The Avenging Crucifix: Some Observations on the Iconography of the Living Cross

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The so-called Living Cross is one of the most striking eucharistic allegories of the later Middle Ages. About three dozen examples survive, most of them wall paintings. This essay seeks to place the development of the image in its visual, historical, and cultural framework. When related to a particular kind of allegory of Justice known in Tuscany and the Veneto in the late Trecento and early Quattrocento, the Living Cross reads as a polemical gloss on two contemporary and very powerful narratives of Eucharist abuse. These narratives identify Jews and heretics (especially the Hussites) as the principal foes of the Corpus Christi and, by extension, of the Roman Church itself. Reversing the roles of object and subject, of victim and executioner, the Living Cross transforms the Eucharist's archetypal enemies into impotent targets of divinely authorized violence, and the weapons it employs become emblems of eschatological justice.

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  • Achim Timmermann

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