The Bury St Edmunds Cross
A book review of King of the Confessors about its discovery
Also known as the Cloister Cross, this ivory altar cross was discovered by Thomas Hoving in 1962 while he was a curator of medieval art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Hoving wrote a book about the discovery, his research into its history and his attempts to acquire the cross for the Museum. The book is called King of the Confessors and it was originally published in 1981.
I read this book some time in the early 1980s and I loved it. I loved reading about the research that Hoving was required to do and which was described in minute detail. This book is the main reason why I fell in love with art and art history even though religious scultures such as this one, are not what I am interested in. This book showed me that all art needs to be investigated and thoroughly researched. For someone like me who LOVES doing research, this discovery was a major eye opener for me.
Thomas Hoving was born in January 1931 and died in December 2009
King of the Confessors - The story of the Bury St Edmunds Cross
In 1981 Thomas Hoving published his book, King of the Confessors, a rippling narrative of his pursuit and purchase of the Bury St. Edmunds Cross, a masterpiece of medieval sculpture for the Cloisters Museum in upper Manhattan.
Now, (in 2001) having uncovered new information, Hoving has rewritten his original book to reveal the controversial and disturbing truths about the history of the cross.
(source - Forbes article - Cross of Shame - See links)
I have not read this book for over 20 years. If it has been re-issued with new information, then I must try to obtain a recent edition and read it for myself.
Excerpt from the Cross of Shame article from Forbes Magazine
Are you sure the cross is not a fake? Why is it controversial?
Well, we know it's not a fake for many reasons, including the Bury St. Edmunds Abbey records, which are housed in Cambridge University.
No, it's the real thing, of course, and perhaps tragically so. You see, the inscriptions on the cross are almost entirely anti-Jewish. They're all about the Jews sacrificing Christian children--a common anti-Semitic propaganda device of the time--in tandem with Old Testament texts about God's wrath with the Jews. This was at a time of Christian pogroms against the Jews in 12th-century England, following a change of power in the abbey and of mood in England generally when anti-Semitic feeling suddenly flared up. It's something that really haunts me about the piece. The inscriptions are so hate-filled and yet it's such a masterwork. It's as if Hitler and Michelangelo collaborated to make a masterpiece.
All these years nobody's noticed it or chosen to stay silent--the inscriptions are tiny and in medieval Latin. In 1994, the Cloisters did a huge book on the cross, and they don't mention it at all. This will be revealed for the first time in my [e-book]. It's actually a great thing to be able to rewrite a book like this and rediscover overlooked truths and set the record straight.
We still don't know who really owned the cross before the war. It had certainly started out in England at Bury St. Edmunds. But under Henry VIII, the monasteries were destroyed and their possessions dispersed. Then the record is a blank until Topic gets it in separate pieces before and after the war. Topic told the British that when he got it, it was black. There was black grime still in it when I got it. So it was probably in a grave or under the earth somewhere in Europe for centuries. But we still don't know. Perhaps this will reopen the case.
See Cross of Shame, Forbes Magazine 2001 in the Links.