection of Christian artifacts formed late 20thC
Date: c. 1500-1650
Length: 11 inches
Width: 7 inches
Weight: 110 grams


The ebonised wood penitential cross with baluster turned limbs, the arms formed separately and pinned; the upper and arm tips each fitted with an ivory bead bearing traces of gilding.

Likely crafted during the reign of Elizabeth or James I, the turned carving would have made it easier for the cross to be hand held for long periods. In very fine condition, there are no cracks and the baluster carving and finials are all in tact. Whether or not the cross has at some stage been re-ebonised is hard to decipher.

Penitents or pilgrims typically carried such simple crosses as a sign of sin or devotion. Penance is repentance of sins as well as reconciliation and confession. The word derives from Old French and Latin poenitentia, both of which derive from the same root meaning repentance, the desire to be forgiven.

The devotion to the symbol of the cross as a pious act and a metaphor for penance has played in the lives of those with a religious vocation for centuries. This devotion was a crucial part of crusading propaganda in the medieval period to encourage knights to take up their own penitential crosses. In their sermons, medieval preachers exhorted the devout religious and crusaders to carry the cross of Christ, with the penitent thief carrying the cross of penance, and the Virgin Mary bearing the cross of compassion.

A superbly evocative relic. So much so, that one can clearly picture a figure bearing this cross, amongst the cold and wet streets of London, bells clanging, hooded and cloaked; O magnum mysterium…

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