Matko Matija Marušić: Thirteenth-Century Crosses and the Strategies of Affective Piety

Third crucifix from Zadar, c. 1200

In my paper I intend to reflect upon the pious response to the thirteenth-century monumental crosses once enshrined in the churches of the Eastern Adriatic city of Zadar. The up to date literature on these objects has devoted much attention to their stylistic kinship and artistic provenance, while arguably their most appealing feature – the text etched on the cross – has not yet been fully examined. By placing inscriptions in the centre of attention, my intention is to situate these objects in their devotional setting with particular reference to the nexus of devotion and emotions in imagery and text. More generally speaking, it is the emphasis on possible responses these crosses engendered that will offer new insights into the strategies of affective piety of devoted individuals who were praying before later medieval devotional objects. In order to analyse the Zadar crosses as active agents, rather than passive elements in devotional practices, I intend to examine their several components: imagery, textuality and materiality.

The verses etched on the cross describe the imagery of the crucifix, including the dying Christ, weeping Virgin, and John in pain, but they refer directly to the beholder praying before the crucifix as well. My starting point will therefore be the interrelation between the text and imagery. Special attention will be paid to the role of smaller bust-length figures of Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist. Although these are frequently described only as “secondary figures,” customarily depicted at the sides of the cross, in the case of crucifixes here at stake, they stand for much more. Prominently indicated in the displayed verse, with their inclining heads and prayer gestures, they can best be perceived as the “mirror characters.” The concept of the second-row characters which enable the comprehension of the general narrative was developed by Frank Brandsma in the study of the medieval Arthurian literature, but was soon endorsed in various studies of iconography and devotional culture of the same period.

Further evidence can be drawn from material characteristics of the crucifixes: the legs of Christ are worn out which, on the one hand, points to the haptic usage of objects, while, on the other, it signalizes the physical proximity of these life-size images to the thirteenth-century churchgoers. The crucifixes have additional features which could have prompted strong responses – the words displayed are written in golden lettering and were visible under the flickering candlelight of medieval sacred spaces. The figure of Christ is rendered in shallow relief while his aureole and head are leaned forward, with his eyes pointed to the praying supplicant.

The final section of my paper will focus on the interactive contact with the physical text out of which the verses were extracted. At stake are lines extrapolated from the twelfth-century religious poems which witnessed considerable diffusion in medieval Europe, and there are numerous cases of similar extraction of verses from their textual ensemble and application to objects of devotion, both in private and public settings. My examination on the multifaceted type of devotional response to Zadar crosses, the constituent parts of which were affection and emotion, will draw on Peter Scott Brown’s recent reflections on the “mimetic performative sensibility.” Why were particular verses singled out to support devotional imagery (which was in most cases textless), and what were the implications of combining the two for affective piety? These two simple questions open up the possibility to discuss the imitative acts the beholders were performing before such objects when meditating upon the imagery and reading the prayer-inducing verses.

Matko Matija Marušić (

This post forms part of an open mini-series published in preparation of the COST Action IS1301 Training School “Passionate Devotions. Emotions in Medieval and Early Modern Religious Texts, Images and Music” (see announcement with details about submissions here).

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Illustration: Grgo Gamulin, The Painted Crucifixes in Croatia (Zagreb: Udruženi izdavači, 1983), p. 7. The author of the photo is unknown.

1 thought on “Matko Matija Marušić: Thirteenth-Century Crosses and the Strategies of Affective Piety

  1. Pingback: Report: Training school “Passionate Devotions. Emotions in Late Medieval and Early Modern Religious Texts, Images and Music”, WWU Münster, 26.-28.4.2017 | COST Action IS1301

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